FESTIVAL: Uncomfortable, Stupid, or Fascinating: NY Underground Film Fest Runs The Gamut
by Tim LaTorre
(indieWIRE/ 03.18.02) -- Steadfast in what some see as the outskirts of the film art form, the New York Underground Film Festival, which ran March 6-12, recently concluded its ninth journey through the rough and raunchy -- yet sometimes poignant and provocative -- landscape of underground film. The real antidotes for the conventions of commercial filmmaking, underground filmmakers make no apologies for films that run the gamut from "uncomfortable to watch" to "just plain stupid." This year's festival not only showcased scruffy little comedies, dramas and documentaries, but also demonstrated that there will always be a place of love available for cum-drenched birds, dildo-wielding heroines, and films that showcase static accompanied by blips and bleeps.
The festival got off to a strong start with the opening night presentation of Suki Hawley and Michael Galinsky's "Horns and Halos," a documentary about the controversy surrounding the publication of the 1999 George W. Bush biography "Fortunate Son" by J.H. Hatfield. The film focuses primarily on the struggle of the tiny, Lower East Side publisher Soft Skull Press, which picked up the book after original publisher, St. Martin's Press, was pressured to recall it after news hit of the author's past as a convicted felon. Rather than painting their subjects as martyrs, the filmmakers uncover how the tough journalistic and business decisions of people under stress -- at times influenced by ego, greed and the genuine passion to expose the "truth" -- can have a very human, tragic toll.
The biggest hit of the festival was probably Joey Garfield's documentary, "Breath Control: The History of the Human Beat Box." The first half of the film is a history lesson, taking the viewer on a journey of the early days of rap with interviews and performance clips of beat box pioneers such as Doug E. Fresh, Biz Markie, Emanon, and the Fat Boys. The doc really takes off in the second half, when it uncovers how this unique vocal art form has evolved into fresh rhythmic landscapes by modern artists such as Rahzel, Scratch, Click, and the musician Zap Mama.
Rounding out the strong doc contingent were two films that uncover the decay of suburban life, Garrett Scott's "Cul de Sac: A Suburban War Story" and Josh Koury's "Standing by Yourself." "Cul de Sac" centers around a strange event in 1995 when Shawn Nelson, an unemployed plumber from San Diego, CA, stole a tank and ran wild in his suburban neighborhood for 23 minutes, crushing vehicles until law enforcement officials were forced to use deadly force against him. What makes the film fascinating is that instead of simply tracing Nelson's life, Scott looks at the history of his Clairemont neighborhood, making the connection of how the decaying state of community contributes to the individual's mental health.
At first, the bare honesty of "Standing by Yourself" makes it difficult to watch, forcing the viewer to relive the ridiculous, awkward and disconsolate wanderings of male teenage life. The video, which is a portrait of filmmaker Josh Koury's high school friends and their families in Clinton, NY, uses concealed cameras and candid confessions to reveal the group getting drunk, getting high, shoplifting, pissing in public, begging their parents for money, and espousing teenage truisms. However, beyond the male posturing, the intelligence of these young men begins to come clear and, as they start to figure out what they want from life, some hold on to optimism while others begin to slip away into cynicism.
In the dramatic realm, Vladimir Gyorski's Dogme-certified film "Resin" continues the theme of lost young men. Starting with a quick documentary set-up on California's controversial "three-strikes" law, the film follows the tragic fall of a decent, yet misguided marijuana dealer as he descends further and further into the grim realities of the justice system. With strong, muted performances and a good plot and pace, "Resin" demonstrates how the Dogme format increases a sense of reality by blurring the stylistic lines between documentary and drama.
On the completely opposite end of the dramatic spectrum, Nam Ki-Woong's bizarre "Teenage Hooker Became Killing Machine in DaeHakRoh" showcases real artistry and ingenuity with the digital video format. Using video to his advantage, Nam creates a highly contrasted and saturated aesthetic that suits the chaotic world of his story, revolving around a teenage hooker who, after being raped, killed, and turned into a cyborg, becomes a killing machine. The film seems purposely trashy and incongruous, but this actually adds to the spectacle.
In the category of the bizarre, several shorts stood out that fed the audience's appetite for insane, fucked-up spectacle (culminating in a program bluntly titled "That Shit Is Fucked Up"). It usually starts off innocently. Bryan Boyle's hilarious animated "State of the Union" begins with the familiar sun rising over Teletubby land. However, instead of a baby at the center of the sun, a happy President George W. Bush coos as laser beams shoot out of his eyes and he destroys all the fluffy bunnies in the land, leaving behind an oil-soaked landscape. Similarly, John Goras' animated "Chirpy" follows an innocent, happy little bird that accidentally ingests hallucinogenic mushrooms. This trip results in a sequence that could qualify the film to receive an award for most uncomfortably long sex scene. To put it short, if you like sex between anatomically mismatched cartoon animals, then this one is for you!
Abel Klainsbaum's "The History of Choking (With Erick Estrada)" is unique in how it mocks the conventions of the documentary without becoming a mockumentary. The result is a funny, yet informative, film. "Choking" combines a history of the Heimlich maneuver, including real interviews with Dr. Henry J. Heimlich, with over-the-top narration, outlandish dramatizations and bizarre editing. In Klainsbaum's world, voice-over narration of a letter by Richard Nixon is presented with an Indian accent, 'choking' actors turn blue through the use of bright blue makeup, and a sound bite of former Reagan-era Surgeon General C. Everett Koop is preceded by shots of Amish life for no apparent reason (other than the man's beard).
While experimental film is not quite this reporter's cup of tea, there were some notable pieces. Kent Lambert's "Ken Burns Give You Something" uses disjointed, jarring and repeated segments of Burns interviews to hint at the subject of revisionist history. Zakery Weiss' "Untitled" attacks the subject of artistry by creating a piece that took on the form of a preamble in which he self-consciously mocks the honesty of art. Seth Price's "Triumf" presents a charismatic fictional drinking buddy of Ronald Reagan who continually repeats the same story, ad nauseum. The result is an experience where the audience is taken in by the charm of this stranger, yet confronted by the repetitive nature of storytelling.
The very poignant collection of September 11 inspired pieces, "Six Months Later" covers the gamut of emotions that our country has gone through since the tragedy. Everything from the angry, rambling old man in Monroe Bardot's "A Message to Bin Laden," to the corporate suspicion of Ashley Hunt's "Lockdowns Up," to the wind-blown trash and vacant urban valleys of Brian Doyle's "Current" uncovers a sliver of our new national psyche. The centerpiece of the collection was Luke Joerger and Ray Mendez's "First Person 911." The film simply presents home video taken on the day of the attacks and accurately captures what it was like to be a New Yorker on September 11, instantly connecting the viewer with familiar emotions better than any newscast or polished documentary ever could.
This collection best demonstrates that the greatest strength of the New York Underground Film Festival is the same as the New York spirit, its constant unpredictability and a scrappy, visceral celebration of human creativity.
[Editor's Note: indieWIRE was a sponsor of the 2002 New York Underground Film Festival.]