Historically a sanctuary for psychotronic splatter and abject grunge, the New York Underground Film Festival kicks off its eighth annual installment with a perversely lavish Cinema-Scope display of rave bliss-outs and love-conquers-all ebullience. In Noam Gonick’s Hey, Happy!, DJ Sabu, who spins at the open-air porn market, resolves to notch up his 2000th sexual conquest before the arrival of a biblical flood, and finds his crowning glory in goofball UFOlogist Happy. Best known for Waiting for Twilight, his doc on anachronous visionary and fellow Winnipegger Guy Maddin, Gonick reimagines his hometown as a lushly radioactive wasteland, thick with an aphrodisiacal air of imminent apocalypse. The tone occasionally skids into camp-by-numbers, but Hey, Happy! works as a giddy marriage of suggestive mise-en-scène and whopping non sequitur.
The festival closes with Cecilia Dougherty’s double-screen video projection, Gone, a reenactment of the legendary Chelsea Hotel/Holly Woodlawn episode of ’70s verité landmark An American Family. In between, the NYUFF offers its customary bulging program of midnight movies, freak shows, and avant oddities (supplemented by Cine-Phonic, the music and performance sidebar), with the return of sexploitation grande dame Doris Wishman as the by-default centerpiece event. With Satan Was a Lady, her first film in two decades, the nearly 80-year-old Wishman picks up exactly where she left off. This scattershot romp, in which a stripper’s blackmail plot cedes to accelerating bloodbath, gets belabored fast, but costar Glyn Styler’s voluptuously crooned, Scott Walker-ish ballads are alone worth admission price.
James Fotopolous, the discovery of last year’s festival, follows the Cronenberg-meets-Akerman body horror of Migrating Forms with Back Against the Wall, another black-and-white excavation of sulfurous psychic muck. An asymmetric diptych set within a sketchily defined sector of the sex industry, it further focuses the 25-year-old Chicago filmmaker’s well-established themes (sexual obsession, decay, redemption) and structural motifs (repetition, ominous-to-oppressive sound design, interpolated reveries). Equally concerned with interior life and similarly resourceful in its use of black-and-white 16mm, Sam Wells’s Wired Angel revisits the Joan of Arc story, undaunted by those who have gone before. As spare as Bresson’s version, and yet as enamored of spectacle as Luc Besson’s, Wells’s gorgeously shot film stages an epic clash between industrial settings and medieval iconography, refining the myth to pure incandescent abstraction.
Perhaps the nuttiest project here is Maldoror, a Super-8 adaptation of Comte de Lautrement’s proto-surrealist bile-ooze, which originated when London’s Exploding Cinema collective and Germany’s Filmgruppe Chaos assigned one chapter each to 15 directors. Only 12 returned, and the resulting omnibus, despite its variegated textures, has a dogged, demented integrity. One of Maldoror‘s best segments is by Jennet Thomas, also represented by a short, Sharony!—as sly and loving an evocation of formative fantasies and rituals as Todd Haynes’s Dottie Gets Spanked. Two girls unearth a plastic baby in their garden and hasten her development by installing her in a porn-wallpapered dollhouse. Commissioned by an English art gallery, Sharony! was subsequently uninvited by a distressed curator. More work deemed unfit for public consumption: Don Hertzfeldt’s abrasively reflexive animated short Rejected passes itself off as a reel of his discards—increasingly nonsensical stick-figure promos that chart the filmmaker’s mounting nihilist despair. (By some fluke, Rejected is up for an Oscar—a first in NYUFF history.)
As usual, the lineup leans on music docs for seedy glamour and subcultural curiosity. Real-life couple Lightning & Thunder steal the show in the tribute-band doc, An Incredible Simulation: He’s Neil Diamond, she’s ABBA (all four at once, presumably). Zev Asher’s What About Me documents the rise of the Nihilist Spasm Band, the 35-year-old Canadian noise ensemble who were whipping up mighty atonal squalls back “when noise was an accusation, not a label.” Jessica Villines’s Plaster Caster is a “cockumentary” about groupie/sculptor Cynthia Plaster Caster, whose collection of phallic casts speaks as much to her decades-long tenaciousness as to the timeless compulsion of male rock stars to literally break the mold.
From Hey, Happy! on down, there’s evidence in this year’s program of a reaction, if not exactly an antidote, to the neutering and mainstreaming of gay indies. Todd Downing’s animated short Jeffrey’s Hollywood Screen Trick is a conceptually honorable (if insufficiently witty) gaysploitation send-up. Ditto Shawn Durr’s aggressively bad-taste Cunanan spoof, Fucked in the Face. The most potent sex-and-death coupling can be found in Bobby Abate’s trilogy of shorts. Capturing images off computer monitors, Abate uses the pixels and pulses as a sensuous formal element: Web-cam hookups, plane-crash footage, streaming gay porn, and the Scream trailers are edited into an alternately soothing and unnerving meditation on digital-age intimacy and rupture.