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Notes From The Underground, Part II: "Dorothy," Doris and "Dirty Babies"

Indiewire By Indiewire | Indiewire March 30, 1998 at 2:0AM

Notes From The Underground, Part II: "Dorothy," Doris and"Dirty Babies"
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Notes From The Underground, Part II: "Dorothy," Doris and
"Dirty Babies"

by Aaron Krach




I am happy to report, the New York Underground Film Festival can still
turn your stomach. While the alternative has become mainstream and the
independent has become bland, the underground can still be messy,
exciting, and pleasantly surprising. Packed into a tightly programmed
five days, this year's NYUFF included 18 features, half a dozen
documentaries and several programs of shorts. There was also a
mini-retrospective of sexploitation diva Doris Wishman, who in her
seventies managed to be the freshest filmmaker in the festival.


It was Wishman who turned the most stomachs with her 1978 documentary,
"Let Me Die A Woman." The shock-doc about transsexuals actually shows a
sex change operation in full color and vivid close-up. Truly ahead of
it's time, "Woman" allows several transsexuals to tell the story of
their lives before and after their surgery. While the film is
delightfully naive in it's construction, the participants on screen are
intelligent and eloquent. A close second in the abdominal anguish
competition was "Cheesecake," by Huck Botko. The filmmaker's family is
the target of an act of culinary terrorism. Botko decorates a cheesecake
with Hepatitis infected blood and feeds it to his unsuspecting family.
Watching people eat cheesecake has never been so
difficult. Only moderately disgusting, but in a humorous way, was
"Cannibal! The Musical," by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, South Park
creators extraordinaire. A musical western about miners lost in the
Rocky Mountains, "Cannibal," includes more blood in it's opening
sequence than "Let Me Die A Woman" and "Cheesecake," combined.


Doris Wishman made her most famous film, "Bad Girls Go To Hell," in 1965
and it still looks "underground" today. She creates a world filled with
homicide, lesbianism, sex, alcoholism, and violence with a minimal
budget and maximum creativity. Kevin Di Novis' opening night feature,
"Surrender Dorothy" was one of the only films to come anywhere close to
her achievement. "Dorothy" tells the story of a desperate man trying to
turn his heroin-addicted buddy into his girlfriend. It is a simple plot,
but tightly played out in a basement apartment. The black and white
cinematography is so sharp it hurts. Not surprisingly, "Dorothy" won the
award for Best Feature at NYUFF. It previously won the Grand Jury Prize
at this year's Slamdance Film Festival. "Surrender Dorothy" is a risky
film and so was the Festival Choice Award film, "Jefftowne" by Daniel
Kraus. Mildly exploitive, "Jefftowne" is simply a documentary about a
retarded guy. Until the filmmakers give Jeff a movie camera and let him
make his own film. The few minutes of footage Jeff shoots of his mom,
bedroom, house and yard are out of focus and confusing. But they are
also poignant, personal and honest.


After five years NYUFF fits into the New York scene like a warm leather
glove. Held for the first time at Anthology Film Archives, the
birthplace of experimental film, there was always a crowd. The lobby was
often jam packed, smokers outside spilled into the sidewalk and a line
for the bathroom or telephone was always three deep. The boisterous
crowd wasn't there to use the bathroom though; they were there to see
interesting work unavailable anywhere else. Highlights included, "Soft
Like Me," by Jeffrey Erbach. The Canadian short tells the twisted tale of
young boys strapped like farm animals and watched over by beefy men,
their eyes covered by ten gallon hats. It all seems harmless until the men
start bathing the young workers.


Eric Henry's "Wood Technology in the Design of Structures," which
debuted at last year's ResFest, was one of the most elegant animated
shorts in this festival. Mixing ideas about consumption, mortality,
science and psychology, "Wood Technology," is complete, rich and
rewarding. Other animated shorts of note, "The Fetishist," by Jim
Trainor is simply drawn and colored, yet psychologically complex and
"Dirty Baby Does Fire Island," by Todd Downing, is seriously funny,
stop-motion animation starring a doll with very bad hair.


There were only a few forgettable films; original ideas destroyed by
extremely poor production values or hidden beneath filmmaker egos (too
long). Cinematic immaturity resulted in several drug-induced shorts that
screamed, "been there, done that." None the less, it will be
interesting to see which filmmakers will develop into the Doris Wishmans
of the 90s. NYUFF's role in nurturing emerging talent is important and
now securely in place.