Over seven changeling days in March, during which the bombings of four commuter trains in Madrid left hundreds dead or wounded and sealed the electoral overthrow of Spain’s ruling party a mere three days later, the New York Underground Film Festival (NYUFF) launched its 11th annual edition from the ramparts of the venerable Anthology Film Archives in Manhattan’s East Village. News of the atrocity in Madrid tinctured New York City’s quickening climate with fresh apprehension, lending an eerily resonant backdrop to a Festival bristling with paranoid theses, apocalyptic visions and defiant gestures – occasionally all in the same film. Yet the abrupt political reset of the Bush administration’s Iraq-war ally also kindled hopes for a clean sweep at the polls here in November. A moment in the NYUFF premiere of Esophagus (James Fotopoulos, 2004) nailed the Festival’s uneasy zeitgeist: while peering into a holding cell of nameless captives, each deformed by some mutation like horns or a hideously fanged snout, an invisible banshee intones, “I wouldn’t look out that window… You’ll go insane with hope”.
Within the NYUFF organisation itself, this year’s big news was another regime change, albeit a considerably more modest one. As of the 11th edition, longstanding director and highly regarded film critic Ed Halter, with whom the Festival is intimately identified, shifted into the new role of Executive Producer, passing the director’s baton to subcultural luminary Kendra Gaeta, whose sprightly charm belies a febrile intelligence and keen aesthetic sensibility. The well-balanced 2004 programme largely consolidated NYUFF’s established strengths in experimental, documentary, exploitation, mondo and otherwise “underground” programming rather than chart any altogether new horizons, thus it remains to be seen how Gaeta will stamp her signature on the Festival. But in a particularly neat bit of cross-promotion, Gaeta was extolled in the sex column of the same week’s issue of The Village Voice, a Festival sponsor, for her article on hand-job technique in the new straight women’s porn ‘zine Sweet Action – just the kind of frolicsome gal about town the legions of NYUFF fans can rally behind.
Following the Bush regime’s illegitimate ascendance four years ago, NYUFF has increasingly steered its programming in overtly political directions. Between 2003’s opening night succès d’estime, the Oscar-nominated and Whitney Biennial-anointed documentary The Weather Underground (Sam Green and Bill Siegel, 2003), and the pointedly anti-imperialist selections in its latest edition, NYUFF aspires to the cinematic vanguard of a broad cultural front in the protracted election-year struggle to bring down the Bush doomsday juggernaut. Already girded for the Republican National Convention landing here in August, New Yorkers have begun a sustained opposition waged with the particular fierceness that one would expect. For example, NYUFF’s opening night overlapped with a town hall forum with family members of Guantánamo’s Camp Delta detainees, and within a fortnight of the Festival alone, a small sample of antiwar, pro-democracy happenings included the annual Socialist Scholars Conference, a mass rally and march on the one-year anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, a planning session for the World Tribunal on Iraq, and an evening of “Downtown for Democracy” – public readings with such figures as Susan Sontag, Paul Auster and Lou Reed. With a robust slate of programs from the shorts collection “Patriot Games” to the raucous agitprop We Interrupt This Empire (Christian Bruno et al. for Video Activist Network, 2003), and even offering voter registration to slackerish Festival attendees, NYUFF made valuable contributions to the general political ferment.
Each year NYUFF updates its visual identity, basing the design of its catalogue, website, merchandise and even tickets around a punchy central motif that also reflects the Festival’s thematic concerns. This year’s design, a whimsical coat-of-arms notion incorporating flaming swords, garlanded shields and unfurling scrolls, cast NYUFF as chivalrous, knight-errant defenders of the maverick democratic spirit. Yet this iconography also provided clues to another dominant thematic discernible in the Festival, although one perhaps not as readily apparent as the antiwar sentiment. This is a pronounced neo-expressionist or Gothic impulse that unified the Festival programming from opening night, with the Southern Gothic adaptation Certain Women (Peggy Ahwesh and Bobby Abate, 2004), to closing, with the Robert Beck Memorial Cinema’s séance-like, omnibus program “Hex”. This impulse could also be seen in the lysergic phantasmagoria of The Manson Family (Jim VanBebber, 2003) or even a short selection like the gruesome Proposal for New Video Transition: “Holes” (Seth Price, 2003) and the supernatural-tinged 9 Is a Secret (Vanessa Renwick, 2003), which lodge in the imagination far more potently than all the glitzy, hyperreal effects in the studio remake of Dawn of the Dead (Zack Snyder, 2004), which opened theatrically less than a week after NYUFF’s closing night. With the sceptre’d Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (Peter Jackson, 2003) vanquishing the competition and the dreaded Dogville (Lars von Trier, 2003) snarling at our ankles, NYUFF would indeed seem to be but one arena in which a far-reaching Gothic revival is mediated through cultural encounters with the weird, the grotesque, the uncanny and the sublime. Apropos the historical avant-garde, this thematic also taps the wellspring of “magick” that provisioned underground forefather Kenneth Anger’s canonical Fireworks (1947) and Scorpio Rising (1963) with their unexampled power. These two dominant thematics, of chivalrous rebellion and Gothic neo-expressionism, braided together through the Festival like a double helix, giving the entire programme remarkable cohesion and consistency.
NYUFF’s triumphant opening night feature, Certain Women, adapted from a 1957 novel by the neglected American pulp author Erskine Caldwell, happened to integrate both of these thematics, engaging an oppositional feminist consciousness through the vehicle of a Gothic potboiler. Still dewy from its unveiling at this year’s Rotterdam International Film Festival, Certain Women was on the face of it a curiously downbeat opening night film, but made for a lively premiere just the same thanks to the assembled glittering retinues of its large cast packing the first of NYUFF’s many sold-out shows. Tough, colourful and hugely atmospheric, this feel-bad fiesta starts with violent homicide and spirals implacably downward from there. Young Clementine (Wendi Weger) is jolted awake by a gunshot in the night, and fearfully encircles her home to discover a primal scene – her mother’s body on the floor of their porch, inexplicably slain by her father, who looms above her cradling the rifle. She flees barefoot and wailing into the night, and survives by seeking refuge at the local brothel, eventually to become an accomplished dominatrix and the ranking whore. The other protagonists hardly fare better. Louellen (Martina Meijer), in the full bloom of her adolescent sexuality, yearns for romantic deliverance, only to be seduced and discarded by a travelling salesman. Dodging an abusive father, Hilda (Jessica Watson) tries to assert her economic autonomy, but is defamed by the mayor, whose advances she rejects. And piteous, cowering Nannette (Phoebe Reilly), afraid of everything and alien to herself, is brutally violated and permanently maimed. Certain Women distils the schematic conception of its source material into an old-fashioned spectacle of women’s suffering that, paradoxically, enables a complex, authentically female subjectivity while raising troubling questions for contemporary feminism. The film’s despairing representation of mothers, for instance, suggests a vast, abysmal rupture, with Clementine, Nannette and Hilda orphaned by maternal death or abandonment, and Louellen straining under the watchful eye of a mother who inadvertently colludes with the patriarchal order.
All evidence points to a remarkably sympathetic collaboration between Ahwesh and Abate, resulting in a seamless fusion of their individual styles. Both directors have explored similar terrain before – Ahwesh with the gothica rustica of Nocturne (1998) and Abate with the horny teen hijinks of Chisolm (2000) – but their obvious affinity with the source novel, to which they secured the rights with the approval of Caldwell’s widow, and from which they draw most of the dialogue, has endowed them with a new impetus. The self-financed project was shot on a weekend schedule over a year’s time in the towns of Hudson and Tivoli, New York (home to Bard College, where both Ahwesh and Abate teach), utilising low-end video formats such as VHS, spycam and DV; the spycam in particular gives much of Certain Women an overripe, cross-processed sheen and lyrical distortion. Certain Women‘s aesthetic strategy depends crucially on a modernist, self-referential performative mode that can be fiendishly hard to pull off, but which the filmmakers achieve here surpassingly well. The capacious cast is filled with Ahwesh and Abate’s friends and colleagues from New York’s film/art/performance worlds, or what their own website describes as “non-professionals chosen … for their unique personalities, stock character looks and on-screen magnetism”, including fellow experimental filmmakers Peter Hutton, Jeanne Liotta, Joe Gibbons, and memorably, Michelle Handelman. This device is of course one of the most durable in the American avant-garde cinema, routinely associated with Warhol and his superstars but running all the way from Maya Deren’s self-mythologising right through Cecilia Dougherty’s recent video masterpiece Gone (2001). Far more knowing than their characters, Certain Women‘s performers stand outside their roles and “quote” dialogue or adopt an opaque behaviourism. This third-person approach, combined with the supplementary connotation of the actors’ real-life personae, produces a disjunction integral to both the film’s gender critique and its perspective on the past. Carrying the heaviest burden as the eponymous women, the four leads deliver spanking performances. Wendi Weger is exquisitely modulated, lightly wearing her shopworn angel’s glamour; Martina Meijer radiates a plaintive, vulnerable sensuality; and in the film’s most unambiguously feminist stance, Jessica Watson locates the determination within her character’s prim shell. Even the somewhat discordant Phoebe Reilly transforms Nannette’s mute abjection into a vivid symptom of engulfing, uncontrollable hysteria.
As the fullest statement of NYUFF’s oppositional agenda, the excellent shorts program “Patriot Games” warrants a closer look. The tone of genial outrage was set by Brian Boyce’s 30 Seconds Hate (2003), which phases a Fox News clip of Henry Kissinger to fracture the war criminal’s telegenic veneer and humorously magnify his inner evil. Christina Battle’s Oil Wells: Sturgeon Road & 97th Street (2003) hand-manipulates 16mm footage of oil fields on the Canadian prairies, simultaneously managing to recall Cécile Fontaine’s delicacy of emulsion-layering technique, pay visual homage to Pat O’Neill’s early 7362 (1967), and evoke with marvellous understatement the grand prize at the heart of the imperialist resource wars. The collaborative video One Nation Under Tommy (Roger Beebe et al., 2003) seizes a hapless Tommy Hilfiger commercial as the template for a game of deconstruction: a group of commissioned artists took turns remaking the spot, each basing their own version not on the original but on the preceding player’s version. The resulting variations on hoary visual tropes of bucolic Americana and compulsory heterosexuality are episodically witty but rather too genteel; only the last segment, an animation by Chris Jolly, crackles off the screen with his trademark energy. Among several works in “Patriot Games” partially or wholly comprised of found (or liberated) elements, Dara Greenwald’s Strategic Cyber Defense (2003) skewers an implausibly camp Defense Department training video to deflate the Pentagon’s chronically code-orange bunker mentality. The program’s ace in the hole, however, was Jim Finn’s Decision 80 (2003), a time capsule transporting us back to Ronald Reagan’s baleful 1980 victory and the sweeping hard-right retrenchment that followed, continuing to this day. Compressing starkly unembellished archival newscasts into a terrifyingly lucid rear-view mirror, Decision 80 was the Festival’s most ominous reminder of what’s at stake in the coming elections.
Like many festivals with distinctive artistic profiles, NYUFF has cultivated a stable of artists and curators. Of this illustrious company, none is more singular of vision or symbiotically linked with the Festival itself than James Fotopoulos, the 28-year-old auteur whose Chicago atelier, Fantasma Inc., stands like a roiling pyre of Gothic sensibility against the wholesome, manicured pastures of the American midwest. An instant sensation upon his debut with Migrating Forms (2000), Fotopoulos’ early features helped to consolidate NYUFF’s standing as a venue for the discovery of artistically distinguished, radically new talent, and in turn the Festival’s deft positioning of Fotopoulos as visionary-in-residence has facilitated the young director’s critical reception, institutional prominence and economic prospects, with a 2002 mini-retrospective tour preceding the 2003 DVD/home video release of the features Migrating Forms, Back Against the Wall (2001) and Zero (1997) from Chicago confrères Facets Multimedia. Coinciding exactly with the opening of the 2004 Whitney Biennial, in which Fotopoulos is participating with two NYUFF-premiered films, Families (2002) and Christabel (2001), the torrentially prolific auteur was also represented in NYUFF with two new features, The Nest (2003) and the world premiere of Esophagus (2004).
A procession of largely abstract movements punctuated with desultory fragments of barely-grasped narrative and coursing with an undertow of pathology, Esophagus shifts forcefully between film and video formats and stays lashed together with a hypnotically aggressive sound design. Emerging slowly from a primal aurora, spectral pneuma-beings resolve into orgiastic anthropoi whose writhing bodies are barnacled with terrible lesions and enveloped by flares scratched directly onto the film emulsion. The subsequent passage of glistening, obsidian eels hints at a profane miscegenation before abruptly switching to a barren, severely lit cell containing the aforementioned mutant inmates, who in turn give way to Fotopoulos’ rendition of a screen family. An expressionistically kohl-eyed harpy, her scarfaced beau and a waif sporting pointy Vulcan ears mime a catatonic kitchen sink drama while on the soundtrack they, or possibly other characters, trade gnomic utterances such as, “When the sun shines, I want to commit suicide”. Another jarring cut hurls us across a sphere of seething Martian-red magma, as an arpeggiated rotor drills new holes in your brain, before finally returning to the sallow, palpitating aurora from which the film began. What does it all add up to? The NYUFF programme guide breathlessly describes Esophagus as a work of “cosmogenic scope” essaying nothing less than “global evolution with the mythic structure of Brakhage’s Dog Star Man (1961–64)”. This is, you might say, a heavy trip to lay on anyone, but it is to Fotopoulos’ considerable credit that Esophagus sustains this among other possible interpretations.
Some ten years in the pipeline, Jim VanBebber’s The Manson Family (2003) nevertheless appeared as the most unbidden of all the carnivorous fleurs du mal in NYUFF’s Gothic greenhouse. But in fact The Manson Family‘s scrupulous evocation of that epochal summer in 1969 – encompassing the Apollo moon landing, Woodstock and of course Vietnam – is right on time in 2004, when the U.S. is ruthlessly prosecuting another imperialist war and its president wants to send someone to walk on the moon, again. Adroitly transforming the ellipses of an exceedingly drawn-out production into cohesive narrative layering, The Manson Family skilfully wraps its historical drama with the framing device of a present-day TV journalist producing a Manson exposé, who is himself stalked by a 21st-century band of Charlie’s children, looking endearingly like they might have snuck away from a nearby Penelope Spheeris shoot. VanBebber brilliantly marshals Hollywood-style production values to reenact Manson’s infernal death trip, the very antithesis of Hollywood pleasure; for example, the film benefits immeasurably from suave, period-flavoured cinematography by Michael King, who also co-produced. And in contrast to Certain Women‘s detached, quotational performance mode, The Manson Family‘s unfamiliar but totally convincing cast uses psychological-realist acting to lure the viewer inside the paranoid, acid-ripped minds of Manson’s disciples, drawing sterling performances by Marcelo Games as Manson, Leslie Orr and Maureen Allisse as Satan’s cheerleaders Patty Krenwinkel and Sadie Atkins, and from VanBebber himself as the narcissistic, inwardly weak Bobby Beausoleil, seen both in the Family’s bosom on their L.A. ranch, and in the framing documentary, serving a life sentence for murder.
The ridiculous abundance of programs poured into too few days sowed the usual festival minefield of scheduling conflicts, but surely the hardest choice was between the two concluding shows, the “official” closing night premiere of underground stalwart Roddy Bogawa’s autobiographical feature I Was Born, But… (2004) scheduled concurrently with the unofficial closer, the Robert Beck Memorial Cinema’s one-time-only, collaborative presentation “Hex”. Epitomising the sui generis, exploding cinema events at which NYUFF excels, “Hex” rang the Festival out with a spectacular psychedelic flourish. To consecrate their sixth anniversary, the six current members of the Lower East Side microcinema collective performed an occult hexagram, each member contributing one film of their own making and selecting another work by a different artist, to construct the six planes. Presiding magus and Robert Beck co-founder Bradley Eros decided the final form of the hexagram (i.e., the screening sequence) on the spot, and this surrealistically “chance” casting of the runes revealed a fugitive inner logic, as the works flowed together with disarming grace. Although the program was all of a piece, some individual contributions stood out, particularly Joel Schlemowitz’s plangent, gel-tinted Forest at Night (2004) and Glen Fogel’s juddering video Release System (2003); their respective selections, Riderless (Sherri Wills, 2002) and Night Train (Guy Sherwin, 1979), were also exceptional. Meanwhile, Marianne Shaneen implied a magick lineage via her sampling of Max Reinhardt’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935), in which Kenneth Anger claims to have appeared as a child. After Eros made a burnt offering – setting a Super-8 reel aflame while running through the projector, and momentarily decanting a foul incense through Anthology’s auditorium – “Hex” culminated in a swirling, improvised, multiple-projection jam. As Fogel’s video loop of an ethereal shoreline laid down a steady raga, Marie Losier unspooled an entrancing moth film, Schlemowitz hand-manipulated kaleidoscopic funnels, Eros and Shaneen layered on slides, and Ghen Zando-Dennis spun an impressive live sound mix, finally unwinding to a shivery diminuendo. The total effect was suitably spellbinding and oddly stirring. Exiting into the New York night, the audience reluctantly let the spell dissipate against the crisp late-winter breeze, wanting to savour it a moment longer, ineffably glad to have joined in such a rare experience and emboldened by our renewed capacity for wonder.