FESTIVALS: Talent Show, 8th New York Underground's Movie Mish Mash
by Aaron Krach
(indieWIRE/ 03.21.01) -- With only four evenings and two full days of screenings (along with two days of "encore presentations"), the programming at this year's New York Underground Film Festival felt even more broad, diverse, multi-cultural, and all-over-the-place than usual. NYUFF has always been the fest to catch a skateboarding video followed by a dry, personal essay-film about Russia's bleakness, but this year the contrasts were starker.
Where else does avant-garde icon Jonas Mekas share screen time with B-movie auteur Doris Wishman? In what must surely be a first for the festival, there was an Academy Award nominee for Best Animated Short, Don Hertzfeld's "Rejected," in the same program as the rigorously frenetic, meta-cinematic experimental short "Mountaintrip" by Siegfried A. Fruhauf -- both of which went on to win NYUFF awards. Then there were the usual gross-out sex films and Troma-esque pseudo-violent flicks that seemed more gross than usual this year (see Shawn Durr's dismal "Fucked in the Face"), then a day or so later, there would be something as provocative as Cecilia Dougherty's visually stunning, dual-projection digital video "Gone." It's all in a day's work at the hyper-democratic Underground.
Dougherty's homage to an episode of "American Family," was one of several pieces at NYUFF that left this viewer hoping for a repeat screening. "Gone" suffered at moments from seeming too close to the director's personal life -- something the audience wasn't given enough details about -- but Dougherty's apparent love affair with New York City was elegantly portrayed. "Mountaintrip" consists of Swiss postcards flying past the camera and some jaunty music, yet becomes an entertaining conceptual game about cultural representation and the limitations of 24 frames per second.
Also a lot more fun than their descriptions were many of the experimental shorts in "Some New Romantic TV Sounds," curated by Astria Suparak. Ranging from the formally inventive, "Bouncing in the Corner; 36DDD" by Dara Greenwald to the embarrassingly personal "Communication" by Zakery Weiss, the program would not be out of place at a museum, as the makers use video more as sculpture than anything else.
For pure entertainment value, Hertzfeld's "Rejected" and Todd Downing's "Jeffrey's Hollywood Screen Trick" are two differently animated (line drawings vs. stop-motion) films, but equally hilarious to watch. "Rejected" is about an animator fighting the urge to sell his dreams to cable television. "Jeffrey's Hollywood Screen Trick" is a spoof of every cheesy gay romantic comedy ever made. It's nice to see that pure anger can still be channeled into intelligent humor.
Continuing in a gay vein, "Jeffrey's Hollywood" played Opening Night before Noam Gonick's feature "Hey Happy," about a group of horny Canadian misfits. "Happy" is a lot better than it should be considering that the whole rave movie thing should have been buried once and for all by now. Gonick is smart enough to keep his story otherworldly enough to become a minor sci-fi flick, with a good soundtrack. An illuminating music track also aided Bobby Abate's two hyper-gay experimental short films, "Come Softly" and "Lucky," both about Internet chat rooms and airplane crashes. No, the symbolism doesn't become much clearer after watching them either. In fact, what happens is that viewers are likely to imagine how much better the footage would be if it were used on the web. Take apart these two works and Abate has the makings of a very cool Internet art project.
The idea that certain films or videos could be better used in other ways became a recurring theme throughout the fest. "Gang Tapes," by Adam Ripp is a vapid little "Blair Witch" knock-off calling card that should get the ghetto-slumming white boy director a job on "Law & Order." Most of his talented African American cast could also use the film to get some legit acting gigs. "Back Against the Wall," by James Fotopoulos should get the young Chicagoan a job as a casting agent. His film is not half as interesting as his contribution to last year's fest, "Migrating Forms." It's too similar in tone. But the guy has got an eye for freaks (or at least an eye for actors who can play freaks convincingly).
Another sign that sometimes the hardest thing for an artist to do is change came in the form of Doris Wishman's latest "Satan Was A Lady." If you've seen a couple of Wishman's original black and white sexploitation flicks, "Satan" is even less ironic.
There is something mysterious that happens to dedicated viewers of NYUFF films. It has something to do with the peculiar, sometimes magical moments that are hidden inside certain less-than-perfect films.
This viewer's favorite moment came (no pun intended) during the final minutes of "Plaster Caster: A Cockumentary" by Jessica Villines about Cynthia Plaster Caster, the woman who's made a name for herself by casting musicians erect (and sometimes not-so-erect) members in plaster. Her story is fascinating, about how an intense fan of rock music turned her obsession into a career. During the film, Villines gets close to showing an actual casting, but each time the model gets shy and you're left with an incomplete sequence. Until the end. That's when Cynthia is casting an intimate acquaintance and she acts as the "professional stimulator" (something she never does previously). The camera watches the two make love until, whoops, it's casting time. And the audience is treated to the casting ritual as part of a romantic, erotic encounter. It's a bizarre, erotic and authentically sweet moment shared between two people and captured for our viewing. It is a sequence not quite ready for prime time, let alone the most adventurous of cable stations.
It is, though, something perfect for The Underground.
[Aaron Krach is a contributing writer to indieWIRE.]