MAY 1999 – FILMMAKER MAGAZINE
Chicago Underground Film Festival by Ray Pride
Probably the most transgressive thing left for a self-dubbed “underground” film festival to accomplish is to simply persist over the years until it evolves into a cultural mainstay on its home turf. The Chicago Underground Film Festival (CUFF), which finished its fourth year this past August, got both crowds and critical kudos this time around.
Chicago has a balkanized film festival community with over a dozen film festivals of some scope; there are Latino, Polish and Russian festivals, the second oldest Lesbian and Gay International Film Festival in the U.S., the Film Center of the Art Institute’s ongoing weeks of Iranian and Hong Kong Film, and the Chicago International Film Festival, a programming and logistical nightmare even in its thirty-third year. CUFF has attained a delicate but promising balance of organizational responsibility and artistic license. (Well, autistic in some cases, but more about The Bride of Frank shortly.)
Last year was a CUFF landmark — the first year that any films originated on 35mm were shown (although on video projection). This year, the quantity and quality of features improved, and 35mm film projection was added. Yet CUFF seems to be growing into a festival as much for filmmakers as local filmgoers. Founders Jay Bliznick and Bryan Wendorf report that filmmakers such as Sarah Jacobson, Martin Lucas, Peter Hall and Guy Benoit have returned in successive years, even when they haven’t had a new film in competition, giving a “summer camp” aspect to the proceedings. Parties, including a now-traditional bowling excursion, filled the evenings.
The festival began four years ago in downtown hotel conference rooms with an accompanying dealers’ convention — almost like an afterthought to a comicon. “It’s only last year that we started to understand what makes a good film festival,” Bliznick says. “In the first year people would just wander in and out instead of looking at films as films.
“In the first year, virtually every submission got in,” Bliznick continues, laughing. “But once we started improving the programming, we got more selections, and now we can be more impressive.” Almost a dozen sponsors signed on for this edition. “They’re niche sponsorships,” Bliznick says, “and that works for and against us. Certain companies want to be niched to our crowd, but a lot of companies with money trying to appear cool and young are still skittish.”
One sponsor suits the mission they see for CUFF. “The Independent Film Channel deals with young, independent filmmakers with an eye on what to do in the future,” Wendorf continues. Still, CUFF pays more attention to the history of “underground” than many film festivals do. “It’s not just transgressive, it’s not just experimental; underground, to us, just means outside the mainstream. If something irritates or confuses the mainstream, we call that underground.” A multiple film salute to seminal New York Filmmaker Jack Smith, predating his Manhattan retrospective by several months, began with Flaming Creatures, and John Waters was on hand to chat up his decades of filth with overflow audiences who came out in thunderous rain.
Still, Bliznick says, “You aren’t going to see any Piper-Heidsick career awards here. We revel in the history of underground film instead of just what’s happening now.” Wendorf adds, “You can see the line from Jack Smith to John Waters to directors like Nick Zedd, Richard Kern and Jon Morigitsu. But some of the filmmakers don’t know the tradition they’re part of. Cassavetes’ Shadows was underground when it was first released, and you could trace the whole idea of the American independent feature back to that. If Herschell Gordon Lewis and Stan Brakhage ever collaborated, that would be the perfect CUFF film.”
Highlights of this year’s festival included Jim Van Bebber’s Audience Choice winner, the dense, chaotic Charlie’s Family, shown as a nine-years-in-progress preview. An intense, graphic docudrama about the Manson family, the film alternates frenzied reÎnactments of their crimes with convincing fictional present-day interviews, and performances of unusual authenticity.
Documentaries comprise a good chunk of the programming. “It seems easier to produce a good documentary with less money than a feature,” Wendorf says, “and it gets you over the problem of how bad acting is sometimes in movies without a budget.” First-Prize-Winner Sam Green’s The Rainbow Man/John 3:16 was a deeply sad and intensely haunting portrait of Rollen Frederick Stewart, a telegenic fool of the late ’70s and early ’80s who donned a rainbow-striped Afro wig at sporting events to get the cameras to cut to him. Scott Petersen’s fluent, understated Chicago rock-band documentary Out of the Loop took the second documentary prize. Doug Wolens’ Weed was an entertaining portrait of the eighth Annual Cannabis Cup and Hemp Expo, held in smoky Amsterdam, a hemptronic, weedarific treat for those so inclined and a cheerful glimpse at another culture’s subculture for the rest of us.
The best feature award went to Henry Barges’ Half Spirit: The Voice of the Spider, a clammy, claustrophobic hallucination from France that bears comparison to Krzysztof Kieslowski’s A Short Film About Killing. Craig Schlattman’s second-place The Seller has nice moments of absurdist chat, but they don’t bring enough snap to a story of a sleazy, self-loathing used car salesman who kills a couple of customers and finds himself stuck with their 12-year-old daughter. (Waters stalwart Mink Stole plays the girl’s aunt.)
Other highlights included the local premieres of the feverish, frantic day-glo paranoia of Frank Grow’s video-to-film Love God, and Brian Flemming’s Hang Your Dog in The Wind, where surreal meets hyperreal in a playful black-and-white L.A. slacker-meets-consumerist comedy. Jason Hernandez-Rosenblatt’s nasty, hilarious, prize-winning short, Meat, is a vegan’s worst nightmare — a 16-year-old girl discovers her straight-and-narrow family are actually cannibals. Nanni Jacobson’s authorized documentary Straight to You: Nick Cave Portrait, had lines around the block, and “Jeff Krulik and Friends” spotlighted several wonderful snippets of cable-access overachievement, including the simply inspired Heavy Metal Parking Lot, wherein Krulik and D.C. cable-access co-worker John Heyn videotape the metal fans swarming an arena parking lot before a Judas Priest show. Krulik also presented the frightening King of Porn, which introduces the buttoned-down Ralph Whittington and his meticulously cataloged collection of pornography of all stripes. And then there’s Steve Ballot’s The Bride of Frank. Ballot bombarded local critics with press kits, videotapes and plastic eyeballs and wild-posted all over the appropriate neighborhoods. “I pitched it like a garbageman,” Ballot told me. His turn of phrase is appropriate for one of the most relentlessly appalling, inexplicably hilarious movies I’ve seen in ages. Blessed with sub-porno level production values, Ballot’s brassy, goombah comedy is about a creepy, toothless old man, his friends at the trucking company where he works and lives, his not-so-idle threats to all comers, and his love for 300-pound strippers. Cheap shit, but someone has to look out for tradition.
Ray Pride is the film critic of Chicago’s arts and news weekly, New City, and is also one of its editors. He is a playwright and screenwriter.
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