Peter Mullan’s volatile, ultimately cathartic debut feature suggests a combo of Scorsese’s After Hours and Cassavetes’s Husbands transposed to Scotland. On the night before their mother’s funeral, four siblings wander through the dark, crumbling streets and buildings of Glasgow as if they were passages into the depths of their psyches. Mourning makes them crazy; their emotions blast through behavioral restraints and catapult them in unpredictable directions. What makes the movie funny and scary at once is that, given their loss, their extreme reactions have a logic beyond reproach—for them and for us.
Having completed the funeral arrangements for their mother (custom dictates that they each cut a lock of hair and place it in the coffin), the brothers Thomas (Gary Lewis), Michael (Douglas Henshall), and John (Stephen McCole) and their wheelchair-bound sister, Sheila (Rosemarie Stevenson), repair to their local pub. Things quickly get out of hand when Thomas, the eldest, gets up to sing a mournful love ballad in his mother’s honor and is heckled by a bunch of drunks. A fight breaks out and Michael is stabbed in the gut. Instead of going immediately to the hospital, he decides to try to stay alive until morning so he can say he was injured on the job and claim workmen’s comp. John rushes off to find a gun, vowing to kill his brother’s assailant. Thomas retreats with Sheila to the church to keep watch over their mother’s body. As the night deepens, the four become enmeshed in increasingly violent and baroque adventures; when the roof flies off the church during the course of a fierce rainstorm, Orphans turns a corner into a Buñuel-like surrealism.
Mullan handles this treacherous shift in tone and the even more difficult crosscutting among the four story lines as if it were the most natural way to put a film together. Orphans pulls you in as if you were dreaming it yourself, and yet you can sense its allegorical underpinnings. The siblings act out their grief through anger, but that anger seems to have afflicted most of the population of Glasgow as well. It’s the expression of a larger sense of abandonment—the loss of what Mullan has referred to as “Mother socialism,” the welfare state, the economic safety net. The picture Mullan paints of Glasgow is ugly and violent, but the violence is not gratuitous or sexy. It’s the expression of need and pain. And it can be resolved at least in part through the expression of that need. “I want my mummy,” cries the thirtysomething Michael as he faints from blood loss.
An actor himself, Mullan keeps his focus on his marvelous ensemble of actors, all of whom seem as egoless as the film itself. Shot largely at night and on a bare-bones budget, Orphans has a murky beauty that puts to shame the flash of Trainspotting and Shallow Grave, regarded as the cornerstones of the New Scottish Cinema. (Mullan appeared in both.) The film’s finest achievement is its combination of cultural specificity and universal humanism. Everyone knows that it’s hard to lose a mother (even a mother from whom you’re estranged), but few non-Glaswegians will be able to fully understand the dialect. Hence Orphans is being released as an English-language film with subtitles. Be warned, however: The “translation” is not nearly as obscene or hilarious as what comes out of the characters’ mouths.
In the past, the Underground Film Festival has been a haven for midnight movies. True to form, the festival has chosen Paul Morrissey’s 1970 Trash for its preopening gala and Lech Kowalski’s legendary, newly completed Johnny Thunders biopic, Born to Lose, for opening night. (Your experience of talking heads will not be complete until you’ve seen Dee Dee Ramone’s.) Another postpunk attraction is Liquid Sky, Slava Tsukerman’s 1982 Day-Glo, sci-fi evocation of the East Village before gentrification. This revival screening is in honor of the film’s upcoming DVD release.
But festival director Ed Halter has also cast a wider net. Bradley Eros and Brian Frye of Collective Unconscious and Astria Suparak, who runs the Pratt Wednesday-night film series, have curated programs of avant-garde ephemera. Alan Licht has put together a film-and-music evening that includes Kelly Reichardt’s Ode, based on “Ode to Billy Joe.”
What’s really different this year is a group of films that privilege ideas above sensation. Thus, Gordon Eriksen’s The Love Machine is a tawdry-looking mockumentary that raises serious questions about porn, identity, truth, and the Internet. The Video Aktivists’ Untitled #29.95 critiques the art world’s investment in video and liberates tapes that sell for five figures from their false status as unique objects. (Check them out on the Web at rtmark.com.) Untitled #29.95 plays with The Target Shoots First, Christopher Wilcha’s hi-8 video diary about his stint as the resident indie rock specialist at the clueless and very corporate Columbia House music club. Similarly understated in its antagonism toward institutions of power, Reed Paget’s Amerikan Passport is a travel diary that exposes U.S. foreign policy in various hot spots from Cambodia to Moscow to Nicaragua to South Africa. Paget has such a knack for arriving just when there’s trouble (his sight-seeing trip to the Great Wall coincides with the Tiananmen Square massacre) that I began to think he was CIA.
Still, this wouldn’t be the Underground Film Festival if it didn’t have an abundance of body horror and other kinds of subversions. A few hours of running through tapes of short films and videos yielded the observation that the last frontier of disturbing imagery involves children. The act of taping or filming a child suggests an imbalance of power that’s potentially threatening to the child and dangerous for the person holding the camera as well. Miranda July’s haunting Nest of Tens weaves together four stories about power, control, and confrontation. This is easily July’s best piece, a jump up from her more associative and mysterious The Amateurist. July presents Nest of Tens on a program that features “I Saw Bones,” the latest in her series of “Big Miss Moviola” compilation videos, this one curated by Rita Gonzalez.
Although I can’t exactly recommend it as a pleasurable experience, the film that stays with me most vividly is the feature Migrating Forms, by a young Chicago filmmaker, James Fotopoulos. A kind of stripped-down Eraserhead, shot in low-contrast black and white in the style of cheap ’40s porn loops, the film is set inside a single room that looks like the basic set you’d find in an acting class—a table with a chair at either end and a bed. The room is occupied by a stolid-looking guy and his cat and is visited repeatedly by a pudgy woman who strips off her clothes, gets on the bed, and has sex with the man. Sometimes the sex scenes are so softly focused and underexposed you can’t tell what’s going on. At other times, you see more than you would want. The woman has a large hideous growth on her back (rather like the phallic growth in Marilyn Chambers’s armpit in Cronenberg’s Rabid). Soon the man discovers a similar growth on his shoulder. Midway through the film, an exterminator knocks at the door. After that, dead insects and rodents put in an appearance. Inevitably, the corpse of the cat turns up as well. Migrating Forms has a formal purity and obsessive power that’s all too rare these days. It’s not a film you’d ever find at Sundance (Blair Witch is a party by comparison). It alone gives the Underground Film Festival a reason for being.