A roiling omnibus of subcult sprawl and see-what-sticks programming, the 12th New York Underground Film Festival hits puberty still strapped to the notion that cinematic whiplash is its own reward. While there are some formidable shorts—including Jeremy Bailey’s Strongest Man, where the mere act of holding the camera becomes a bout of almost supreme sexualized courage—the features, and particularly the docs, have the edge this year. Asia Argento’s positively respectable opener The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things and Crispin Hellion Glover’s bruising cavalcade of copulation and mental illness What Is It? (the festival closer) handily incarnate the NYUFF’s ever productive schizophrenia.
Heart takes on, with some strain, the JT LeRoy novel—commencing with young Jeremiah (played at two ages here by three boys) plucked from a suburban foster home into the track-marked arms of grungy, fucked-up biological mommy (bruise-eyed Argento). Following three tender years of misfortunes—including his abandonment by her, an anal rape (more alluded to than seen), brief adoption by his mean-grandpa priest (Peter Fonda), and a weird stint as a pint-sized street preacher—Mom finds him again. Argento’s performance is a whirligig, fearless, trying everything on for size: truck stop ‘ho, welfare waitress, stripper, meth addict. As a director, she allegorizes the kidsex with stop-motion birds or (when Jeremiah seduces a boyfriend dully played by a fresh-scrubbed Marilyn Manson) by acting the scene herself. NAMBLA members need not attend, except perhaps to catch elder brother John Robinson’s cheeks plump with blood after Fonda’s whupping.
Argento’s film could have used some of the dreaminess of Spicebush. With great delicacy, Kevin Everson tracks an office furniture shipment northward from Mississippi, unpeeling the pasts, dreams, and souls of four people, all black, who are involved in the trip. Everson mutates the essay-history lesson-observation genre with 17 quizzical chapters that produce an Exquisite Corpse effect both alien and comforting.
The best conventional docs of the fest (whose executive director is Voice contributor Ed Halter), Code 33 and The Birdpeople, both brandish a fine, human-sized detailing. A smart rebuke to true-crime TV flash, Code (from a team including Horns and Halos directors Michael Galinsky and Suki Hawley) is a procedural about a Miami Police Department search for a serial rapist, tracking the life of the crime itself, from 911 call to sketch to arraignment. The loping pace brings out neat stomach-bracing moments, like when the MPD’s sketch artist mocks her America’s Most Wanted hotshot counterpart or, in the coda, a long shot of the Peter Lorre-ish culprit sobbing and blaming the crimes on pills. Michael Gitlin’s mellower Birdpeople is even stronger, a study of ornithologists in which the observers merge indissolubly with their subjects. The film, shot on 16mm, divorces image from sound, creating a flurry of testimonials and readings that place it far above most talking-head docs. Abetted by Gitlin’s ultra-intimate eye, Birdpeople goes beyond the usual issues of human-bird interaction (tagging, nets, pouches, hunting, taxidermy) into profitably weird turf, such as the potent effect one warbler species had on the McCarthy hearings.
Lodged deeper in the whatsit genre than even What Is It? is The Ant Hill, the latest James Fotopoulos thing. (Screened every year since 2001, he is the NYUFF’s Charles Nelson Reilly.) Trading his abject ooze for an almost classical play form, Ant Hill recounts the rise and fall of a messiah. Lensed with a very lo-fi camcorder trained on a less-than-bare-bones set of folding chairs, the movie frames one mulleted man as he evolves from street clothes and monogamy to fakey robe, beard, and harem, with copious interjections of nude, wriggling bodies. It’s as rich with ambition as anything the director has done, with quotational acting, camera and microphone noise mitigations, and odd spurts of animations, but is that enough? Frankly, his films aren’t nearly as fun to watch as to write about or falteringly describe—but if this isn’t sometimes the quintessence of Underground, I don’t know what is.