New York Underground Film Fest 1999 By Brian Frye & Mary Gillen. The 7th annual New York Underground Film Festival, held at Anthology Film Archives on the increasingly lovely Lower East Side of Manhattan from March 8-14, boasted an impressive seven days of films and a five day sidebar of music and performances...

The 7th annual New York Underground Film Festival, held at Anthology Film Archives on the increasingly lovely Lower East Side of Manhattan from March 8-14, boasted an impressive seven days of films and a five day sidebar of music and performances. Since I was able to make only the first two nights, I was forced to choose my screenings carefully. I did so in keeping with the spirit of the festival’s beloved and recently deceased mascot, a monkey named Pickles. She had, in her yearning to “understand the world of giant ‘hairless apes,’” shown a fondness for documentaries...

Opening night packed the house with punk rockers and film geeks alike for the premiere of Lech Kowalski’s Born to Lose, a tribute to Johnny Thunders-the prototype punk of The New York Dolls and The Heartbreakers. Almost 18 years in the making, Born to Lose was a labor of love. The film succeeds as a visually and aurally engaging documentary. The use of subtitles in the opening clip not only helped the audience understand the lyrics, but also added a touch of irony, as if we were seeing something that should seem foreign to us living in this “modern era.” The performance footage was excellent, with a particularly poignant and thoroughly entertaining clip of The Dolls in drag doing one of my favorites, “Personality Crisis.” An illuminating interview with Dee Dee Ramone featured prominently throughout the film. He rules! I expected (and dreaded) some glamorization of Thunders’ junkie status and/or gratuitous needle-poking footage. Thankfully, I was spared. Substantive insight was gained without resorting to shock tactics, like the sequence where Johnny’s sister takes us on a guided tour of his childhood haunts. Ultimately, Born to Lose pleasantly surprised me by striking a delicate balance between insider cool and outsider accessibility.

That’s more than I can say for Heather Rose Dominic’s The Shield Around the K (preceded by waiting forty-five-minutes on The Line Around the Block). Shield is an occasionally interesting (though visually uninspired) chronicle of K Records and a fawning tribute to label co-founder Calvin Johnson. As a fan of Beat Happening, I was psyched about this film and glad to see some silly footage of the group performing their endearingly simple lo-fi tunes such as “Bad Seeds,” “Indian Summer,” and “Foggy Eyes.” Interviews with Calvin himself, his K partner Candice Pedersen, Ian MacKaye, Jean of Mecca Normal and many others amounted to not much more than a lot of Calvin-praising and dry historical recounting.

Unfortunately, it all felt very still for a motion picture: a common dilemma for documentary filmmakers. If even your target audience is bored, I doubt very much that your film can appeal to anyone beyond that specialized group. While the subject of the film felt close to my heart, it was hard to deny my disappointment with the product itself.

I briefly left the world of documentary films for the “Sex on the Fritz: Performance Anxiety” program, which featured several short videos. An immediate standout was Miranda July’s audio piece, WSNO. Visually, a glowing red screen accompanied the film. This work functioned like a weirdo radio station broadcast of a dial-in show for lonely people with freaked-out secrets. July uses the trappings of our media culture as a creepy locale for her equally creepy characters, and I dig it.

No Place Like Home #1 and #2, an animated short by Karen Yasinsky, was also spooky. It stars a truncated stuffed female doll and an ugly stuffed man. The woman clacks her heels like Dorothy in Oz, trying to escape the discomfort and disorientation of her barren surroundings. As she is made up of only a skirt, legs and feet, her displeasure is pretty understandable. The film gets even more disturbing when she tosses about on a bed, seemingly frustrated and lusty, then gets sexually assaulted by the stuffed man as well as by what appears to be his “wife.”

A couple of the most effective pieces of this program dealt in found footage paired with new sound. Jennifer Reeder’s Lullaby knocked me off my guard with its jarring arrangement of adolescent mania and body-conscious pain accompanied by a droning, lethargic modification of Madonna’s “Lucky Star” (both the song and the classic video). It seemed to go on forever but that’s also what made it work. The inter-cutting of hard, cold black and white typed “diary excerpts” made the experience feel a bit clinical, even intrusive. But when my friend pointed out that some of the text was pulled from Judy Blume books, it just seemed so...right. - MG

The New York Underground Film Festival (NYUFF) is well on its way to becoming an institution, whether it cares to or not. And as a semi-regular, I’ve appreciated a somewhat unexpected attention to programming and a markedly sharper focus over the last few years, presumably the doing of director Ed Halter.

To Ed’s credit, the event has evolved into an event worth attending for something other than people-watching (always rewarding). Ultimately, however, I couldn’t shake the feeling that three or more disparate festivals were running simultaneously.

A surprisingly hefty selection of the films came from the Fine Arts world (the sort of filmmaking previous incarnations of the NYUFF welcomed about as warmly as one might a rabid dog). The dregs of the fest were the obvious film-school projects, teflon-slick, insincere and totally vacuous.

The really raw films—the ones that are properly called “underground” (and the real soul of the festival)—made the strongest showing. They were obviously chosen by someone with an uncommon feeling for their most vital qualities. The number of strong films was far greater than previous years.

One of the few “Big Events” I made it to was the program organized by recording artist/video-maker/impresario Miranda July, imported from Portland, Oregon. Probably best known for her Big Miss Moviola project-a “video chain letter” created to circulate tapes by female artists. July has several phenomenally creepy recordings out on Kill Rock Stars, as well as a very strong video, The Amateurist.

July presented both selections from the Big Miss Moviola collection and her new work, Nest of Tens. The program began with Naomi Uman’s Removed, a strange little film in which all of the women are physically bleached out of a particularly corny, poorly dubbed snippet from a ’70s porno film. Both wonderfully raw and astonishingly subtle, it’s one of the better films of the past year.

The second film in July’s program, Taxidermy: The Art of Imitating Life, was surprisingly sensitive and beautiful. A refreshingly minimal, neo-verite portrait of a very skilled Long Island taxidermist and his assistant, it restored a fragment of faith that something good might come out of film school.

The last tape in the show was July’s own Nest of Tens. July’s metier is plainly anxiety. In The Amateurist she managed, with the humblest of means, to convey the profoundly unsettling impression of watching something quite horrible transpire, while never quite revealing what was taking place. Nest of Tens is certainly more ambitious, incorporating several parallel events and broader themes, but the film lacks the incontestability of The Amateurist.

Suffused by the soft-focus, semi-professional glow of the cable infomercial, the look of Nest of Tens could have been perfect. At times it worked, especially when July appeared on screen. An intensely awkward, Crispin Glover-esque performer, she supplies the nervous tension and air of stunned bewilderment without which the tape goes from curiously enigmatic to desultory and unengaging. July’s performances are riveting due in part to the barely suppressed quaver of terror in her voice. Meanwhile, her “actors” might as well be reading the instructions for operating a cheap vacuum cleaner. Bored and listless, they don’t convey any of the subtle menace that made The Amateurist so engaging.

Among the more unexpected films in this year’s festival was Reed Paget’s American Passport. Playing like a warped version of Ross McElwee’s Sherman’s March, Paget sets off on his own, shockingly literal version of a “Holiday in Cambodia,” visiting some of the most notorious disaster zones of the ’80s. Paget manages to treat the carnage he and his trusty CP-16 witness even more abstractly than McElwee. Hoping to get the scoop on the “Red Menace,” the film ranges from fascinating to tedious to downright bizarre.

Paget’s charming (if utterly hopeless) naivete colors the entire film. His interminable narration is rife with interview questions sounding like they could have been contributed by “sensitive” junior high students. The camerawork and editing are undistinguished, if downright sloppy. And, its various, very discrete segments never really cohere into one complete film.

Yet, there was something unexpectedly winning about American Passport. The wonderful animated maps that chart his progress evoke the grand expeditions of Teddy Roosevelt or Frank Capra’s WWII films. I can’t recall the last time I saw such a well-meaning film without flinching. There’s a real truth here, though I don’t think it’s the one Paget was looking for. For all his cheerful bravado and truly winning ingenuousness, Paget remains the classic tourist, the epitome of the America that can see the rest of the world only as a reflection of itself.

I’m particularly happy I stayed out late to see Liquid Sky, the semi-notorious film by Slava Tsukerman. For some, the film is the defining statement on the wacky ’80s East Village. Replete with trippy video effects, bizarre outfits, almost obscenely dated (yet suddenly cool again) music and some of the lamest (but fascinating) conspiracy theories-cum-ufology you’ll ever find in any film. It’s a classic almost by default.

The story, such as it is, centers on the East Village fashion victim community. The dialogue sounds as if it were translated through several languages and sends a comically bizarro situation halfway to terrifying. Junkies are smack at the middle of everything, though their tendency here to wax hollowly rhapsodic about getting off makes everything a good deal more fun. With the introduction to this mess of a pseudo-Reichian Russian “physicist” on an alien hunt and you’re in for some real fun. The orgone energy is flying, the psychedelic alien vision is pulsing away, and one is bound to come to some deep mystical insights of some sort.

At first glance, Liquid Sky may seem in keeping with previous incarnations of the NYUFF, which seemed to define “underground film” by its overt interest in guns, tits, junkies, or some combination thereof. While the visceral pleasure of such fare is undeniable, they make for a rather tedious festival. After the thrill wore off (a minute or two later), one came to the inevitable realization that an apparent majority of the “filmmakers” didn’t seem to have the faintest idea what they were doing. Ed Halter, however, has committed himself to taking the festival seriously, not just as a business proposition, but as a place to actually watch films of substance. - BF

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