NYUFF 2002 By Brian Frye. It may just be my hazy memory, but I swear that the New York Underground Film Festival I first attended four years ago has little in common with the one I saw this year...

It may just be my hazy memory, but I swear that the New York Underground Film Festival I first attended four years ago has little in common with the one I saw this year. That’s no criticism though. Unless of course you consider tighter, smarter films and a more sharply focused curatorial mission liabilities.

Still, the mix of genres and subjects remains similar: new and vintage narrative shorts and features with a trashy edge to them, documentaries on various counterculture-type phenomena and oddball art films. And yet, the emphasis seems to have shifted ever so subtly, away from the narratives and toward the documentaries. It’s a welcome change, since the documentaries are forced to account for the vagaries and obstinance of the real world, preserving them somewhat from the disappointing callowness that often spoils the narratives.

Probably the best of the lot was Josh Koury’s Standing By Yourself, which follows three teenage boys—one of them the filmmaker’s brother—for several years. Despite some galling flaws, most unfortunately its unnecessarily slipshod camerawork, the tape is an real success. In its verite purity, it’s vaguely reminiscent of Jeff Kreines and Joel De Mott’s Seventeen, while lacking their precision. Koury follows his subjects with dogged persistence, capturing perfectly the numbing tedium of their strip-mall outings, loafing and attempts to get high drinking Robitussin and god knows what else. In the course of Standing By Yourself’s hour of running time Sigfried—the real sad sack of the three—progresses from a blustery hooligan to a drug-addled, racist, neo-Nazi gutter punk. While his friends clearly never took him seriously, by the end it’s clear that they’ve juts given up on him. Ultimately, it’s Koury’s light touch and willingness to let events linger and play themselves out at their own speed that makes the tape work. The languorous pace at which the boys drift through their days, filled with aimless driving and woefully inadequate displays of bravado captures the feeling of time held in suspension to which the experience of suburban youth reduces.

It’s not such a leap from Siegfried to Shawn Nelson, the star-in-absentia of Cul De Sac by Garrett Scott. In 1995, the itinerant plumber, speed freak and Southern California gold prospector Nelson stole a U.S. Army tank from a base near his home in suburban San Diego, and took it on a joyride. After 30 minutes of crushing cars and knocking over fire hydrants, with a posse of cops in tow, Nelson got stuck trying to cross a highway median, and was shot dead when he refused to exit the tank.

Cul De Sac basically consists of news footage of Nelson’s moment of fame and the network follow-up, and interviews with his friends, family and neighbors. The news footage is predictably opaque—a image of pure, unadulterated surrealism that Breton himself would have loved. While the interviews don’t make the event itself any less strange, they do offer an astonishingly lucid portrait of the peculiar world in which Nelson lived, and perhaps a glimpse of how his actions might have come to seem perfectly logical, or even inevitable. The gallery of stoner burnouts who appear are so typical as to approach caricature. Confused losers with paranoid delusions about state conspiracies and oppressive cabals, embodied by the tired cops who are forced to clean up after their pathetic messes, they’ve already begun to mythologize Nelson. One can start to see where Stagger Lee and Billy the Kid came from.

It’s no surprise that the NYUFF maintains a rather jaundiced view of what the networks have inexplicably dubbed “Red America” (I bet the John Birchers are still hopping mad about the choice of colors)—albeit with no shortage of justification. This year, one of Red America’s loopier exponents actually came to protest the festival; his excoriation of New York’s “faggot firefighters” remains something of a mystery to me.

Still, Middle America did make an appearance in the festival’s Destination Unknown program. Roger Beebe’s The Strip Mall Trilogy is a charming, if treacly redux of Hollis Frampton’s ubiquitous art-school juggernaut Zorns Lemma. ABCD-ing it’s way through suburban signage with a toddler singing along, it does indeed capture some ineffable truth of highway culture, though its apocalyptic pretentions are a little tired. While Brittany Gravely’s Introduction to Living in a Closed System is indisputably accomplished, I found it disappointingly bloodless. The mock-’70s-sociology thing felt like it was done on autopilot, and no amount of beautiful, saturated color and cool graphics can compensate for that. Luckily, the cornerstone of the program, Bill Brown’s Buffalo Common is a real winner. Imagine a punk-rock version of Ross McElwee, and you’re pretty close to the style of Brown’s diaristic documentaries. His third (I think) and best film to date, Buffalo Common is a reflection on the decommissioning of the ICBMs that litter the farmland of North Dakota, and the slowly emptying towns that tended them. The stillness and quiet reverence of Brown’s black and white tableaus underscores the gravity of the utterly mundane events and locations he documents. I deeply regret missing one of the four titles, Condensed Movie #1 by Kent Lambert, whose hilarious tape WACK, a cut-up on acting legend Philip Michael Thomas, was one of my favorites last year.

The icon-du-jour of Red America, our fearless leader President George W. Bush, was the second-hand subject of Horns and Halos by Suki Hawley and Michael Galinsky, which recounts the trials and tribulations of J. H. Hatfield, the author of Fortunate Son. A luridly critical biography of Bush, Fortunate Son was dropped by St. Martin’s Press when Hatfield was exposed as an ex-con, convicted in an aborted murder conspiracy. Horns and Halos picks up after the book is acquired by the endearingly narcissistic young Sander Hicks, owner of the late Soft Skull Press. Its future looks promising at first, but the predictable legal troubles quickly blossom.

Aesthetically, Horns and Halos is unremarkable, but Hatfield and Hicks are winningly flawed anti-heroes. Hatfield’s outrageous humbug is perfectly complemented by Hicks’s charming, embarrassing cluelessness. Hicks and company are so cranky about Bush that they fail to recognize that publishing this ludicrously fabricated bio is unlikely to effectively highlight his all too real flaws.

And that’s the most troubling elision in the film. The directors seem to accept Hatfield’s assertion that his book was dismissed on the basis of his criminal record. But I found myself much more concerned by his barely acknowledged but very extensive plagiarism and misattribution of quotes, on which he was never challenged. The fact is, it’s never clear that Hatfield has any proof for his more outrageous allegations (on the basis of which the book was published). No matter what you think of Bush, unsubstantiated facts make for neither a credible biography nor hack job.

I also rather enjoyed Experiments in Terror, a horror-themed hodgepodge curated by a nutty novice impresario who calls himself J.X Williams. Presented by San Francisco’s Other Cinema and its founder Craig Baldwin, this grab bag of clips from grade Z fright films, moody experimental films, exploitation trailers and production shorts showed all the hallmarks of Baldwin production. But Williams’s selections were smart, funny, and well worth seeing again. I love Hitchcock’s promo short for Psycho, one of the finest examples of his droll wit, but some of the cruddier shorts are even funnier. A comically hardboiled primer on subliminal messages (consisting of the words KILL and BLOOD superimposed on a laughably awkward fight sequence) is hysterical, especially the hammily lurid lecture on their mind-altering effects delivered by a cut-rate Bogie imitator.

The artier selections were a bit unpredictable. David Sherman’s well-known Tuning the Sleep Machine (featured in the Whitney Biennial several years back) and Kerry Laitala’s Journey Into The Unknown are excellent films, and their reworked found images fit quite naturally into the program. Ben Rivers’s The Joy of Walking, while naively charming, was rather less successful: stiff and a more than a bit absurd. And contrary to its description, I was reminded less of Bergman than Jodorowsky, despite the damsels, knights and existential ennui.

But on the arty fron, Astria Suparak’s Keep in Touch! program definitely took the cake. While I’m not always sold on all her selections, they’re certainly unpredictable, and often take you by surprise. Typical was Seth Price’s Triumf, a good-humored satire on political campaign bonhomie. A Lincolnesque woodchopper with an appallingly fake coif delivers several versions of a monologue on the good character and moral uprightness that Ronald Wilson Reagan brought to the White House. It’s plainly tongue in cheek, yet not condescending. There’s no hectoring; Price just reminds you that platitudes and cheery pictures can’t substitute for substance. For a “political film,” it’s remarkably disinterested.

Even more peculiar are Leslie Thornton’s Have A Nice Day Alone and Stephanie Barber’s Dogs. Thornton’s film draws from her epic Peggy and Fred in Hell, and touches on many of the same themes: childhood, language and sociology. Based on a series of what appear to be elliptical PowerPoint slides, dissolving into close-up images of peculiar looking children, Have A Nice Day Alone mimics a scientific presentation which lacks some element critical to understanding its intended sense. It’s like a computer is trying to organize data based solely on patterns, without any rules as to what constitutes a meaningful relationship. Barber’s Dogs is easy to hate, but its cloyingly sophomoric patter deepens the longer you listen. The 15-minute film consists of nothing more than several angles on two garishly crude hand puppets of dog heads, bobbing as they “talk” to each other. The dialogue is maddeningly poorly recorded, but their conversation is one typical of tipsy aimless bohemians chatting at a party. Both participants are sensitive and thoughtful, and yet incapable of meaningfully communicating with one another. They discuss matters of consequence—mental health, love, art and artmaking, and yet when the conversation ends it is gone, and you’re left with just the image, the nodding heads, and the cartoonish grins of the puppets.

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