Thrills and Chills
Now in its sixth year, the New York Underground Film Festival has taken up residence at the Anthology Film Archives, cradle of American underground filmmaking. Centering the NYUFF's mix of anarchic attitude and distribution- unfriendly flicks around such historic digs might have alchemically elevated this year's slate over a hundred features, docs, and short films that push all the expected right/wrong buttons while also offering much to chew on beyond the rotely outré.
Features can be a weakness of the NYUFF, simply because many really neat ideas tend to get stale and unwatchable by the hour mark, but this year's selection is particularly strong. Paul McGuigan's The Acid House might provide some category confusion for festival regulars, since it's essentially an art houseready low-budget feature. Translating three of Irvine Welsh's short stories to celluloid, Acid House is in the NYUFF ballpark for its loopy focus on excrement, drugs, and bodily transmutations, but far from being an assault on consensus reality, its chemical exuberance is more an indication of how the mainstream has tilted toward the Ecstasy-and-rave set's brand of weird.
Longtime underground experimenter Roddy Bogawa premieres Junk, an overlong but strangely compelling compilation of dim, repetitive images and archly pretentious pronouncements (you'd have to pick up a program to know this is a love story), while Peter Calvin debuts with the similarly underedited yet engaging Sleep, which follows a group of hipster narcoleptics, insomniacs, and sleepwalkers around L.A. The best feature on view, the all-digital Trouble With Perpetual Déjà Vu, follows an underclad, alcoholic young woman through a series of sex and relationship dead ends, while continuing director Todd Verow's explorations of the intimacy and crisp, electric coldness that video lends to tales of pretty, disassociated people.
Among the documentaries, Arthur Bradford's Gladys Nolen's House finds unexpected dignity and pathos in the familiar spectacle of unredeemable dereliction, while I Created Lancelot Link is a cool bit of pop-culture archaeology, director Jeff Krulik (the D.C. public access guru behind Heavy Metal Parking Lot) tracking down the creators of the 1970s live-action Saturday morning kids' show Lancelot Link: Secret Chimp. And just in case you thought the NYUFF's programmers had gone soft, there's always Red, White, and Yellow, in which Mark Littman and Marshall Dostal take a hilarious, mock-serious look at competitive hot dog eating, and Graham Cracker Cream Pie, the third stomach-churning installment in Huck Botko's "I secretly fed my parents shit" video series.
Another perennial NYUFF treat is the endless parade of staccato short films. Jim Trainor serves up The Bats, a serene, line-drawn animal biography, while Tony Nittoli's My Brother Cicero does the animal thing from another angle: a guy takes a hit out on his drug-abusing, leather jacketwearing cat after the cat convinces his owner's girlfriend to "come over and suck my hairy feline nut sack." Between such high-low and low-low highlights, as well as invaluable archival looks at crucial underground filmmakers (see Alfred Leslie sidebar), this is a good NYUFF, full of the unexpected things outsiders can do with movies once they get past their initial but limited urge to give the establishment the finger.
Ghosting the cramped homes of a metallic ghetto outside of Reykjavik, Devil's Island is an off-kilter and conflicted tale about family and change in '50s Iceland. Directed by Fridrik Thor Fridriksson with the same eye for stark landscapes and human quirks he brought to his road movie, Cold Fever, Island ambles about a smaller patch of frozen Icelandic turf, lensing a disappearing world through the cracked glasses of two very different brothers.
Baddi (Baltasar Kormakur) is the loud and indulged son, Danni (Sveinn Geirsson) the sensitive, awkward one. The pair have been left with their cackling grandmother (Sigurveig Jonsdottir) and wise but timid grandfather (Gisli Halldorsson) since their floozy mom married an American soldier and moved to the television-lit pastures of Kansas. After a visit to Mom, Baddi returns with a mouthful of nonsense JD-movie comebacks, a new muscle car, and a severely worsened attitude. Quoting Elvis songs, he quickly degenerates into a beer-swilling couch potato in pompadour, hustling his pliant grandparents for kronur while Danni watches a little shocked from the edges of the frame.
Island is too knowing just to be the tale of a small-town boy ruined by American movies and rock and roll, Fridricksson patiently moving Baddi and the surrounding cast of eccentrics through well-wrought episodic changes. (Danni of course gets to flower while his brother wilts.) Unfortunately, once the director's done complicating Island's basic binaries of family and culture, he settles for a familiar way-north brand of tragicomedy, dragging his helpless characters through increasingly forced turns. Devil's Island's rich vein of deadpan humor makes for a wry visit, but much like Baddi and Danni, no one in the audience would want to linger here very long.
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