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“Steaming Slits”: The 2001 Z Film Festival

December spawned a monster. The 2nd Annual Z Film Festival runs for two days (Dec. 8 & 10) at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago. Program Director Kristie Drew describes the underground cinema content as, ‘The slimy and messy internal organs of filmmaking pulled from steaming slits in bodies and brains.’ It doesn’t get much more straightforward than that, which is a blessing and a curse. The avant-garde feeds off itself because otherwise it wouldn’t survive, but this all too often leads to status quo familiarity.

Case in point: Chad Eivins’ Vomire has bodies smeared in crimson blood (while having sex, natch); music video blasphemy of a prudish bishop intercuts with shots of sliced up cow entrails; images of the 1950s American family are presented. (Ah, I see! It’s about artifice in the Ward Cleaver clan!) This material has gone from being provocative to positively banal, existing simply for its own sake because that’s what underground films are supposed to do. By the time Eivins wraps up with digitally animated outstretched Jesus hands and flitting unicorns, we’ve seen a parody of experimental film that takes itself (and its faux-art showoffishness) all too seriously.

But you’ve got to take the good with the bad in this sort of showcase. The Z Fest is a mixed bag, but amidst some derivative sleaze ‘n’ social criticism overladen with grating, self-congratulatory ‘superiority complex’ irony were some enjoyably anarchic Do-It-Yourself no-budget spectacles. The equipment is often lousy, the sound scratchy, but at its best ‘experimental’ can be equated with ‘personal’ filmmaking. (I do wish video wasn’t used as a crutch, though — most of the non-documentary digital handiwork is flat, poorly lit, and doesn’t take advantage of the new medium. It lacks the tactile magic of film, but why not explore the pixels, the electronic color temperatures? There’s more to be done, but video needs a pioneer aside from punk-ass Harmony Korine, Dogma 95, and old guard snob Bill Viola.)

I’ve never had a special fondness for micro-short ‘joke’ films from the fringe filmmaking community. They often err on the side of superficiality, wrapping themselves around a cheep gag of disgust, humiliation, or both. (I pop the gigantic zit on my brow — my whole face explodes! Ha ha! Funny!) Greg Pak’s two-minute All Amateur Ecstasy starts out with the sluggish premise of an orgasm montage (close-ups of women in various locations: shower, bedroom, office cubicle) and passionately builds not to the standard hardcore money shot, but a cute little sneezefest. We’re so used to shock tactics that it’s refreshing to move in a sweeter groove.

That being said, Carey Burtt’s daffy Hey Mister, You’re in the Girls’ Room offers a stunning Grand Guignol gore effect as a dweebish bathroom patron’s entrails leap out of his body. No point to it, really, but it’s weird, wild, and playful in its carnality. Festival programmers Usama Alshaibi and Kristie Drew continue in the slasher vein with their own Slaughtered Pigtails, a hack ‘n’ slash Friday the 13th style chase scene fragmented down to its sound-bite essentials (Run-Fall-Run-Fall-Turn-Scream-Die-The End). Tactile and frenetic, it achieves startling poetic lyricism when the hyperspeed action is slowed down once the victim is pinned to the ground. It creates a self-conscious empathy for the victim, sadly absent from most splatter films (admittedly enjoyable on their own level).

The aforementioned Vomire uses the ever-popular entrail-laden animal flesh fair violence that underground film festivals can’t get enough of, but fascinating documentary realism make two entries work on more of a detached, observational level than lurid Faces of Death exhibitionism. Lee Fearnside’s Re-Construction is a videographer’s how-to guide to taxidermy. Guts, peeling skin, and extracting eyeballs from dead animals leads to a beautiful façade once the fleshiness is wiped away. You don’t see the gore or broken bones in the final product, and Fearnside unsubtly but deftly orchestrates the move from corpse desecration to sanitized household object. Surprisingly engrossing is the public record of Carne, presenting a ritualistic pig butchering within a small Spanish farming village. Although it’s not for the squeamish, Carne is less about graphic gore than the observation of village craftsmanship and food preparation that has been handled the same way for generations.

The animation and electronic media projects were disappointing, ranging from the wannabe-Ralph Bakshi baby eating and ghetto crack whore dirtiness of Birth of Abomination (Mute and Motormouth) to the appropriately titled Small Green Scratches (and not much else). This stuff feels reductionary to a fault, too simplistic to matter. Jon’s Point, LA, shot in blurred out digital video, is a little too hipster-techno but finds delirious rainbow colors in the LA nighttime skyline, swirled into patterns like neon Slinkys being thrown into the air. Pretty, but also pretty meaningless.

It’s worth remarking on one particularly odious film sure to receive attention: the Paul Harvey Oswald short, Same As It Ever Was (from the Talking Heads song ‘Once In a Lifetime’). A media manipulation of the WTC attack on September 11, the images of the Trade Towers exploding and crumbling to the ground are shown backwards, rising to their former glory. Glib and simplistic, it’s an underground cash-in for credibility that acknowledges the tragedy but fails as artistic commentary. Timeliness will be kind to this project, but outside of being a sentimental rah-rah embrace of the NYC aesthetic and a funeral dirge, it’s little more than a surface shill.

Anna Van Someren’s alienating yet touching diary footage of mother-daughter reconnection in Certain Things is a mix of self-wielded surveillance camera photography by mother and daughter and a soundtrack of highly intrusive phone conversations. The links to incorporated found footage of electroconvulsive therapy are unclear, but there’s no denying Van Someren’s emotionally naked personal touch.

I especially enjoyed Insect, underground favorite James Fotopoulos’ latest showcase of mysticism, the paragon of animals, monster babies, snail shell textures, tumors, and ‘the mystery of childbirth’. Call it the Fotopoulos Nature Show — it’s filled with enough noises, sounds, and sweet airs to give delight to his supporters (kind of like an 11-minute ‘greatest hits’ album from the creator of tumor-dream Migrating Forms and the outstanding alienation epic/Chicago Underground Film Festival headliner Back Against the Wall) and wristwatch tapping annoyance from his detractors. Though it may run a little long, you can’t beat Fotopoulos’ man-infant creation that shows up at the climax: a tenderly sleeping lagoon monster/algae creature. Beautiful and strange, Insect is a dreamer’s dream of the next step in modern evolution.

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