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Black Turtleneck Required, Foreign Accent Optional

Avant-Garbage at the Harvard Film Archive

By R.i. Wilson

They don't sell popcorn or Raisinets. You won't find a bowl of little mints in the lobbly. There are no giggly teenagers in the audience, and very few couples. and they're not showing "Mrs. Doubtfire."

Welcome to the Harvard Film Archive.

Located in the basement of the Carpenter Center HFA is a resource for films students, a mecca for cinemagroupies, and, in the eyes of many ordinary movie-goers, an outright peculiarity. Films screened at HFA this month include "Sensations: A Holy Orgasm of Shadow-Play," "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer," Sex and Zen," and "Backyard Movie," the later juxtaposing "old home movies" with "cheeky footage of naked men on trampolines and frolicking dogs," according to HFA's monthly bulletin.

In addition to feature-length films, the archive also hosts guerilla film-collages featuring "eyes bleeding, meat tossing, cat scratching, people screaming, horns sounding, scary robots, poets, all American zany fun-filled avant-garbage."

Newcomers to HFA "get really confused," claimed the woman selling tickets at a recent showing. "They don't understand that we don't sell popcorn... You can tell that they only go to Loews." For the savvy cineast, however, the archive is a "real resource, the woman insisted. "A lot o times we'll show things that won't get shown anywhere else."

The HFA ethos--equal parts intellectual snobbery and earnest aesthetic evangelism--is personified by Vlada K. Petric, senior VES lecturer and curator of the archive. Petric, a white-haired man with watery blue eyes and a broad, stubborn face, works in a small office plastered with magazine clippings and film stills. He pontificates passionately in heavily accented English, and does not permit interruptions. Petric draws a distinction between "cinema," which he calls "a means of artistic expression," and "artsy films"--"Schindler's List" or "Remains of the Day," for example--which have "nothing to do with art." Then of course, there are "movies," the lowest category of them all What's movie? Petric couldn't name one. "What's playing now?" he asked scornfully, waving his hands. "Madonna? Popcorn movies".

Petric admitted that HFA caters to a limited clientele. But, he said proudly, "I prefer to have a film that will help someone understand art, with only five people [in the audience], than a full house showing "Remains of the Day." He bristled at the suggestion that HFA films are "weird." "That's not weird; that's avant-garde," he sniffed. Petric has no patience for philistines who scorn film studies. "They are stupid," he says flatly. "If someone is still taking this issue, I would say he's undeveloped uncultured, primitive."

HFA audiences are mainly VES students, "people who are really interested in film," and denizens of the "art scene," according to the ticket-seller. At the core of the HFA audience, however, is a handful of hard-core cinema junkies," a standard crowd," the woman said.

Two such junkies lingered outside the theater door after last Saturday's screening of "Kanal," a black-and-white film in Polish depicting the harrowing deaths of resistance fighters in the Warsaw sewers. They sombrely flipped through an HFA bulletin, unconsciously echoing the scene in "Annie Hall" where Woody Allen and Diane Keaton emerge psychically downtrodden from a five-hour Holocaust documentary. "I think this reflects our own psychically that we would watch this film on a Saturday afternoon instead of going to a bar," said Joshua D. Jones. Why did he come? "I'm obsessed with World War II," he confessed. "I come here a lot... at least once a week. I can't stand Hollywood films, which is not to say we're film mavens... [or] film theory people." Jones paused to consider his last statement, frowned under his black goatee, then decided to throw caution to the wind. "We're snobs, basically," he grinned.

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