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By Ellen Marshall | August 31, 2004

A few months ago, I had a brilliant idea. In August, there was going to be a great, little film fest happening in my backyard…. The Chicago Underground Film Festival … And I intended to be there. Not only did I intend to be there, but I would be covering it for Film Threat, AND, with a partner in crime… Graham Rae, from Falkirk, Scotland, no less! I got the blessing from Gore & Campos, took a week off of work, and simultaneously studied the map of the international terminal at O’Hare, and the CUFF website. The wheels were set in motion, and I was confident in my abilities as a girl who gets s**t done & makes things happen.

Wednesday, 8/18

FINALLY, it’s the opening night of CUFF, and after almost a week of playing Chicago tour guide (and seeing the sights that I haven’t seen in ages), we make our way down to Lincoln Park. The fest is happening this year at a tiny little cinema called The Three Penny, coincidentally, right across the street from the Biograph theatre, where John Dillinger was gunned down in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre… nothing like a little Chicago murder trivia to go along with “The Manson Family”, another infamous tale of American murder & mayhem. We grab our tickets, press passes & some choice seats in the small space, which is rapidly filling up with the eclectic, yet predictable underground film fest viewing crowd. Of course, I had on the requisite black ensemble, sporting my tattoo & a Movado watch, and oh yeah, deodorant & perfume. I was a virtual outcast compared to the sea of dyed black hair, dreads, multiple piercings, thrift store gear, lesbian grunge and the ever-popular arty dark framed glasses all around me… Oh well, I’m too old & jaded for that s**t anyway! Then, Jim Van Bebber showed up in his half-drunk glory & the fest organizers did a nice little intro to his film. At one point, they even asked who was attending from far-flung locations, and Graham shouted out, “Scotland in the house!”, which thrilled Jim to death & he asked Graham to come down front to be introduced as his long-time supporter & friend. It was a great moment with Jim totally high on the the buzz of alcohol, adoration & adulation! Then, without any further ado, they played the film… it’s the culmination of 15 years of blood, sweat & beer… brilliant & very disturbing. People actually got up & left during the Sharon Tate murder scene (yes, it was THAT good!). Afterwards, there was a short Q&A session, with his annoying, Amazonian photographer monopolizing the session, and a film student getting told to “Shut the f**k up!”, when Jim didn’t like the direction of the question.

We cabbed it in the rain to the after party at a great little bar / music venue called Schuba’s. The band sucked… in fact, they sucked so much that I cannot even recall their name, but I think they were from Seattle. A few Guinness’s & one amaretto stone sour later, we’re at the bar, hanging with the now very drunk Jim, a 24-year-old groupie from Atlanta, a beautiful, petite Russian filmmaker & the editor of a local porn / goth / music mag (who says he’s a huge fan of FT, and frankly, who isn’t?!). It’s a lovely reunion of sorts, and we toast Jim on his success, before heading back out into the rainy Chicago night.

Thursday, 8/19

Tequila is the devil. We had every intention of going into the city to catch a few more films, but ran into some friends of mine, who steered us in the direction of El Jardin Norte. There is something to be said for knowing a friend of the owner of a restaurant & being handed $20 for margaritas! After dining on fine, Mexican cuisine, on a tequila-soaked, warm, sunny afternoon, there was no freakin’ way we were heading down to Lincoln Park. Chris & Eric & the folks at CUFF would just have to understand. Besides, what’s a vacation if you can’t enjoy it & appreciate the way gorgeously slurred Celtic syllables confound your waiter?

Friday, 8/20

After a few hours at the Art Institute & a stroll up Michigan Avenue, we head over to the Three Penny for a few films. The seats in the tiny theatre are very uncomfortable, and my a*s hurts from an earlier fall on the concrete stairs down to the Grant Park parking garage & landing painfully on the edge of a step (I’m now sporting a bruise the size of Florida on my right butt cheek). First up is Peep TV Show, which is a Japanese film, shot on video, documenting a young man & his voyeuristic tendencies. It’s interesting, even though I find the frequent references to 9/11 & the disenfranchised, disassociated characters a little disturbing. Towards the end of the film, I dash off to the bathroom, and then wander back into the theatre. It’s dark, I can’t see Graham, and so I plop down into a seat. There’s another film playing, which I assume is a short at the end of the Japanese film. And it seems like there’s a lot smaller crowd in the theatre. Suddenly, the film ends & I burst out into the lobby. No Graham. Then I go out into the street to find my very frightened & relieved looking companion. He had gotten worried when I didn’t come back from the bathroom after the film ended, so he sent someone in to look for me, but no luck. I guess he panicked when I was quite literally nowhere to be found, and then we laughed as we both realized I had wandered into the WRONG theatre! Classic moment, and we both felt a little pathetic.

Then, after grabbing some beers, we settled in for the next film, a documentary called, “I Was Born, But…”. It had a promising start, with director Roddy Bogawa reminiscing about New York, Joey Ramone & the punk bands of his middle-class youth, but then it took a turn for the worst, as he degenerated into overly long shots of clubs in L.A., old music magazines, his father playing golf & childhood memories of Hawaii. It was a personal journey that was totally self-indulgent and boring. As I was getting increasingly agitated (and itching to re-edit & re-dub the film, and I’ve never even been to film school!), Graham was getting more & more amused. After some particularly bad dialogue, Graham exploded with laughter, and at that point, I yanked him out of his seat & we burst out into the lobby. We walked into the Chicago evening laughing & dissecting the films. I love movies & I have tremendous respect for people like Jim Van Bebber, who are driven to create art at all costs, BUT, I simply cannot stand whiny, pretentious, boring, self-aggrandizing shite, especially when it’s been partially financed by a grant from the very fest it’s debuting at!

Saturday, 8/20

It’s a gorgeous late summer day… Graham & I are not particularly interested in any of the CUFF panels (because nobody does a film fest panel like Chris Gore), or the film lineup today, so we decide to attend one of my company’s events at Arlington Park Race track. Graham has never been to horseraces, so between the free lunch, $15 each in betting money & totally confusing the hell out of my co-workers with his Scottish brogue, we have a blast (and even manage to pick a few good horses & win a bit of $). Never fear, I have 2 free movie passes, so we decide on a quirky indie, Napoleon Dynamite, which is a bit odd, but has some truly geeky, painful moments. It leaves us both comparing it to Todd Solondz’s “Welcome To The Dollhouse”, although unlike Dawn Weiner & her friends & family, these characters are completely unlikable

We meet Ukrainian filmmaker Yelena Nusamovitch for dinner & drinks at the Russian Tea Room, to talk to her about her film “Offski”, which has made its American premiere. Like Jim Van Bebber, Elena has done just about everything from working at a posh Moscow boutique, to nearly becoming a Russian Mafia prostitute to get her film made. Self-described as a ““Semi-autobiographical unimpressionistic demise-en-scene Russki kink-n-kill-filled chilling thrilling educational streetwalker, vodkatalker, digital video kaleidoscope travelogue of the seedy deathdreamy underbelly of the brave new post-Glasnost Russian world”. I know I HAVE to get her to tell me more (see exclusive interview for FT).

Sunday 8/21

It’s Graham’s last day in Chicago, so in order for him to fully experience American, capitalistic, consumerism, we take a trip to Best Buy (and yes, I’ve already exposed him to a huge Target store, which he loved!). There, he buys me the “High School Reunion” 3 DVD set (which includes “The Breakfast Club”, “Sixteen Candles” & “Weird Science”)…it’s a “must-have” for any serious John Hughes fan, and a lovely birthday / “Thanks for being my Chicago tour guide” gift!

Then, we head into Evanston to my favorite, authentic Chicagoland Irish pub, Tommy Nevin’s. The live Irish folk music plays & the Guinness & cider flows, and we rehash our funny memories of the past week. On the way back to the car, we’re approached by a shoeshine guy, who buffs up Graham’s shoes & makes them look better than they did when he bought them a week before! Then we head off into the Chicago sunset, where sadly, he must catch a plane back across the Atlantic. We missed the CUFF Awards Night, but here’s a complete list of winners (thanks to the fest’s Hospitality / Marketing Director, Wendy Solomon)…

Jury Awards

Best Feature: “Certain Women” (Bobby Abate and Peggy Ahwesh)

Best Feature Documentary: “In The Shoes of the Dragon” (Hronn Sveinsdottir and Arni Sveinsson)

Best Short: “The Tooth” (Marcel DeJure)

Best Short Documentary: “Loudmouth Collective/Ugly Duckling Presse” (Joel Schlemowitz)

Best Animation: “The Guilt Trip or the Vaticans Take A Holiday” (Lucy Barcy)

Best Experimental: “Strategic Cyber Defense” (Dara Greenwald)

Goose Island Brewed in Chicago Award: “Bombshell” (Usama Alshaibi)

Audience Award: “Why Should The Devil Have All The Good Music?” (Heather Whinna and Vicki Hunter)

Congrats to all the winners (even though “The Manson Family” was my pick for Audience Award), And, many thanks to CUFF Director Bryan Wendorf, for being such a gracious host, and also to Chris Gore, for allowing “A nut” and “A joy” (Yes, that’s right, together Graham & I make a candy bar!) to cover this year’s fest for Film Threat. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this diary, and just remember, “Bow to your Sensei!”… See you next year in Chicago!

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