FESTIVALS: CUFF 2000; Superstars, Seattle and Styles from Beyond
by Scott Petersen
(indieWIRE/8.29.00) --Although the 7th Annual Chicago Underground Film Festival (August 18-24) took place at the venerable and respectable (Loews Cineplex) Fine Arts Theatre in downtown Chicago, the Demolition Doll Rods turned the closing night party at the Empty Bottle into a fabulously cheap and trashy affair. To the frustrated delight of the crowd, singer-guitarist Margaret Doll Rod transposed the stage into a clothing-optional zone, wearing a guitar, flaming red panties, and not much else. Small strips of black tape and (appropriately) a Super-8 film reel barely covered her nipples. The fetching and well-endowed blonde and her band gyrated, jiggled, and posed their way through a set that included dirty, punky and suggestive versions of the Knack's "Good Girls Don't" and "Yummy, Yummy, Yummy." What the band lacked in clothes was more than made up for in irony.
A few days earlier, Todd Verow's "Once and Future Queen" (which won 2nd place in the fest's feature section) also explored the seedier side of life with a portrait of Anti-Matter, an agitated superstar of royal proportions who remains unknown outside of the desperate and delusional rants swimming in her over-medicated head. She forms a band, abuses alcohol and drugs at a frightening pace ("I didn't go to rehab, I just needed another drink," she quips with a straight face), and disposes of friends as if they were a Bic lighter. While "Queen" was very funny and genuine, many interior scenes needed to be lit with more attention. Verow is stylistically skilled and tells an intriguing story, but some technical issues needed to be better resolved. The Gold went to Esther Bell's NYUFF favorite "Godass."
Sam Wells' "Wired Angel," a 16mm experimental retelling of the Joan of Arc story, was firmly planted at the high end of the production value spectrum. "Angel" was a refreshing example of an artist following his own aesthetic path without thinking of future financial and market considerations. Although challenging, Wells used extraordinary care in crafting an aurally intense, supremely shot, and expressively edited work with a unique sense of storytelling. Wells succeeded where many indies fail: by expressing ideas cinematically and using the tools of the art to tell the story. With a firm grasp on the form, he shows that lack of financing is not an excuse for poor production values or lack of imagination.
Patrick Hasson's feature-length video "Waiting," although less serious than "Wired Angel" was, still notable for its skillful attention to detail. Hasson's story follows the downward spiral of an Italian restaurant waiter who lives with his parents and just lost his girlfriend to a smug jerk. Some of the comedy was done "Repo Man" style, focusing on the subculture's unique codes and rules. Any restaurant industry veterans will be familiar with the 4-second rule. (If you aren't, you are better off in a state of ignorant bliss.) The film's entertaining script, smart direction, and sharp editing merged to form several cleverly designed visual, as well as verbal, gags. With healthy commercial and aesthetic sensibilities, Hasson could easily parlay this picture into a future directing gig for any of the numerous Indiewood distributors.
Hasson also provided the festival's best production anecdote. In several scenes, porn star Ron Jeremy shares a table with a young boy. In order to secure the kid for the movie, Hasson somehow "forgot" to tell the child's parents about Jeremy's past onscreen shenanigans. However, when the child's mother proudly displayed a photograph of her son and Jeremy taken on a real movie set, her co-workers asked why her son was hanging out with an adult film star. Naturally, Hasson received a nasty phone call from the perturbed mom, but at least he has a great story. Other filmmakers should note that sometimes it's easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.
On the documentary front, Rustin Thompson's "30 Frames a Second: The WTO in Seattle" provided one view of the recent protests. Don't expect a boring study of trade issues; this is a look at the street dynamics between the police and the protesters. Thompson, a professional cameraman for many years, effectively used different techniques to tell the story. On one hand, he allowed the brewing trouble to unfold in front of our eyes (an "overpaid electronic stenographer," he calls himself). One chilling scene showed the protesters and police standing each other down while the protesters chanted, "This is what democracy looks like, that is what a police state looks like." Alternately, Thompson analyzed the footage by slowing down and replaying one shot of a cop needlessly bullying a protester with his billy club, reminiscent of "Gimme Shelter's" murder scene filmed at the Rolling Stones' 1969 Altamont concert. Although burdened with much narration, Thompson demonstrated that he is a proficient filmmaker and was awarded Best Documentary for his film.
As this year's guest of honor, CUFF paid tribute to Alejandro Jodorowsky, the Chilean-born filmmaker best known for "El Topo" (1971). Jodorowsky also personally presented his surreal and heavily symbolic "The Holy Mountain" (1973) and "Santa Sangre" (1989) to big audiences at CUFF.
The Styles of Beyond program exhibited a bunch of hilarious comedy shorts. "Pie Fight '69" (dirs. Christian Bruno and Sam Green) rediscovered the story behind a conceptual art piece/publicity stunt in which a cadre of underground filmmakers scripted a pie fight at the opening night soirée of the 1969 San Francisco International Film Festival. More than one festival desperately needs this type of prank to discount their froufy excesses. "Pie" won CUFF's Best Short Doc award.
Also worth mentioning from this program: Carey Burtt's "Mind Control Made Easy (or How to be a Cult Leader)", a funny and bizarre instructional video for David Koresh wannabes; "The Hangnail," Shane Acker's animated piece on a fingernail gone painfully wrong; and Lee Demarbe's "Harry Knuckles and the Treasure of the Aztec Mummy," in which a superhero-detective saves his daughter. The latter was done chop-socky style, complete with theatrical, over-the-top fights and bad dubbing.
Remaining award-winners included Best Short to "Georgie Porgie" (dir: Benjamin Meyer), and runner-up "Endgame" (dir: Luis Camara Silva), best experimental "The Vyrotonin Decision" (dir: Matt McCormick), and 2nd, "Film (Knout)" (dir: Deco Dawson). In the animation category prizes went to "The Moschops" (dir: Jim Trainor) and "The Flocculus" (dir: Jeff Warrington). The Audience Award went to Shawn Durr's "Fucked in the Face," about one man's obsession with a serial killer and the overly-sensitive, compulsive clean-freak he ends up with instead.
For more paranoid viewers -- or at least those intimidated by the slew of black helicopters that hovered in formation only a few hundred feet from the festival -- there was Bureau of Inverse Technology's "Bit Plane." Subversively funny, this project consists of POV footage culled from a camera mounted on a tiny spy plane flying through Silicon Valley. Dry, clinical text appears intermittently, providing a running commentary of the mission and reminding us that we are being watched. Right now.
Overall, CUFF continues to be well programmed, staffed, and organized, in spite of several venue changes over the years. It has a decidedly communal feel and many filmmakers return every year, even if they are not showing a movie. Unfortunately, poor video projection marred professionally shot movies, some of which looked like bad student projects.
[Scott Petersen, a Chicago-based filmmaker, who will be relocating to Los Angeles in the near future.]