FESTIVALS: Psychotronic Kitsch vs. Political Risks, Microcinefest's Divide
by Ian Grey
(indieWIRE/11.13.00) --Like similar "microcinema" celebrations, Baltimore's Microcinefest 2000 reveals itself to be in the middle of an essential identity crisis. Now in its fourth year, Microcinefest -- described by festival creator Skizz Cyzyk as being dedicated to films demonstrating "big ambition on little budget" -- began in 1997 as a small affair at a former funeral parlor. The year 2000 edition ran five days, from November 1st through 5th, and showcased 80 shorts and 10 features at the 3,500 square foot art and performance space, the G-Spot, located at an abandoned mill in the Hampden neighborhood, where John Waters, appropriately enough, filmed "Pecker." But although Cyzyk maintains that the festival continues to be "an underdog festival that roots for underdog filmmakers," his intentions cannot change the "variety" of films offered and screened.
As gear becomes available to anyone with the money to buy a decent computer and some image-processing software, the entire idea of "low budget" as a signifier of anything becomes increasingly hazy. Add to the equation a general fascination with thematically safe kitsch inherent to the entire concept of "psychotronic" film -- a Microcinefest mainstay -- and the result is a program schismed between fascinating new works made possible by new/cheaper technology, and rehashes of now-traditional psychotronic/"underground" themes. That said, there was still an unusually high amount of memorable work on display.
Obvious standouts included "Sadisinfectenz" (Guila Frati, 16mm), "The Simpletons" (Christina Reilly, digital video/16mm short) and the festival's closing night feature, Mark Osborne's 35mm "Dropping Out." All are notable in terms of verve, audacity and skill of visionary intent and technical execution.
Frati's brilliantly frenetic 2:02 minutes of erotic invention, "Sadisinfectenz," is a non-stop hyperactive montage of voluptuously saturated primary colors juxtaposed against images of a pale young woman vying with steely medical constraints for dominance of the frame. Imagine Cronenberg's "Dead Ringers" on amphetamines for a reference point.
Meanwhile, Christina Reilly's "The Simpletons" is anything but. It's an often hilarious, admirably liquid narrative that seamlessly segues seemingly disparate scenes featuring stocking-clad legs serving young rummies, an obnoxious ventriloquist, and an interactive, and very chatty computer sex game. Despite this synopsis, the film makes linear sense. Sort of.
"Dropping Out" (from Sundance 2000) takes the 'real world' conceit to its logical extension: the filming by bogus verite opportunists of a guy's planned suicide. Director Mark Osbourne, utilizing gruesome slapstick, consumer-culture surrealism, now-standard mockumentary style and basic mainstream narrative film grammar, has created an alternately hilarious/disturbing film that could easily slip into any remaining art houses.
Other highlights included San Francisco culture-jamming kingpin Craig Baldwin's presentation, "Press Play to Agitate: Pirates, Parodists, and the Prank Documentary," the annual offering from video terrorist Mike Z, "A Special Message to You from Mike Z." ("My latest attempt to bring on the Apocalypse," quipped the thorny auteur), and Xan Price's New York Underground Film Festival prize-winning video short, "Nitwit Prendelick."
Cyzyk -- an animator himself -- also programmed some other winners in the festival's animation series. Foremost among them were John Moynihan's short "Atomic Roadkill" (a combination of sub-Spinal Tap rock band hijinks and a rotoscoped Christopher Walken doing a weird soft-shoe), and always reliable loon Don Herzfeldt, here represented via his 35mm short, "Rejected."
Symptomatic of the John Waters (this "is" Baltimore)/psychotronic strain were features where the usual trash-pop culture icons were again re-animated with oft-diminishing returns.
Mexican wrestling films were given homage in Rusty Nails' 16mm short, "Santiago vs. Wigface" and Robert Smart's video feature, "Zero Squad: Attack!." Elvis lived again in Russ Forster's video, "Tributary," and JMM's "Elvis Meets the Beatles." Cult film auteurs were paid homage in Harry McCoy's "Faster Pussycat Kill Kill!" pastiche, "Gas Huffin' Bad Gals!" while the specter of Ed Wood, Jr. haunted Hampden courtesy Jeffrey C. Ballentine's "They Came for the Silion." (It must be said that these last two films were energetic and often amusing in their appropriations.)
But by the time one sees JMM's 16mm feature "Superstarlet A.D," one almost wished that access to video stores be severely restricted to young filmmakers. A post-apocalyptic sexploitation send-up featuring characters with names like "the Santanas" and a plot described as a melange of "Planet of the Apes," "Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome" and "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls," the parody overkill proved a bit much (even if the femme starlets were rather, ah, attractive.) Through pure pluck and attitude, Crazy Pete's "God Made Man" -- winner of the festival's Grand Jury Best Feature prize -- earned junk culture chuckles. Meanwhile, the distance between what Hollywood thinks is hip kitsch and what the substream deems the same was made moot by Pat Bishow's "The Girls from H.A.R.M.!," which only distinguishes itself from the new "Charlie's Angels" film by evincing an awareness of Ted V. Mikels' amusingly atrocious "The Doll Squad."
Of course, the efforts of sub-Z personalities such as Mikels, Russ Meyers, Tura Santana, et al, form the basic psychotronic canon. But in a post-Tarantino universe, the continual tweaking of that canon proves wearisome. It's also unsettling just how few films showed any interest in social, political or technologically critical themes. (Microcinefest '99's big hit, "Existo," managed to be both psychotronic in its influences and scaldingly political.)
And so, as it gains viability as an underground film festival of note, Microcinefest, and most importantly, the filmmakers themselves, must choose between endless psychotronic/kitsch amusements, or creating a safe haven for new and even dangerous visions. Perhaps more than other festivals, Microcinefest has a loopy edge. Still operating under the living influence of John Waters, and by virtue of its distance from the NYC/Indiewood mainline, the festival is free to program whatever the hell it wants. And at times, is able to locate via its selections the division between image-based entrepreneurship and artistry. And it's within the strange confines of that division that the future of "microcinema" lays.
[Ian Grey is the author of "Sex, Stupidity and Greed: Inside the American Movie Industry" and film critic for Baltimore "City Paper."]