A rare mix of the avant-garde and daring characterises the Rotterdam Film Festival. Chris Darke dips into the world of cinema as an `alchemical box of

wondrous tricks'.

Another day, another film. Seven days into its 27th International Film Festival and Rotterdam has been transformed into a city of cinema. There are festival screenings and events wherever one turns, from the gleaming post-modern cube of the Pathe multiplex on the Schouwbergplein to the smaller repertory cinemas and galleries. The festival provides an embarrassment of cinematic riches within which it's possible to identify certain themes being explored with some consistency.

Another night, another `avant-dance music film-clash'. For me, the highpoint of the festival so far was the screening of work by Sixties American avant- garde film-maker Harry Smith with live turntable accompaniment by the New York-based DJ Shadow. Pure phantasmagoria.

Smith, a legendary figure of the American avant-garde, died in 1991 but left detailed instructions on how he intended his extraordinary multiple- projection films to be screened. With a panoply of magic lanterns, slide and film projectors, Smith's protege, the American animator M Henry Jones, delivered a dazzling event. It's somewhat trite to say that the work still looks "modern" but the combination of multiple projections make Smith's films - particularly the remarkable later work Heaven and Earth Magic - now resemble a blending of Grateful Dead album artwork, Sixties liquid light shows and hi-tech digital design.

Such an imaginative reappraisal of the "classic" avant-garde was at the heart of this year's festival. It's become a commonplace among film exhibitors and adventurously-minded curators to talk about "cultural cross-over" in cinema. The increasing use of film and video and the turntable/projector clashes of club-based screenings are part of this rhetoric of cinema "exploding" beyond the multiplex culture.

As well as numerous explorations of the relationship between film and new electronics, there are also rewarding excursions into gallery spaces. At the Boijmans van Beuningen Museum, two pieces were especially interesting in terms of how they approached the use of the moving image as a sculptural form. Deadpan by the British film and video artist Steve McQueen is an installation piece based around the Buster Keaton sight gag of the house that topples around the standing figure of the stony-faced stuntman.

McQueen reprises the Keaton role in his installation, shooting the falling house-front from a variety of vertiginous angles and the installation space is constructed so that the fall of the building seems to fill it entirely. Equally intriguing is the Optical Box designed by the British animators The Quay Brothers: a number of distorting lenses looking into a large container reveal curious shapes, forms and creatures - it's cinema as an alchemical box of wondrous tricks, a wunderkammer of the imagination.

Jonathan Weiss's brave and compelling adaptation of JG Ballard's experimental novel The Atrocity Exhibition deserves to receive wide distribution but, given the furore that surrounded the release of Cronenberg's adaptation of Crash it's unlikely to be granted an easy passage. This would be pity because Weiss's film is a single-minded cinematic elaboration of Ballard's dystopian landscape, one circumscribed by abandoned military installations, car crashes and psychosexual disturbances of a deeply millennial nature. Ballard is an outspoken supporter of the film, having called it "an extraordinary work".

Johan Grimonprez's dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y is another work that uses archive footage in imaginative ways to read the history of the last 30 years through the optic of sky- jacking and international terrorism.

Elsewhere, Iranian cinema is becoming increasingly visible. Not only have there been screenings of the new Abbas Kiarostami film Taste of Cherry but new films by Jafar Panahi also feature. As do works by what might be called the "next generation" of Iranian directors who are, quite literally, the sons and daughters of the most auspicious of the current directors. Kiarostami's son Bahman has two documentary shorts in the programme and Hannah Makhmalbaf, daughter of Mohsen Makhmalbaf, the director of Gabbeh and indirect subject of Kiarostami's Close Up, also shows a documentary short in the festival.

There have been glowing reports on Knoflikari by Czech director Petr Zelenka, a black comedy about chance, personal identity and the ghost of the pilot of Enola Gay. By far the most soothing and beautiful of the films that I've caught so far is the Indian feature Dance of the Wind by Rajan Khosa. This ritualistically-paced slow burner studies the personal crisis of a young woman singer of traditional Indian music whose mother dies.

As I write this, the MTV channel on the hotel television is playing animations by the illustrious British experimentalist Len Lye in between the music videos. Who mentioned cultural cross-overs?

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