By Karina Longworth
The final installment of the New York Underground Film Festival opens with “Heavy Metal in Baghdad.”
The 15th edition of the New York Underground Film Festival opens tonight with a film we’ve covered extensively since its Toronto premiere, Suroosh Alvy and Eddy Moretti’s “Heavy Metal in Baghdad.” The fest runs through April 8, and when it’s over, it’s over: though co-directors Kevin McGarry and Nellie Killian are said to be working on mounting a new event with a similar spirit, the NYUFF as we know it will cease to exist after this run.
Ed Halter ran the festival for ten years, taking it over for co-founder and future Old School director Todd Phillips (yes, seriously). Halter has an obit of sorts at the Village Voice, in which he makes it clear that NYUFF isn’t ending because it has to financially. “It’s a conscious decision: There’s no rent hike to point to, no defunding agency to blame…True to its indie-rock genealogy, the NYUFF has always functioned more like a band than a traditional arts organization…Sometimes, a band just decides to call it quits—and hopes to go out in style, while it’s still got the knack.”
That said, NYUFF may not have worn out its welcome, but––to extend the indie-rock metaphor––this fest ending in 2008 is sort of like Pavement shutting down after “Terror Twilight”: things haven’t become embarrassing yet, but the enterprise has started to drift somewhat from what its core audience fell in love with. The way Halter describes NYUFF’s glory days, it’s apparent that it’s an event that was pegged to (and helped disseminate) a zeitgeist that may no longer really exist:
…back then, festivals were much rarer, and there wasn’t anything like this one before; it felt like an old New York punk show in cinematic form, married to a vintage P.T. Barnum–style get-asses-in-seats-by-any-means-necessary ruthlessness. I remember once a guy at a bar nodding approvingly when I said I worked for the Underground: “I love that thing. You guys always show fucked-up shit.”
Times change, and whatever local transgressive spirit that might have fueled a downtown Manhattan arts event in the mid-90s has now been apparently fully squashed by the area’s total, generally dispiriting gentrification. I’ve seen several films on this year’s program, and I wouldn’t call any of them “fucked up”––”Heavy Metal in Baghdad” was obviously a dangerous film to make and it’s exhilarating for it, but its thesis statement is closer to a foolhardy “fuck it” than a cautionary “this will fuck you up.” And there’s a disappointing art school austerity to the fest’s closing night film, The Juche Idea, a textual coldness that belies the satire that I think we’re supossed to read into director Jim Finn’s playful, faux-found pastiche.
There are features on the schedule which I was not able to screen before press time, which look to be closer to the spirit that Halter’s drinking buddy so approved, including Zelimir Zilnik’s “Kennedi is Getting Married,” and the camp fest “East of the Tar Pits,” starring Holly Woodlawn. But my sense is that your best chance at finding “fucked up shit” would be on the many shorts programs; even if there’s nothing that makes you feel morally violated, at least there are a number of shorts by a number of name-brand film and video artists, including Jem Cohen, Jon Moritsugu and Michael Almereyda. Also: “We Are Wizards,” which Chris reviewed at SXSW.