Though it hardly stints on low-rent thrills, the ninth installment of the New York Underground Film Festival (curated by Voice contributor Ed Halter) counterbalances the usual outsider artistry and midnight-movie fumes with an uncharacteristically sober focus on ethnography. The two outstanding documentaries wouldn’t seem out of place at the Margaret Mead fest.
Cul de Sac: A Suburban War Story hinges on chilling video of Shawn Nelson, an army veteran and unemployed plumber, speeding a stolen tank through the residential streets of Claremont, California, in 1995. Throughout Garrett Scott’s terse, scrupulous film, the footage punctuates a bleak tale of a defense-industry town’s boom and bust—once a Cold War capital of airplane and missile production, the San Diego suburb has decayed into a strip-mall wasteland, dotted with jobless tweak freaks. (Scott traces Claremont’s speed epidemic back to World War II, when the U.S. government kept its Pacific-theater pilots awake with liberal doses of methamphetamine.)
The restless high-schoolers in Standing by Yourself, meanwhile, find their highs in their parents’ pill stashes and the local drugstore’s cough-medicine aisle. Director Josh Koury, himself a teenager at the time, trains a camcorder on the fraying friendship between wry, bookish Adam (Josh’s younger brother) and obnoxious punk poseur Siegfried, a budding racist forever hounding his mother for money. A crystalline curio of dumbshit nihilism shot through with glancing pathos, Koury’s home movie often evokes The Decline of Western Civilization Part III.
Rough-and-ready music documentaries are the Underground’s stock-in-trade. With minimal American Movie-brand snickering, Rolf Belgum’s The Atlas Moth, the sequel to his Whitney Biennial-approved Driver 23, inks the second chapter in an aging Minnesota prog-rock trio’s quest for fame and fortune (and boasts tantalizing clips of their Spinal Tap stagecraft). A stately crew of hip-hop luminaries (Doug E. Fresh, Posdnuos, Biz Markie) assembles for Breath Control: The History of the Human Beat Box. Beautiful Frenzy gives a welcome shout-out to Dutch DIY stalwarts the Ex—the Fugazi of the Low Countries, they had a name and a gig before they had instruments.
The punk-celebrity factor seeps into the features and experimental shorts too. The lead singers of Double Dong (Daniel Brantley and Wilder Selzer, renowned for staging violent lovers’ quarrels and dry-humping between songs) star in Xan Price’s Nitwit, a grating alien-anxiety farrago that blunts their deranged charisma. Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein makes a mute appearance in Miranda July’s eerie, elegiac Getting Stronger Every Day, in which a man’s banal recounting of a horrifying kidnapping case (made famous in the TV movie I Know My First Name Is Steven) renders the story all the more unknowable.
Otherwise populated by saucer-like floating disks and supine, bewildered-seeming girls, July’s short seems to actively resist interpretation. NYUFF perennial James Fotopoulos also moves toward abstraction with the glacial, impressionist Christabel, which distills Coleridge’s unfinished epic ballad into a hypnotic tone poem. (It will be reviewed next week as part of Anthology’s Fotopoulos retro.)
Sticky with subcultural secretions, the festival’s various sideshow tents make room for trailer-park thespians (the romance In Our Garden, performed by fiftysomething residents of a Ventura RV patch), shoestring softcore (Dildo Heaven, by Chesty Morgan’s former collaborator, Doris Wishman), and a weapon of mass destruction outfitted in pageboy and sailor blouse. Upstaged by its title, Nam Ki-woong’s Teenage Hooker Became Killing Machine in DaeHakRoh marries Ms. 45 to the Terminator with intermittently spectacular results. Suffice to say that when the moonfaced re-animator indicates that a scumbag should suck her dick, she’s not just turning a phrase.
Speaking of killing machines, George W. Bush is reimagined as Teletubbies‘ giant baby-in-the-sky for Bryan Boyle’s uproarious short State of the Union; Daddy’s boy makes the same gurgling sounds, though his eyes launch smart bombs at the small, defenseless bunnies who hop around the countryside (one hauntingly devoid of Teletubbies). Dubya plays the phantom menace again in the festival opener, Horns and Halos, which tracks Lower East Side indie publisher Sander Hicks’s efforts to find an audience for Fortunate Son, the Bush biography pulped by St. Martin’s Press after revelations that author J.H. Hatfield had served five years for attempted murder. Directors Suki Hawley and Michael Galinsky fleetingly indicate that the book was just a cut-and-paste hack job, but Hatfield himself is a character worthy of Arthur Miller: a deluded glad-hander, desperately grasping at vindication.
Horns and Halos‘ melancholy final scene transpires on September 9, 2001; the following Tuesday is chronicled by videomakers in the “Six Months Later” program, which comprises experimental shorts, documentary reportage (Lockdowns Up borders on black comedy, illustrating how crime, recession, and Ashcroft-style persecution of immigrants means boom time for prison contractors), and, in First Person 911, amateur videotape of the first 24 hours. There’s nothing in the omnibus First Person you haven’t seen before, over and over again, and yet it’s a raw reminder that September 11 was, in the most perversely literal sense, a spectacle.