NY Underground Crawls Under the Skin
by Aaron Krach
Does it matter when a decidedly above-ground film — with a decent
budget, a famous screenwriter and a distribution deal already in place
— is chosen to open the New York Underground Film Festival and then
goes on to win the prize for Best Feature? Probably.
But who really cares when the film is Paul McGuigan’s “The Acid House,”
based on a screenplay by acclaimed Scottish writer Irvine Welsh. Only
purists, who enjoy arguing over what is underground and what is not,
will overlook the pleasures of “Acid House” and worry about the death of
the underground. Others will be satisfied with the film’s successful
combination of gross-out humor, Ken Loach realism, trippy visuals and a
political, strangely heartfelt screenplay. The film deserved the opening
night slot and the prize, for it’s ability to merge entertainment and
The closing night film “The Trouble with Perpetual Deja-Vu,” however,
didn’t excite the crowd even half as much. In fact, scores deserted Todd
Verow’s digital feature well before the half-way mark. Much of the film
appeared unfocused and not completely edited, but there were a few
moments of brilliance. Verow can shoot a sex scene like no other —
imagine a cross between “Belle Du Jour” and “Wild at Heart.”
Festival Director Ed Halter, touted the 6th Annual Festival as more Todd
Haynes and less John Waters. Considering “Pecker” and “Velvet Goldmine,”
NYUFF made the right choice in role models. Overall, the films this year
lived up to that high standard. They were smarter, more conceptually
challenging and less juvenile than in years past. After wading through
as many of the 120+ films as is humanly possible, there were several
entries that effectively crawled under my skin.
“Un Ga Nai — Bad Luck” is one that seems to have taken up permanent
residence under my epidermis. As a film about Japan, directed by two
Swiss men who live in New York, Christophe Draeger and Martin Frei, “Un
Ga Nai” is definitely weird. But the film attempts to document in the
loosest possible way Japan’s relationship with disaster, Hiroshima and
Nagasaki, the Kobe earthquake and the infamous Sarin gas attack in a
Tokyo subway. The result is a dreamy, poetic portrait of fear and
Peter Calvin’s “Sleep” is another film keeping me awake at night. It’s a
frantic, agitated journey through several facets of sleep: insomnia,
narcolepsy, nightmares, REM, sleep research, visions, death, and on and
on. Calvin creates a stunning, experimental feature, mainly because he
accumulated enough striking visuals to match his numerous ideas.
Other features were simply too derivative to garner much excitement.
Sundance Frontier entry “Dresden” by Ben Speth, starts off with rich
sequences of extremely long takes. But once it moves to an amateur,
improvisation dance class, it becomes bad Chantal Ackerman. Roddy
Bogawa’s “Junk” also starts off well, but quickly deteriorates into
generic 60’s, experimental cinema, leaving you with the feeling that
you’ve seen it all before. As with “Dresden,” the sound design is
amazing, almost salvaging the efforts. But not even Heidi Van Lier’s
charming persona could save “Chi Girl,” her Slamdance winning ego trip.
Isn’t “Man Bites Dog,” available on video in Chicago?
The shorts were much more successful, which should remind all filmmakers
that if you don’t have enough to say, keep it short. One of the stronger
programs was “Turk UK,” new underground films from Great Britain curated
by Jane Gang. “Destroy All Mobsters” by Duncan Reekie was a witty
standout while Jennet Thomas’s performance/video “Looking for Mr. Cole,
Part 1” was frightening and hysterical. If there is this much good work
being made in the UK, the program should become a tradition.
In the “Boohonkus” program of playful and twisted shorts, the audience
loved Xan Price’s “Bite My Boohonkus” while Luke Fannin’s “Puberty:
Benji’s Special Time” was the sharpest short in the selection. Jim
Trainor’s “The Bats” deservedly shared the animation prize with Martha
Colburn; Trainor can work wonders with a simple story and a clean line.
Jeffrey Erbach continued his remarkable journey into hell with “Under
Chad Valley.” And while Jeff Scher’s “Bang Bang” took home the prize for
best experimental short, Enzo Mazzula’s “Mutantis” spun a richer web of
distorted color and computer-altered voices.
The NYUFF staff deserves kudos for running a smooth festival. Maybe it
was the Madonna headsets they wore that kept the screenings running as
close to on-time as can be expected. It’s a shame that a larger venue
can’t be found, considering the Anthology’s downstairs Deren theater,
which held some of the best programs, was too small to accommodate the
eager crowds. As painful as it would be to turn people away, it doesn’t
help anyone to pack the theater, stairs, floor and aisles to panic
NYUFF has changed a lot in six years. There was an opening gala in Times
Square, with a cash bar. And several parties had guest lists and
security. Fortunately that didn’t stop anyone from having a good time.
Saturday night’s Film Bytes party at Pseudo had an open bar, which was
probably responsible for getting the crowd of ultra-hip scenesters to
let loose and start cutting a rug on the dance floor.
One last note; although NYUFF is an enjoyably unpretentious festival,
that is no excuse for one feature filmmaker to have brought his dinner
into a crowded theater. I can only imagine how insulted he would have
been if someone brought a smelly tuna sandwich, a bag of chips and a
coke to see his film. He should have taken an example from the hundreds
of other attendees who exuded a very positive vibe. Imagine, a slew of
New Yorkers who were more than happy to wait in line only to share some
space on a crowded floor.