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THERE'S "The Birdcage," and there's "Poison."

The landscape of contemporary gay-theme film can be mapped out, if a bit crudely, in that pair of works. One is a big-budget, big-box-office comedy packed with movie stars and easy laughs; the other's an independently financed cult hit by a critically acclaimed young writer-director and a cast of unknowns.

The most passionate supporters of "Poison" wouldn't be caught dead watching a Robin Williams vehicle. And it's safe to assume that 90 percent of the crowds flocking to "The Birdcage" have never heard of Todd Haynes.

Yet the two movies have more in common than either camp might care to admit, when you consider that miles from either of these poles there exists a third territory: non-narrative experimental film.

For viewers at home with the image of Patrick Swayze in a dress or Tom Hanks in an AIDS ward, this uncharted land can feel like the Twilight Zone -- if they ever stumble into it at all.

There is nothing in a Hollywood movie like "In & Out," or even in an indie like "Kiss Me, Guido," to prepare audiences for the experience of "De Profundis," a 65-minute meditation on the male body and a celebration of film itself.

It's the latest in a series of visually and intellectually complex works by Lawrence Brose, an internationally renowned artist whose home base is Buffalo.

Through his curatorial position at CEPA Gallery and his involvement with various festivals, Brose has been a tireless champion of cinematic experimentation (gay-theme and otherwise) for years.

He is also an ardent supporter of New Music (in the capital-letter, academically sanctioned sense), and his own films often bring experimental film and music together in a way which demonstrates both their power and their limitations.

In Brose's hands (literally, since he frequently manipulates film stock himself) images take on an almost palpable beauty and a poetic density far beyond the wildest imagination of more conventional filmmakers.

In "De Profundis" he reveals just how malleable cinema can be. Sometimes the celluloid running through the projector seems like a solid surface, to be scratched and squiggled upon; at other points, the film image looks as ephemeral as a reflection in a puddle.

Starting from a base of home movies, archival footage and documentation of dancing neo-pagans, Brose treats his studies of the male form to all sorts of variation: He slows them down, speeds them up, runs them backward, reverses their colors, and in short renders them difficult to decipher.

And that difficulty provokes an entirely new way of seeing. Specific forms gradually emerge from the visual noise of random information. What was once unreadable abstraction becomes the ground upon which and through which figures begin to appear.

Something similar happens on the soundtrack. Voices, replayed at varying speeds, reverberate against each other, accompanied by more presumably "natural" methods of manipulation, like whispers and blatantly phony accents.

Brose uses recorded human speech and imagery the way hip-hop and electronic musicians use samples, as an endlessly replenishable reservoir of subject matter.

There is a story here, more or less, but the film assumes you know it already. For the record, "De Profundis" is also the name of an 84-page letter written by Oscar Wilde while he was imprisoned in 1895 for a homosexual affair.

Wilde's trials, legal and otherwise, played a pivotal role in what would, more than half a century later, come to be seen as the gay rights movement. And Wilde's words -- lines from that confessional essay as well as several aphorisms -- are at the heart of Brose's film.

The recurring references to prison, accompanied here by images of men alone, in intimate pairings and in military or ritualistic formation, now point to an even longer history of political oppression, as well as the confinement of desire brought on by the AIDS epidemic.

Even the body itself can be a prison, Brose's imagery suggests. Some men try to transcend their imprisonment through ritual, others seek escape -- or at least a little fun -- by way of disguise. Wilde praises artifice and laments sorrow while Brose shows us (underneath and above the layers of processing) armies of drag queens and other gender warriors.

"De Profundis" the film has a symmetry to its three parts. It begins with the lone voice of a contemporary New Yorker recounting a memory of public sex, shifts into a multitracked chorus delivering Wilde's witticisms, and ends with modern-day speakers philosophizing about identity before winding up with a single Wildean voice.

At the film's center is a half-hour reverie set to music by Frederic Rzewski, which starts as a duet for keyboard and breath, eventually incorporating Wilde's letter. "There is not a single degradation of the body which I must not try and make into a spiritualizing of the soul," the jailed playwright observes.

That goal, stated in language simultaneously ironic and sincere, is quintessential Wilde. It's a wonderful key to what Brose is up to, as well: a project more sublime than all the cross-dressing schtick in a dozen "Birdcages."

Still, there's no getting around the fact that it's a pretty rarefied endeavor. "De Profundis," eloquent though it may be, speaks most clearly to a very particular audience, one comfortable with the aesthetic conventions unique to experimental work. In place of narrative, it offers coherence; in place of a hummable melody, its audio track rewards close listening with shifting layers of meaning.

And I do mean rewards. Brose requires his audience to meet him far more than halfway, but the result is worth the trip, if together they wind up breaking new ground.

De Profundis

A new film (1997, 65 minutes) by Lawrence Brose on gay sexuality and other themes using experimental film techniques.

To be presented by the artist Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 7:30 p.m. in Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center, 2495 Main St. (835-7362).

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