Living Underground: "Dorothy" and "Decline" win the Golds
by Scott Petersen
It's past 3:00 am and a group of 20 or so filmmakers from the 5th Annual
Chicago Underground Film Festival (CUFF) are gathered for an after-party
at that most midwest and middle class of venues: a bowling alley.
Cutting a striking figure in his all-black garb and shock of red hair,
uber-underground New York filmmaker Nick Zedd steps up to Lane 1 at
Waveland Bowl and begins his approach. As he releases the ball, Zedd
slips, arching the black sphere beautifully six feet into the air. After
the ball returns to the wood floor with a few loud thuds, it putters
harmlessly into the gutter. Watching filmmakers bowl isn't a pretty
CUFF prides itself on being filmmaker-friendly and exhibiting films and
videos that end up orphaned or ignored by larger and more mainstream
fests. In recent years it has become increasingly difficult to
determine what the word "independent" actually means. Festival
Programmer Bryan Wendorf isn't any more specific about the definition of
underground: "If you think it's underground, it probably is."
Peter "Delinquent" Hall and Sarah "Mary Jane's Not a Virgin Anymore"
Jacobson were among several past CUFF participants who returned this
year to see old friends and have fun. Indie queen Jacobson loves the
atmosphere. "I always get re-energized at CUFF," she quipped. While
Hall came to Chicago partly to escape the emotional and physical
distress caused by his lawsuit against a former Internet service
Although CUFF programmed 1998 Sundance pics Iara Lee's "Modulations" and
Penelpe Spheeris' "The Decline of Western Civilization, Part III,"
other, lower-profile projects included no-budget czar Jim Sikora's "Rock
and Roll Punk," Anna Cimini's moody closing-night feature "Driver," John
Carluccio's nuts-and-bolts DJ, uh, make that turntablist' doc "Battle
Sounds," and "It Came from Washington, D.C.!" a slew of whacked shorts
curated by "Heavy Metal Parking Lot" co-creator Jeff Krulik.
Of the especially strong lineup of documentaries at this year's CUFF,
Wendorf said, "They connect to the reality of our day-to-day lives."
Theatrical distributors should get off their asses and pick up Phillip
Glau's endlessly entertaining "Circus Redickuless." Glau spent several
weeks on the road documenting this no-budget circus. Unfortunately,
running away to join this circus wasn't quite as romantic as the
participants might have wished. When asked when they would shower on
the road, Glau's response was succinct and matter-of-fact: "We didn't."
Glau, a free-lance electrician from Los Angeles, described his picture
as a "dirty movie about dirty people." With "Circus," Glau answers the
question of what happens when the story behind the circus becomes more
interesting than the actual event. Instead of just being a passive
observer, Glau unwittingly became the ring leader of a group of
malcontents, substance abusers, and one particularly distasteful, but
highly engaging, snake-oil salesman.
Spheeris' third installment of "The Decline of Western Civilization"
sold-out two screenings and supplied the festival's best unexpected
situation when a viewer criticized one of the film's gutterpunks.
Spheeris responded by blasting the audience member. "It was great
theater," chimed outgoing Festival Director Jay Bliznick, "You couldn't
ask for a better moment." All was forgiven, however, as Spheeris later
searched out the viewer and apologized. Apparently, the two agreed to
"Decline" itself is a quite depressing yet fascinating portrayal of a
group of LA punks. The film, unlike the two previous versions, focuses
less on the music than on the desperate and hopeless lifestyles of this
disaffected group. Outside the theatre, Spheeris mentioned that MTV
long ago adopted the fast-paced style of the first "Decline."
Ironically, some folks have asked her why her "Decline" movies "look
like MTV." While accepting her Gold Jury Prize for Best Documentary,
Spheeris genuinely appreciated the crowds' enthusiasm, "Your lives are
so much better than all those people who think they're having a good
time in Hollywood."
Two narratives that fared especially well were Tamara Hernandez's
saturated, over-the-top "Men Cry Bullets" (two sold-out shows) and Kevin
DiNovas' "Surrender Dorothy" (a single, sold-out screening). While
"Bullets" won the Audience Award by a wide margin, "Dorothy" provided
the festival's biggest gasp with the brilliant use of music at the
film's conclusion. Hernandez praised CUFF for their publicity skills.
"They actually care about promoting the films," she said between sips of
beer. CUFF wrangled local arts weekly NewCity to be one of the sponsors
and to insert a special pull-out section in an issue prior to the fest.
CUFF's Lifetime Achievement Award (a bronze medallion in the shape of a
manhole cover) went to Paul Morrissey, who gimped around the fest on a
crutch with a bum knee. After screening his 1972 transvestite camp take
on women's liberation "Women in Revolt," Morrissey talked about his
theory of directing, which surprisingly calls for the "elimination of
the director." Morrissey claimed that the best actors are coming from
television. "The performances are so great on TV because they're so
uninterrupted." CUFF also exhibited Morrissey's "Flesh for Frankenstein
in 3-D," complete with the cheesy glasses.
Next year's festival will mark a few changes for the now-venerable
CUFF. Festival Director Jay Bliznick will step down and hand over the
reins to Festival Programmer Bryan Wendorf. Programming duties will be
handled by this year's Assistant Programmers Wendy Solomon and Amy
Beste. Bliznick decided to cut back his obligations to the fest to
"catch [his] breath" and concentrate on the development of his own
feature. He's a bit tight-lipped about the project, but said that it
involves the early days of a group of cultural icons. Bliznick reported
that he feels "a bit of depression...but splitting on a high note is a
pretty righteous thing." The festival was undoubtedly the most
successful so far.
At the awards ceremony, Wendorf joked that "from this point on, it's my
fault." Later, surrounded by "The Redneck Manifesto," several tattoo
'zines, a Zippo lighter display, and all sorts of weird political
conspiracy publications, Wendorf is back at work behind the counter at
Quimby's Bookstore in Chicago. In the coming year, Wendorf reports that
CUFF will move to a new venue, open an official festival office ("it's
time to reclaim my apartment") try to get larger commitments from
sponsors, hold periodic screenings throughout the year, and offer a new
post-production fund. The post fund and screenings will, according to
Wendorf, "give back to the filmmakers [and] add a permanent presence and
structure to the festival."
[CUFF's phone number is 773.866.8660 and their web site is at
5th Annual Chicago Underground Film Festival Winners
Audience Award-Gold Jury Prize
"Men Cry Bullets" Tamara Hernandez
Documentary-Gold Jury Prize
"The Decline of Western Civilization, Part III" Penelope Spheeris
Documentary-Silver Jury Prize
"Hallelujah! Ron Athey: A Story of Deliverance" Catherine Gund Saalfield
Feature-Silver Jury Prize
"The Last Broadcast" Stefan Avalos and Lance Weiler
Feature-Gold Jury Prize
"Surrender Dorothy" Kevin DiNovas
Animation-Silver Jury Prize
"Roadhead" Bob Sabiston and Tommy Pallotta
Animation-Gold Jury Prize
"Somebody Goofed" Rodney Ascher & Syd Garon
Experimental-Silver Jury Prize
"Human Remains" Jay Rosenblatt
Experimental-Gold Jury Prize
"Bovine Vendetta" Robert Judd
Short-Silver Jury Prize
"Hellzapoppin'" Gray Miller
Short-Gold Jury Prize
"Wheels of Fury" Dan Dinello, Paul Dinello, and Mitch Rouse
[Scott Petersen produced and directed "Out of the Loop," a documentary
on Chicago rock bands that is now available on home video. Next up for
Petersen and producer David Wells is "Scrabylon," a documentary on the
cutthroat world of tournament Scrabble. His web site is at