Last March indeed came in like a liar and went out like a sham. With the city’s anti-war protests peaking, the New York Underground Film Festival opened with the “bring the war home” invective of the Weather Underground, which went on to Oscar-nomination prominence. This year, as our Skull and Bones presidential candidates prepare to enact their pageant of change, the fest continues to provide indispensable models of outsider insurgency.
The NYUFF’s puckish producers (including Voice regular Ed Halter) know how to provoke. At a moment when most on the left are feeling an acute antipathy for military iconography, they’ve included the wonderful, low-rent A Few Good Dykes. An illumination for anybody who’s ever doubted the sexiness of a shiny boot on the chest, Mocha Jean Herrup’s doc examines the rituals of the Dyke Uniform Corps, an s&m playgroup where tongue-in-cheek fantasy blurs into real-life hierarchy. As we follow fresh “maggots” through boot camp, the gender identity issues of various players emerge: the quandary of identifying as male, the inability of senior officers to engage in satisfying power games, the nagging sartorial problem of the female shape. Also concerned with female sexual transgression is opening night’s Certain Women. Bobby Abate and Peggy Ahwesh’s adaptation of Erskine Caldwell’s 1950s pulp novel is a series of sexualized bad-town vignettes that plays like a no-budget combination of Blue Velvet and Personal Velocity. Adding its two cents to the girl-power conversation, Icelandic doc In the Shoes of the Dragon follows a feisty female hipster’s undercover stint on the beauty pageant circuit. And while tracing the Nuggets-to-new wave history of a quirky Portland three-piece, Unknown Passage: The Dead Moon Story introduces a captivating mommy-rock icon in bassist Toody Cole.
Who needs Mel Gibson’s Cash-In of the Christ when you’ve got the religion-tinged ultraviolence of The Manson Family? In a film that really could double as John Ashcroft’s worst nightmare, druggie horror fave Jim VanBebber weaves kinetic re-creations of ranch life with restaged documentary interviews, framing it all as the research project of a mid-’90s true-crime-show host (who also has his own bloodthirsty punk nihilists to contend with). Swaggering through this multilayered monstrosity as Bobby Beausoleil, VanBebber moves things groovily from free-love romp to creepy-crawly trespass to drug-glazed evisceration. VanBebber’s work is of course heir to the no-budget shock sexploitation of directors like the late Andy Milligan, the semi-closeted and legendarily misanthropic auteur of atrocious costume horror trash-classics like the NYUFF-resurrected Guru, the Mad Monk. Despite Milligan’s clunky dialogue and anachronistic sets, his game casts (often including the captivating Neil Flanagan) load gory gems like these and the must-see 1972 hustler melodrama Fleshpot on 42nd Street (also in the fest) with prankish charm.
If you want scary to the bone, and are willing to submit to extended abstraction, check out either blast from art darling James Fotopoulos. The Nest‘s yuppie couple rotely repeat their morning send-offs in a swampily lit apartment until a violent, sexualized event renders their dubious sanctuary porous to a series of possibly psychosomatic invasions. With even less narrative, Fotopoulos’s electro-buzzing Esophagus morphs from a long period of camera-on-skin formlessness into an ecstatic sex sequence using scratchy scribbles to suggest erotic sparks, then bondage, then mummification. When two bodies take shape, they’re plagued by Cronenbergian growths, and by the time we’re all tossed unceremoniously into a holding cell with writhing replicants, we feel we’ve only ourselves and our own chemistry to blame. A robotically slurred woman’s voice reminds us “Yoour calcium made those hhhorns.”
In addition to the “Patriot Games” sidebar, the main program includes two feature-length flip-offs to G-Dub, both fascinating because of their flaws. We Interrupt This Empire . . . conjures the insider pep-rally thrill of traffic-halting San Francisco war protests, but breaks for oddly remedial explanations of the defense-industrial complex. And This Ain’t No Heartland finds Austrian documentarian Andreas Horvath seeking the conscience of America among regular, if bloated, Midwesterners, but corralling only a few men on the fringe of sanity and some blotto barflies blowing xenophobic hate chunks. If this sample seems skewed, Horvath’s comfort level with it also provides an example of what the rest of the world has come to expect. At a Rotterdam screening, I asked the director why his breadbasket portrait included audio from an extended Southern Pentecostal screed. He replied, “Well, it’s scary, isn’t it?”