This week, the New York Underground Film Festival is holding its 15th—and final—edition. I ran the event for 10 of those years, and it all began with the North American Man-Boy Love Association.
Right after college, while sojourning in San Francisco, I worked on that city’s 1994 lesbian and gay film festival, where I was first introduced to experimentalists like Sadie Benning, George Kuchar, and Matthias Müller. That year, they also screened a documentary about NAMBLA called Chicken Hawk: Men Who Love Boys, a controversial low-budget provocation, seemingly designed to piss people off. Chicken Hawk stared blankly at its subject, sans editorializing. It was, in the parlance of its day, totally in your face.
One of my jobs as programming intern was filing press clippings on each movie, and perusing Chicken Hawk‘s manila folder, I read about the New York Underground Film Festival, which had dared to screen what many were denouncing as a pro-pedophilia film on the opening night of their very first event that previous March, thereby providing this film with a well-stocked stash of Xeroxed news clips. I also read that the festival’s organizers—two flannel-clad lads no older than myself—were the same people distributing the film around the country, along with a program of 16mm shorts culled from the inaugural NYUFF.
I moved to New York later that year, found the phone number for the Underground’s office, and called about being a volunteer for the 1995 festival, held then as now at Anthology Film Archives. I took tickets to great films like Helen Stickler’s profile of Shepard Fairey’s subversive sticker phenomenon, Andre the Giant Has a Posse, and Michael Galinsky and Suki Hawley’s Half-Cocked, a grungy black-and-white feature about a Louisville, Kentucky, faux-punk band on the run from the law. Appearing for his retrospective, John Waters walked past me arm-in-arm with his date, Patricia Hearst. I struck up conversations with the festival directors, Todd Phillips and Andrew Gurland, and they asked me to come on as a programmer.
Two guys in their early twenties starting up a film festival might not seem so interesting today, when new festivals appear every other week. But back then, festivals were much rarer, and there wasn’t anything like this one before; it felt like an old New York punk show in cinematic form, married to a vintage P.T. Barnum–style get-asses-in-seats-by-
any-means-necessary ruthlessness. I remember once a guy at a bar nodding approvingly when I said I worked for the Underground: “I love that thing. You guys always show fucked-up shit.”
And in true punk fashion, the two founders and I grew to hate working with each other. They were busy making documentaries together—one of which, Frat House, would eventually split a Jury Prize at Sundance—yet couldn’t quite disentangle themselves from the festival as it grew. Soon we rearranged things so that they exited and I became director, but for a time still worked for them though an online marketing company they’d started, thereby sharing the office. It wasn’t a pleasant two years. One time, Todd (future director, by the way, of Old School, Road Trip, and the immortal Starsky & Hutch) asked me to bring him a slice of pizza on my way back from lunch. I recall him staring down at the slice, looking at me, and asking: “You didn’t spit on this, did you?” His suspicion was authentic—as well it should have been.
In the very first years, it often felt like we were using the festival to will a phantom subculture into being—conjuring some ridiculous Film Threat–y vision of legions of pissed-off, leather-clad filmmakers, wielding cameras like blunt clubs against the edifice of mainstream mores—if only long enough to get some press, sell some tickets to some crazy films, and create an audience ex nihilo. Long after the founders left, this image lingered; to this day, I’m sure there are people who think the NYUFF never changed from this aesthetic, still frozen in its early-’90s transgressive immaturity like Bart Simpson.
But by the late ’90s, something like a real underground actually did seem to coalesce: a generation of filmmakers who had been nurtured by a growing network of like-minded festivals around North America and the new-model DIY cinematheques known as micro-cinemas. Many of them overlapped with other low-wattage culture-making modes of the day, like indie music or zines, rather than being part of the commercial independent cinema proper. They made experimental films or documentaries or, more often, something that felt like both at the same time: Names like Martha Colburn, Matt McCormick, Miranda July, Bill Brown, Jennet Thomas, Deborah Stratman, James Fotopoulos, Kent Lambert, and Jeff Krulik became notables on this jerry-rigged exhibition circuit.
Which is not to say that willful lunacy no longer had its place in the new NYUFF. In 2000, drunk on our biggest sponsorship yet from a major whiskey company, I subsidized a raw-meat fashion show by Boston filmmaker Luther Price: He created original designs of meat and glitter on models who paraded through CBGB’s 313 Gallery in the middle of the night. The CB’s manager later told me that the back stage stank for weeks with the stench of rotten meat and its concomitant rat fan base.
In 2002, only months after September 11, the gay-hating Kansas minister Fred Phelps and his congregation decided to protest the festival (ostensibly because we rejected a documentary about him), carrying signs saying “THANK GOD FOR 9-11.” This was the same year my mother and sister decided to attend the festival for the first time and became involved in the counterprotest. On videotape from that day, you can see my sister, a tough Massachusetts girl in a Mickey Mouse sweatshirt, screaming, “You shoulda been on those planes!” at Phelps’s crew; my mother had to be escorted away by police after forcing her way through the security barrier trying to get at Fred face to face. “Wow,” a festival staffer remarked to me as we got stoned in a bathroom later, “that was some mom rage!”
As the festival comes to a close, there are other good stories I could tell here: octogenarian sexploitation director Doris Wishman perched outside her screenings, interrogating anyone who left in the middle; a pre-outed JT Leroy phoning our office to ask us to fly out “his sister” for our screening of The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things. But enough of my memories, which are only part of the story. More credit should go to the many others who co-created the NYUFF and have now moved on to other things—especially Andrew Lampert, now the archivist at Anthology Film Archives, who helped shape the programming in its earlier days, and Kendra Gaeta, who oversaw some of the strongest editions—as well as the current directors, who’ve been running it since I left in 2005: Mo Johnston, Kevin McGarry, and Nellie Killian.
Many months ago, the latter three and I discussed having this upcoming festival be the last. It’s not a true ending, exactly; Kevin and Nellie plan to launch another event to replace it next year and continue the mission in some new way. The NYUFF model could still work—at least for staffers who are willing to sacrifice a huge chunk of their year to achieve it. But this means its existence has always, by its nature, been tenuous. I’ve gotten phone calls and e-mails from filmmakers freaking out, unable to comprehend the rationale. It’s a conscious decision: There’s no rent hike to point to, no defunding agency to blame. Ultimately, the Underground, and festivals like it, have only ever been run by two or three people at a time. True to its indie-rock genealogy, the NYUFF has always functioned more like a band than a traditional arts organization—surviving by the seat of its pants, playing on for the thrill of it without a great deal of long-term foresight. A band changes members, alters its style, expands and contracts. Sometimes, a band just decides to call it quits—and hopes to go out in style, while it’s still got the knack.