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Down Under: The 2002 New York Underground Film Festival

Diversity was once again the keyword for the 9th Annual New York Underground Film Festival, combining new experiments from familiar faces (James Fotopoulos, Brian Frye, and Bradley Eros) and a celebration of the old guard (The Kuchar Brothers, Doris Wishman). Rock ‘n’ roll portraits and social statement documentaries played opposite optical hallucinations, found footage commentaries, and avant-garde video shockers.

One of the most rousing examples of how various underground aesthetics come together were the short films and projector performances of ‘those two guys from Portland,’ Matt McCormick and Johnne Eschleman. Dual filmstrips running, the stage cluttered with amplifiers, they rocked the house. Literally bringing a live music energy and soulful intimacy to their mobile films, they reflect on the awe, evolution, and fear of industrial progress. Call it a sign of the times. –Jeremiah Kipp

The term ‘underground’ often brings to mind images of hard-core exploitation, pretentious colors with little substance, or confusing Mametian exchanges without the Mamet name attached. I assumed walking into the New York Underground Film Festival that it would be the class of the ‘misunderstood,’ that I would be able to easily shrug off these filmmakers as deserving of their lack of due. What I found instead was a respectable, eclectic mix of animation, personal journeys, and fresh ideas on older themes. I didn’t appreciate everything I saw, but that this material was receiving some attention failed to shock me. –Rachel Gordon

Abstract Pornographic Film. From Chris Jolly, director of last year’s stunning love story/horror exploitation parody Curse of the Seven Jackals, comes an Abstract entity. Not your usual porno, Jolly’s optical experiment is a colorful mesh of bright liquid forms, dirty sex advertisements, lurid newspaper print, and lacy textures. It’s well-crafted, playfully venal eye candy. Accompanied by cheery pop songs and endless cries of sexual pleasure (‘Oh yes! Yes! Ooh! Yes!’), the result is quite different from his narrative Jackals. Our man Jolly’s unabashed curiosity remains infectious. (JK)

The Atlas Moth. The second documentary from Midwesterner Rolf Belgum (on the same subject) sheds light on an eclectic side of human nature without exploiting it for a certain audience response. The painstaking details of self-publishing music outside of stereotypically media-populated cities, combined with diverse hobbies and personal dramas, make this an interesting study. Belgum is refreshingly honest, yet affectionate, about his flawed subjects as he weighs their small steps of success. Atlas is a skillful portrait that thankfully doesn’t fall into the normal blaringly obvious polarities usually engendered in documenting journeys. Atlas manages to be as entertaining as it is revealing about an often neglected slice-of-life. (RG)

Autopilot. Using air force take-offs, hand-scribbled stars, and a hard rockin’ angry man’s version of the National Anthem, Robert C. Banks creates a rousing examination of young manhood and prescribed, factory-line machismo. It only runs three minutes, but the Cinemascope framing is eye-catching, dehumanizing, and epic. (JK)

Beautiful Frenzy. This documentary about underground Dutch band The Ex fits perfectly within the festival milieu. Their music is fast, raucous, and irreverent, their ideology non-conformist. In concert, The Ex’s punk flailing goes beyond the snide posturing that ‘punk’ has become. They’re the real deal. Though it’s exciting to make their acquaintance, Beautiful Frenzy feels too scattershot and vague. That patched-together scrappiness fits as a stylistic choice, but there’s very little to grip hold of here. (JK)

Breath Control: The History of the Human Beat Box. One of the most popular fest titles, it’s also one of the worst. Documenting the history of beat box rappers (including Doug E. Fresh and Biz Markie), it’s cloyingly sentimental and spends too much time showing the rap artists being funny ‘n’ cool instead of insightful. Beat boxing is an impressive, legitimate art form, but Breath Control is the pat, generalized, hero-worshipping crap we’ve come to expect from MTV. (JK)

Christabel. Chicago filmmaker James Fotopoulos continues his sensory exposures of inner fears through his adaptation of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s unfinished poem Christabel. Those unfamiliar with the source material needn’t be intimidated. Reacting to another artist’s work, Fotopoulos creates something intrinsically his own. Christabel might be interpreted as the account of a young woman’s dream-thoughts as she nears adulthood, and the four sections of the film (structured to accompany each fragment of Coleridge’s poem) guide her to different levels of introspection. Each layer is charged with specificity, forging connections on multiple levels: corporeal, familial, religious, daemonic, and sexual. The young woman, Christabel, struggles through the blending worlds of waking life and soul-possessed visions.

Fotopoulos visualizes this conflict through his awe-inspiring use of the close-up. For an astonishing example, two faces bleed together into one (as real life bleeds into a phantasm reverie). This study of faces puts Fotopoulos in the realm of Dreyer’s pain-masks and Bergman’s Persona reconstructions. This clarification or distortion of the human visage is bedazzling, and a gateway to the fantasy confrontations Christabel endures throughout her (cinematic) dream.

Christabel exists in vibrant, painterly counterpoint to the purposefully bleak, stark minimalism of Fotopoulos’ narratives, Back Against the Wall and Migrating Forms. The use of two different technologies, magical film and flattened but color-saturated video, conjure up varied emotional climates. Fotopoulos bathes one blonde angel-figure in pure golden light, later facing her off against sickly green normalcy and unappealing, blurred out notions of age and decay. Girlish conformity and vanity broadens into facing the fear of living in our own skin.

It’s not surprising that scholar Harold Bloom studied Christabel in the context of his life experience (the death of a child), and Camille Paglia used it to reinforce her gender politics (‘The charismatic woman [in Christabel] has a masculine force and severity.’) Fotopoulos uses cinema as his template for understanding the source material. It’s pleasing that Christabel places us within the context of sleep, encouraging that Fotopoulos requires us to sift through the dense symbolism afterwards (hopefully somewhat awakened) to draw our own connections. As Jean Renoir said, ‘My films are incomplete. They need an audience.’ Through th
e explicit rhythms of Fotopoulos, Christabel is left for us to decode. (JK)

A Day in the Hole. A paint shop employee undergoes his first day of work, familiarizing himself with the routine. Kevin Everson’s six-minute repetition of gestures achieves the surface feeling of rote boredom. His science lab treatment of the human condition, as the employee gradually becomes accustomed to his labor, contains perceptive details of workshop life: authentic looking extras and soul-stifling shots of gray enamel swirling in a bucket. (JK)

Dildo Heaven. Doris Wishman has been making exploitation films for over 40 years, but that doesn’t mean they change over time. It’s not about acting, constructive dialogue, or even steamy sex scenes so much as accepting an appreciation for personal sexuality, whatever that might entail. Despite the title, you won’t see voluptuous women masturbating, but Wishman’s dependable cheesiness is flavorfully frivolous. We’re still encouraged to chuckle with and have respect for this renowned icon. What raised my esteem even more was her use of average-looking talent, with no trace of societal demands for beauty or physical perfection. She’s a real charmer during Q&A sessions, too, answering every raised hand with, ‘Oh, you would!’ Not much of a conversationalist, but still a fun character within herself. (RG)

In Our Garden. An interesting missed opportunity: The pleasure of watching an old trailer park bitty as she curses wears off quickly. The soap opera connections of the characters work well, but this video is a poster child for arguing film purism. The lighting is horribly bleached, and when a character is supposedly chatting at 2 a.m. it appears to be high noon. If not for the spoon-fed feel of conversation and the technical glitches, In Our Garden could have been a clever look at living in a claustrophobic community. (RG)

Einstuerzende Nevbaten: Listen with Pain. The progressive rock of Blixa Bargeld is afforded a documentary, with explosive footage from his band’s early years crafting music from drills, hammers, stone, wood, and smashed objects. Bargeld himself is a charismatic figure, sort of a Klaus Kinski for the music scene. The overly academic narration is distracting, and as the band sells out to a wider public arena it’s difficult to sympathize with the doc’s fawning approval. Thankfully, there’s enough violent footage of the band in action to keep Listen with Pain on the fast track. (JK)

Especially For You. You don’t have to shoot brand new film to create emotionally charged material. Portland (WA not OR) filmmakers Matt McCormack and Johnne Eschleman combine found footage with live, poignantly-crafted, instrumental music to turn old reels into insightful ideas. In their films, images of family gatherings and various technological advances are strong enough by themselves, but combined with impeccable background strumming in such a way that you experience sadness and excitement simultaneously. A rich texture of personal fear of advancement, having lived with simple pleasures, is mixed with genuine pride that humans have come so far.

The duo take exploration of human experience further with the sweetly tragic Sincerely, Joe P. Bear, in which a crowd gathers around an iconic woman who smilingly keeps a poor polar bear’s costumed hands from straying beyond friendship. They cap this entire moving collage off with a humorous homage to the sarcastic art of covering up graffiti, The Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal. (RG)

Experiments in Terror. Curated by the elusive J.X. Williams, this program exhibits a strange gallery of B-movie clips, trailers, classic horror scenes, and new experimental works that form parallels within this much maligned but socially relevant genre. The 1950s demonstration of PSYCHORAMA (subliminal messages) and a 3-D Gothic panorama from Williams himself (with glasses provided) are campy fun, but also a healthy reminder of carnival showmanship. (JK)

Exposed. Siegfried Fruhauf fragments images of mystery (a man looks at a dancing woman through a keyhole) by running perforated filmstrips in front of this dramatized moment in time. This creates a series of mini-boxes that chop single frames into pieces. Repeated at different rhythms, Exposed brings to mind surveillance camera multi-perspective, giving way to something new as the squares blur together in a bright, interwoven collage. Exposed is a hypnotic curiosity. (JK)

FILM (dzama). Surreal and silent-film fanciful, FILM is an expressionistic portrait of artist Marcel Dzama, who perverts cartoon strip iconography (robots, cowboys, cuddly animals) and has them frolic with nude girls. FILM yields a crackling introduction to the aged Dzama, sitting atop a desk in a high-ceilinged stone room. But when the visceral cartoons come to live-action life (in a Creature Cantina that Dzama falls into, Alice-style) there’s a nagging sensation that the actors dressed up in saggy costumes don’t live up to the magical figures on Dzama’s page. Somewhat misconceived, FILM is never boring. Fellini would have applauded the creatures that indulge in a party life of dancing, drinking, and screwing. (JK)

Girls For Rent. Here’s terrific Grade-Z exploitation from the gone but not forgotten Al Adamson. Girls For Rent follows a sassy gang of hit women, one of them on the run for the murder of a politician (after a dirty old man/foxy femme sex scene). There are several choice moments, like when bad girl Georgia Spelvin (The Devil in Miss Jones) steals the virginity of a farm boy simpleton before blowing his brains out. They sure don’t make ‘em like they used to. (JK)

Gone Over. Black and white boxes flicker at varying speeds
. Some hate these arithmetical gamesmanship films (and there’s no music track to provide auditory relief), but the squares, lines, and blinks can be read as poetry if you’re willing to succumb to the rhythm. If you’re not into it, Gone Over is ten minutes of maddening hell. (JK)

Real Lady Like. The festival programmed a decent share of strong female filmmakers this year (such as The Slow Business of Going, see below), but they set aside this weaker section to claim a specifically feminine voice amidst the often assumed ‘boys club’ of the underground film arena. To be fair, these self-described experiments belonged to a broad range of genre. Elisabeth Subrin’s Well, Well, Well, is a quick, digestible morsel of a music video, the rhythm sustaining attention more than the visuals. Kelly Reichardt, an underappreciated favorite of mine, screened her new short then a year. Unlike her previously linear work, then a year conjures new meanings to voiceover dialogue surrounding a mysterious crime with supposedly innocent objects. In opposition to this eerie provocation is Patty Chang’s silly Eels, in which a young girl squeals (mostly like a pre-pubescent) as some guy leads eels into her button-down shirt. The End. (RG)

Showdown was my favorite portion of the Nature of My Game program. An exuberant found footage fight between the badasses of the 1970s — Dirty Harry (Clint Eastwood) and Bullitt (Steve McQueen), the action never sides with either icon. For a few short, well-paced, meticulously picked scenes, these two simply shoot and threaten each other for the sake of a good laugh. (RG)

The Slow Business of Going. Filmmaker Athina Tsangari mentioned this film was six years in the making, and the reasons why are easy enough to infer. Internationally shot with a handful of experimental multi-media concoctions thrown in, it gracefully articulates the streams of consciousness mentality produced from living a transitory life. The barest use of science fiction is effective in supporting the originality of the Global Nomad Project of which Petra takes part, without reaching any moral platitudes as to the consequences or conclusions that arise from it. The script is more lopsided than the imagery, as internal conversations grow heavy-handed against a narrative of little dialogue amongst various environments. What saves the disjointed chatter is its complimentary nature to the difficulty of connection as a constant traveler. Visually and humanly stimulating, but imperfect in pacing the actions or decision-making of the protagonist, The Slow Business of Going is a compelling look at finding identity. (RG)

Stand By Yourself. A popular festival choice (currently distributed by Open City Films) — and I can’t figure out why — was this little number. High school students speak frankly to the camera while overdosing on Tussin (cough syrup) and increasingly separating as each finds his own form of rebellion. Sure it’s revealing of teenage nature, but it’s also been covered before, time and again, with similar stylistic flourishes, and sans the handheld headaches that made The Blair Witch Project so popular. (RG)

That Shit is Fucked Up. A shorts program whose only common denominator is having balls. The animated content was the strongest here, including the hilarious Bill Plympton short Eat, chronicling a Murphy’s Law night for a beleaguered French restaurant. Chirpy (John Goras) takes animal husbandry to a new level with a horse fucking a mushroom-influenced bird. And even with the continually popular regurgitation in political humor, State of the Union (Bryan Boyle) still hits the funny bone as George Bush’s head, surrounded by the glowing sun, pulverizes everything in sight. Bad Coffee, a simple live action short about sleep deprivation, was more impressive in execution than the narration pushing it forward. (RG)

Teenage Hooker Became Killing Machine in DaeHakRoh. What this film needed was a karaoke number and some more murder thrown into the mix. While there is entertaining camp value as the young heroine becomes a killing machine, many of the scenes are overlong, padded out with unnecessarily repetitive reaction shots. That time could have been used to better advantage in action sequences, though the lack of logic is actually not infuriating. Some of the dark comic book design used to cover up being shot on video works nicely, but at key moments this becomes an eyesore. Overall, Teenage Hooker is a mediocre barrage of vengeance and laughs (among them the villain’s heinous cackle). (RG)

Ya Private Sky / Periodical Effect / Silverplay. I’m not excited about video experiments delving into shock waves, electronic noise, and light shows painted in acid-tinged neon colors. Still, I welcome the presence of provocateur Stom Sogo. Ya Private Sky and Periodical Effect play with the degraded video image, samples of psychic discomfort utilizing the bare minimum of humanity (faces and bodies are nearly obliterated by Sogo’s whirling blasts of electric pulse). It’s humorless stuff, frankly abrasive in the sound design. Yet I’m still thinking about this duo of technology-saturated disturbances. More accessible is the frenzied pop culture loop of Sogo’s Silverplay, combining Hi-8 travelogue footage and home movies with Japanese commercials, music videos, and snippets from Iron Chef. It’s a visionary and often hilarious montage, a contemporary signpost for the avant-garde. (Ya Private Sky / Periodical Effect), (Silverplay) (JK)

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