Where have all the flowers gone? Viva, the 2007 New York Underground Film Festival‘s opening night (tonight) film, perhaps provides incriminating evidence that the current crop of underground directors are more interested in retro DIY rather than untrodded fields of creativity. Opposed, positive signs abound in this NYUFF’s arsenal, but there’s a definite security in Viva, a tongue-in-cheeker about the 70s’ sexual revolution that plays as a condescending/reverent homage to Playboy After Dark and other swinging antiques from a more “innocent” era of pornography, pop art, and interior decorating. Director-lead actor Anna Biller shoots Viva as wall-to-wall eye candy, reimaginings of jet set catalogs circa 1971: color coordinated outfits and decor, mod fashion and hairstyles, and — to send it all over the top — purposely awkward line readings (including a constant stream of vacuous guffaws) and anonymous pseudo-lounge rock that in the second half morphs into kitschy musical numbers. Does plot even matter here? Barely. It has something to do with Barbie (Biller), a gorgeous housewife married to a corporate mannequin (Chad England), venturing out into “liberated” universes of free love, from hippie nudists to Warholesque art scenesters. Like the quasi-naive Barbie, who refashions herself as the aspiring title vixen, Viva is a contrived invention, offering nostalgic fabulousness for an underground generation longing, perhaps, for the Garden of Eden of pre-AIDS sex (and, in order to hold its libido in check, ends with a conservative return to a monogamous, materialistic dream life). The film is supposed to be a retelling of this era from a woman’s perspective (Viva’s escape from bourgeois boredom only lands her in the chauvanistic playground of male entitlement), but how can such a critique carry weight the whole film is so cartoonish and the swinging milieu so clearly coveted by the camera as to distract from any feminist message? Biller, an underground filmmaking vet, offers enough ironic cheesecake (and eats it) to please an audience only looking to take their counterculture so seriously, and in this sense Viva is poised to be a crowd pleaser.
Which brings us to the question posed by Nathan Lee in this week’s Voice: “If the underground is defined not only by economic status but aesthetic opposition to mainstream culture, where are the escape routes in a mainstream culture that instantly commodifies and co-opts?” Allow me a tentative answer. The underground should challenge and provoke, but the people — even underground people — get what they want. If a largely hipster audience outside the realm of museums and galleries — where “aesthetic opposition” remains largely contained within academic confines — demands vicarious hedonism, then the audience has spoken. This audience. There exist countercurrents inside countercurrents, and the NYUFF is diverse and rich enough to provide more substantial fare beyond the accessible, palatable “works of homage, pastiche, and appropriation” which, yes, remain the underground’s easiest sources of amusement and targets of criticism. Trust me, there’s more, and better to be seen at this year’s NYUFF. Keep checking back here this week for further tips.