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By Morgan Miller | April 5, 2001

For the most part, the New York Underground Film Festival stays true to its name. Now in its eighth year, the NYUFF has provided a consistent venue for the raw, the raunchy, and the renegade. Even by some of the titles alone (“F****d in the Face” or “Jerks, Don’t Say F**k”), the selection appears blatantly uninhibited.
Theres a lot of familiar names to be found here, those who you might call ‘the Veterans’. George Kuchar. Jonas Mekas. Bill Plympton. Theres a lot of new folks also; Derek Curl, Michael Lucid, Aaron Lubarsky, and many others. In general, the NYUFF tends to be a young person’s film festival, most of the antendees are in their twenties.
All together, there were twenty-two features and one-hundred and nineteen shorts in the festival’s official roster, all of which were screened at the Anthology Film Archives on Manhattan’s lower east side. While there are a lot of narrative and documentary films in the mix, most every entry has an experimental flavor. The NYUFF rejects any attempt to look slick, professional, or lavish. Although they have 35mm projection facilities, a great majority of the works are video projected, and a lot of them are Super 8.
With “Wired Angel”, filmmaker Sam Wells has a unique way of telling the story of Joan of Arc, or perhaps not telling the story at all. There’s not much of a narrative structure going on here, nor a single line of dialogue. Joan’s infamous trial is only hinted at through abstraction. The film is shot entirely on 16mm Black and White Tri-X Reversal, one of the most cost effective film stocks, while the sound is state-of-the-art, created and mixed digitally. As the final product, “Wired Angel” is projected on the big screen in 16mm with Digital Surround Sound rather than an optical track, something rather unusual and quite remarkable.
From its first images, “Wired Angel” is a film which successfully stirs the senses, both with the eerie audio, and the compelling visual. The soundtrack designed in coordination with Oscar-winning composer Joe Renzetti (“The Buddy Holly Story”), is an electronic montage of medieval words and chants, mixing the voices of women and children, yet always very abstract and shrouded in mystery. Visually, Wells claims to have chosen Tri-X because of its high contrast, creating an affective Chiaroscuro canvas. Although “Wired Angel” is based on Joan of Arc, the setting has been updated to a bleak Industrial landscape, a world of dark tunnels and blowing smoke, something like a series of charcoal drawings soaked in silver. The steep cinematic contrast between light and dark sets a certain mood and tone for the film’s attempted religious metaphors.
Caroline Ruttle plays Joan. Unlike the transcendental film versions of Bresson and Dreyer, Wells’ Joan is not a character. His approach to directing the actors is cold; without energy or any sense of overflowing emotion. Joan is an object. There are no close-ups of running tears or angered speeches to be found in this film. She is as expressive as a statue. She walks like a zombie. Sam Wells seems to be attracted to the classical and the historic, meshing it all together with his own strange palette. In 1990, he made a short entitled “The Talking Rain” based on the myth of Orpheus, which also featured Caroline Ruttle.
One of the sad things about this film is how it is so interesting technically, and then suffers from too much self-indulgence, too much footage, and not enough editing. For its first third, “Wired Angel” is a compelling hypnotic experience, and then it collapses into a pit of its own pretentious wallow. The film looses its track, images appear to recycle themselves, and the facial expression of the actors is that of boredom, like they’ve been doing the director a favor by appearing in his film, but they’ve had enough.
“Maldoror”, a 100 minute attempt at collective filmmaking, made its US Premiere. The film’s primary coordinator, a flamboyant British fellow named Duncan Reekie introduced the film, explaining the entangled process of how it was made. As a collaboration between artists of the London Exploding Cinema Collective and Filmgruppe Chaos of Germany, the film adapted twelve chapters of Contre de Launtremont’s infamously dark and misanthropic novel “The Song of Maladoror”, a work well noted for its seemingly formless, perhaps incoherent structure. Each artist shot their own chapter on Super 8. Eventually all twelve were blown up to 16mm, and linked together with a voice-over track in which the narrator read from Lautremont’s text; a rambling meditation about the existence of evil (three additional chapters were started but failed to be completed). As a whole, the film does contain an interesting cross section of styles, using clay animation, time lapse sequences, accelerated motion, and sometimes just out of focus and underexposed.
Science-fiction seems to be in vogue this year. Bill Plympton’s “Mutant Aliens” made it’s East Coast premiere at the NYUFF. “I love the idea of matching Prink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon album with the classic film ‘The Wizard of Oz'” he said. “As I watched, it seemed like a whole new art form, and I decided I want to do something similar.” Meanwhile, George Kuchar was also back with two new sci-fi schlock projects, “Planet of the Vamps” and “The Stench of Satan.”
“The Escapades of Madame X” (partially funded by the Chicago Underground Film Fund) was an interesting, if perplexing ten minute short by Kerry Laitala and Isable Reichert. As a hand-processed tribute to the Busby Berkely musicals of yesteryear, the film itself culminates in a bizarre crescendo. With her pale skin shimmering like a lightbulb in the darkness, the nude Madame X puffs on a cigar. Seated on a sofa with her legs open, smoke emanates from her crotch.
On the documentary side, Chicago filmmaker Jessica Vilenes presented a feature length work, “Plaster Caster: A Cockumentary Film”. Her subject is Cynthia, a one time rock groupie. Now in her early ’50’s, Cynthia looks back on her sexual experiences and the erect plaster penis casts she’s taken of such stars as Jemi Hendrix (“the biggest” she recalls), the Animals, and MC5. The film centers around Cynthia’s preparation for a retrospective of her work at the New York Threadwaxing Space in 2000.
Phil Bertelsen’s “The Sunshine” focused on the Sunshine Hotel, one of the last sleazy flophouses still remaining on the Bowery. With the 90’s economic boom, New York City has become a hot spot for yuppies and high income earners, thus pushing out a lot of the squeegee men and shady bars. Bertelsen takes an intimate look at the surviving remnants of another era.
This is not to say that the NYUFF is all for praising filth and grime. Occasionally, theres that odd duck that comes out of nowhere, looking suspiciously out of place in the predatory waters. A mainstream music documentary, “In the Ocean” was sandwiched in between some of the fest’s most offbeat madness. Frank Scheffer’s examination of American classical music is an informative piece, soft in its overall tone. And indeed, while the NYUFF’s cover image might be called surreal, jagged, or just an old fashioned attempt at shock value, they also made a little bit of room for the oddly educational and the tenderly poetic. “I only have eyes for you”, a monochrome triptych of dark urban images, accompanied by the Flamingos song, is an absorbing filmic symphony drenched with melancholy.
Finally, there are the awards which are given in each category. The Award for Best Feature went to the science experiment odyssey “Curse of the Seven Jackals” by Chris Jolly, a film which was shot in less than two weeks in a Georgia Motel. As part of his prize, Jolly walked away with twenty 100’ foot rolls of 16mm Film. Naoko Nozawa won Best Short for the labyrinthine “Tokyo Escalator”. Best Animation was nabbed by Don Hertzfeldt for his popular short “Rejected”. Best Experimental film went to Siegfried A. Fruhauf’s “Mountain Trip”. Adrienne Jorge won Best Documentary for her Super 8 film “Songs of Azores”, a study of her aunts living on a small Portuguese Island. The Festival Choice Award Winner was Jon Leone for “Receiver”, a twenty minute study of backyard wrestling, supposedly one of Middle America’s latest pass-times.
Special Jury Prizes were also awarded. Adam Ripp’s reality simulation “The Gang Tapes” won Best Ensemble Cast. Doris Wishman got the Comeback Kid Award for “Satan was a Lady”, a film which tells the tale of Cleo (Honey Lauren), a Miami based sex-kitten who will do anything for a fur coat. Now around the age of 80, this is Wishman’s first film in over twenty years. With her most well known titles, “Deadly Weapons” and “Nude on the Moon”, she was often hailed as the Queen of Exploitation. “When I die, I will make films in hell !” she said.
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