The 14th annual New York Underground Film Festival raises the question: Um, what’s an underground? You mean like the underground parking at a Williamsburg condo? The Seven boutique on Mercer Street? That time Dash Snow sniffed your American Apparel panties at a MisShapes party you heard about on Gawker? How about the place where they buried New York counterculture?
Chez NYUFF, underground largely means documentaries about marginal people and subcultures, plus works of homage, pastiche, and appropriation. The mainstream popularity of these forms—from Sundance to South Park—doesn’t invalidate the outsider ethos of Random Lunacy: Videos From the Road Less Traveled, a lively documentary portrait of old-school boho Poppa Neutrino and his peripatetic brood, nor the impish kick of I’m Keith Hernandez, a biography of the cokehead baseball legend and one-time porn star done up VH1 style. But the fact that nothing in Borat, Jackass, or the $1.65 billion short-film catalogue known as YouTube would feel out of place in the NYUFF points to a larger question: If the underground is defined not only by economic status but aesthetic opposition to mainstream culture, where are the escape routes in a mainstream culture that instantly commodifies and co-opts?
That’s part of what Lia Gangitano is getting at in “Dead Flowers: Oppositional Culture and Abandonment”—the name says it all—a collage of memoir, quotation, polemic, and resignation first published for the 2006 Whitney Biennial. “While some of us continue (perhaps out of respect) to use such terms as ‘alternative space’ and ‘underground film festival,’ it’s not clear anymore what, exactly, we mean,” she writes in a text that ought to be handed out before every NYUFF screening. Gangitano locates the problem with Viva, the deluxe camp epic that opens the festival: “I’ve learned again and again that the underground does not emulate the past (even its own) . . . the point is to keep moving forward.” So while writer-director-actress Anna Biller’s sexploitation homage may be a groovy feat of retro styling, full of polyester postures and Cheez Whiz yuks, it’s also an imaginative dead-end. Better designed than an episode of That ’70s Show but only marginally more amusing, this ossified exercise is the ne plus ultra of been there, done that.
Steve Staso falls for another mode of nostalgia and nearly escapes its gravity in Celluloid #1, a surprisingly spry update of the 1960s Warhol film. In a Factory-like loft full of mirrors, grime, and assorted flaming creatures, the insufferable auteur Clayton Beaubien (Steve Buckley) stages a conceptual interview with tabloid starlet Caprice Geoffries (Julie Atlas Muz). Eager to promote her role as “white bitch” in a bold new “interracial romantic drama,” Caprice submits to Clayton’s idiot inquisition as Staso’s camera goes random on purpose. Shooting on filthy/gorgeous black-and-white 16mm contributes to the ersatz Warhol vibe while
lending this exercise in super-jaded self-regard a poignant obsolescence. Aptly unfocused, Celluloid #1 doesn’t have much to say about our obsession with “soft celebrity,” but it packs distinct nerve and attitude.
In the appropriation department, Ben Rivers does a nifty cut-and-paste job with monster-movie clichés and slasher-flick scenarios in Terror!, a meta-movie narrative that pokes fun at the horror genre while illuminating its inevitable pleasures and archetypes. A tiresome technique is deployed to heartbreaking effect in Aaron Valdez’s Life and Times of Robert Kennedy Starring Gary Cooper, one of the strongest and simplest NYUFF entries. Archival footage of the doomed politician is overlaid with footage from High Noon—dovetailed phantoms from the history of cinema and the cinema of history.
The ghost of exploitation goddess Doris Wishman pays a final visit to the NYUFF with the world premiere of her final film, completed shortly before her death in 2002. Beyond cheap, Each Time I Kill packs a wealth of DIY drollery in the short, silly story of a geeky girl (Tiffany Paralta) who discovers a magic amulet granting her the ability to steal the features of whomever she murders. Think Strangers With Candy crossed with a straight- to-video dead-teenager flick.
Elsewhere on the program are the latest from alt-cinema stalwarts Jennifer Reeves (Light Work 1), Jem Cohen (NYC Weights & Measures), and Sharon Lockhart (Lunchfilm), plus a new work by art star Paul Chan (Untitled Video on Lynne Stewart and Her Conviction, the Law, and Poetry) and a documentary about the casting of 300 Bulgarian athletes as extras in the Warner Bros. crap spectacular Troy (Battles of Troy by Krassimir Terziev).
None of this may answer the question “What’s an underground?” but given my selective preview of the NYUFF, there may well be “worlds within worlds,” as Gangitano concludes. “It’s knowing where you belong that is more difficult.”