It’s no surprise that the third annual Melbourne Underground Film Festival (MUFF) embraced sex and themed this year’s Festival “sexuality”. Sex has become synonymous with the underground, a cliché in itself. I don’t deny that mainstream culture holds a narrow-minded and hypocritical position in relation to sex and that adopting a liberated position is one way of challenging repressive mainstream attitudes. But I am concerned that such a theme comes across as uninspired since it perpetuates the stereotype: sex = the underground, the alternative. If MUFF wants to see itself as a progressive and dynamic film festival then it should be more imaginative in order to break out of these generic moulds.
Festival director, Richard Wolstencroft’s opening statement in the MUFF program argues for an alternative way of thinking by getting philosophical. Informed by the writings of Martin Heidegger, Wolstencroft calls this alternative, “the third way”. According to Wolstencroft, this third way is not the Left or the Right and neither is it democracy in its present form. Although his discussion is quite general and I may have misunderstood what he in fact intended, I found his description of the Left as being “Christianity in disguise” offensive. Even though similarities can be drawn between the two, such as a humanitarian attitude, the ideas of the revolutionary Left are definitely not dogmatic as is Christianity. Wolstencroft describes the Right as containing “power, decisiveness and responsibility”. But the Left can also be described as this. The ideas and theories that inform the revolutionary Left are not mere observations or thoughts on society and culture, but also calls to action. Thus ideas and action go hand in hand. The mere discussion of Leftist politics/ideas is utterly useless without concrete references to action against power structures that maintain Capitalism. From this we can see that “power, decisiveness and responsibility” also applies to the Left and I would also like to add leadership – leadership not in the individual sense, but in the collective sense.
Wolstencroft’s discussion of “the third way” makes several references to Right wing ideas, and several people mentioned its allusions to fascist ideology. However, I didn’t see this “third way” quite so problematically as it seemed that Wolstencroft was merely offering an alternative way of thinking as opposed to the usual dichotomies of Left and Right. He is perhaps suggesting a more all encompassing, multifaceted approach rather than a simplification or a narrow way of thought associated with an adherence to binary opposites.
Why all this philosophical musing? Well Richard’s the one who started it in his director’s statement!
Seriously, although Wolstencroft’s valid personal address attempts to offer an alternative way of thinking for an alternative film festival, the sense of intellectual elitism in his general philosophical chit-chat parallels the feeling of alienation one gets from a larger more commercial film festival. And the reason why I felt that it was necessary to contribute to Wolstencroft’s discussion was to try to present the ideological context in which the films at MUFF3 were being presented.
Criticised for its lack of experimental films and its pre-occupation with trashy exploitation cinema, MUFF from its very inception has faced various charges to its use of the term “underground”. Wolstencroft defines “underground” as “an attitude, an independence – sometimes within, sometimes outside the system, a rebellion against ‘the they’ and their norms, an iconoclastic spirit and energy. It can be conservative, as well as revolutionary” (Director’s statement, MUFF3 program). This is his definition of the term, but it’s fine by me. It’s inevitable that people will adopt criticisms that argue the misuse of certain words and terms, but such critiques are unconstructive. So rather than filling up this report with tiresome explanations into what falls under the category of “underground” in a film festival, we should allow for flexibility and not limit ourselves to categories. Although it would be good to see more ‘experimental’ films at MUFF, another category that is just as broad as the term ‘underground’, and given this, some films at MUFF3 can be called ‘experimental’, the intentions of MUFF to screen under-represented, independent or marginal films, have proven good. This can be seen, superficially, by the relatively small attendance at some screenings. This may be the result of weak publicity, but also reflects the fact that these films are “underground” in the sense that they do not appeal to popular tastes and thus will only garner a small population of filmgoers. And rather than complain about the lack of what MUFF3 should have screened, lets discuss what they have screened.
MUFF3 officially ran from 11-21 July, however, technically it began earlier, on July 7 under the ‘guise’ of Mini MUFF.
Mini MUFF consisted of a variety of short films most of which were screened at local bar/lounge, Revolver. Some of the local shorts have already screened at other short film screening venues around Melbourne, but it was still good to see them within a festival context, and especially with a bar in close vicinity, which added a low-key, casual and festive mood to the proceedings.
A couple of my favourite films from Mini MUFF were Blue Haven (Julian Cautherley) and Joystick (Steve Hall). The former plays with the gangster genre, combining it with trans-sexuality and skate culture. Joystick has an ’80s vibe and makes references to low production porn films in its style of dubbing. The Atari inspired soundtrack that runs throughout also adds to this nostalgia.
Another film from this program was My Happiness (Cassandra Tytler), a dedication to Elvis. It deconstructs this popular icon by presenting a montage of visual and sound loops from various Elvis songs and performances. My Happiness displays the degeneration of an individual whose gluttony is often ignored.
Opening Night, Australian retrospective
The opening night film was Porn Star: The Legend of Ron Jeremy (Scott J. Gill, 2001). It was also the Australian premiere of the film and a fitting opening for this year’s sexuality themed MUFF. It was certainly in stark contrast to the Ken G. Hall retrospective. Part of MUFF’s “retrospective of Australian cult cinema”, I was a little puzzled as to why Hall was featured. Justified in the program as being a distant relative of Wolstencroft and “having the MUFF spirit”, Hall’s films are nevertheless boring! Mr. Chedworth Steps Out (1939) is a film that deals with themes of materialism and social climbing when an ordinary family man gets sacked. Although Hall falls into Wolstencroft’s broad definition of “underground” and can be considered an example of how subversion can assume many forms, I’m sure no one would’ve missed the exclusion of this retro. Perhaps MUFF needed more Australian retrospectives to obtain greater funding?
A guest programmer at this year’s Festival, Sargeant came to Melbourne a couple of years ago for his “Cinema of Transgression Tour” – a collection of films from the New York underground by the likes of Lydia Lunch, Nick Zedd et al. These films, like his selection at this year’s MUFF, are fine examples of DIY filmmaking and the energy and crudeness that exemplify its spirit. They show that anybody with a genuine desire to make films can work around ‘problems’ like a limited budget.
Sargeant introduced program 2 – a selection of video works from the Chicago underground. Meatfucker (Shawn Durr, 1999) deals with sexual repression and the double standards society holds towards sex. Consumer culture commodifies and objectifies bodies to such an extent that “other” expressions of sex and sexuality are repressed, sterilised and domesticated, considered taboo. A quote from the authoritarian mother who hangs Partridge family pictures around the house illustrates this point, “I don’t care what you do, just don’t do it in front of me”. Meatfucker was similar to Fucked in the Face (Shawn Durr, 2000), another film from the program, in the sense that both were responses to conventional society’s promotion of sex as a matter of sterility and cleanliness. Both films make creative use of vomit, blood and condiments like barbecue and tomato sauce to explore matters of sex, sexuality and the body. Food, sex, death and bodily excretion are all associated with the body, its expressions and pleasures. The use of the abject body in both Meatfucker and Fucked in the Face reveal the body in its extremes; extremes that challenge the safe and standardised representation of sex and the body in consumer culture. And so attempts to ‘control’ the body and deny such states of extremity can be seen to serve the wider purpose of maintaining social order and control. We will see that many of the films shown at MUFF3 deal with this theme of social control.
In addition, Fucked in the Face also reveals a complex representation of homosexuality. It shows that the term “homosexuality” is a simplification of a diverse sexuality and does not encompass or represent a unified homosexual community. This is evidenced from the antagonism between gay and lesbians when a threesome of lesbians aggressively victimise all men, straight and gay. Their aggression also disposes of the popular myth that lesbianism is a gentle and unthreatening sexuality.
The grossness associated with sex in Meatfucker and Fucked in the Face can be contrasted to Ass (Usama Alshaibi, 2001). In Ass, sexual pleasure is achieved individually with no negative consequences. Sex is also presented as fun in the ‘plushophillic’ Beanie Barbie Gang Bang (Artvamp, 2001) and as explorative with Plugged In. The rapid editing of Ass compels the spectator to look while simultaneously hindering the chance to scan and objectify the image. The role of the spectator as anonymous voyeur is challenged as the volume of the woman’s groan in Ass gets louder. Its extreme volume makes the spectator conscious of his/her gaze and so the sexual act on display is seen as the protagonist’s pleasure, not the spectator’s.
Thundercrack! (Curt McDowell, 1975) is one of my favourites from the Sargeant program. Described as a “porno melodrama horror”, this film is directed by George Kuchar protégé, Curt McDowell. Unfortunately the video copy was really bad and the sound had to be turned up. The sound quality was so poor that the increase in volume amplified the muffle and distortion of the soundtrack. But it was tolerable, just! Besides, this maintains the spirit of DIY cinema when more often than not, anything goes and one has to make do with what one has
Thundercrack! concerns itself with a group of people who are stranded in a house on a hill. The house is inhabited by a woman who keeps her dead husband’s organs preserved in pickle jars and has her son locked up in a dark room because of his gargantuan testicles. Her visitors are no less strange, one man is in love with a circus gorilla that later appears at the house in a wedding dress to consummate their marriage. All the characters are very horny and so a lot of exploratative sex occurs. The inclusion of the sex scenes in the film are also interesting because they are literally incorporated into the narrative as the characters, involved in the sexual act or not, continue to keep dialogue happening. Frequently other characters will walk into a session and strike up a conversation, usually unrelated to the sex that’s going on. Consequently, the sex scenes as not presented as the main feature of the narrative as is the case in other films that contain explicit sex. Thundercrack! treats sex as casual and free, and is not used as a tool for submission or blackmail usually seen in other conventional narratives. It also has to be seen for its five-minute intermission, which is a looped sequence of a person vomiting continuously. At first it’s quite shocking to watch, but as it’s repeated over and over it allows for desensitisation and becomes quite amusing.
Suffice to say, some audiences will dismiss these films on the basis that they offer nothing more than shock value. Yet that’s precisely it – shock value is good value. They are far more interesting films in that they offer alternative representations instead of reinforcing narrow-minded conventional norms as many multiplex films do. If they only go so far as shocking some people, then at the very least they’ve succeeded. By shocking people and taking things to their limits, the boundaries of our social norms are exposed and we see clearly how these unwritten rules govern our behaviour and in turn how we relate to one another.
Conveniently timed, MUFF’s Farocki screenings almost coincided with Senses of Cinema‘s own Harun Farocki spotlight. The Creators of the Shopping Worlds (2001) is a documentary about shopping centre design and dispels the “the consumer is free to choose” myth. Within these edifices of consumerism, which can be seen as a microcosm of post-industrialist consumer society, every detail of the shopping mall environment has been controlled. From virtual reality to models on how people look at products on a shelf to algorithms based on Darwinian evolutionary theory, almost every aspect of the shopping mall experience attempts to control and manipulate the consumer. But it doesn’t end there: one architect suggests that streets surrounding a mall should be designed so as to draw traffic into it. Farocki documents numerous tiresome discussions at board meetings on proposed designs for malls including a design that incorporates a “Miami-Vice” theme.
The Interview (1997) documents endless discussions and seminars on how to sell yourself at job interviews. These discussions are repetitive and eventually become quite tiresome. The same kind of response is evoked by Shopping Worlds, both of which reveal through tiresome repetition the intricacies of social manipulation and control. In the case of The Interview, it is the creation of the ideal worker. The tediousness and minute attention to detail inherent in these processes is illustrated in a mock interview where an interviewee is criticised for having a small crease in a piece of paper she is holding. We watch people attend “interview technique” classes where they are video-taped during mock interviews and the recordings are used to scrutinise their performance. The Interview also reveals the performative nature of social interaction as we notice the difference in behaviour from a person playing the role of the interviewee and then later as “her/himself”.
I also managed to see Workers Leaving the Factory (1995) but missed out on the other three that were screened: One Day in the Life of the Ultimate Consumers (1993), I Thought I was Seeing Convicts (2000) and Eye/Machine (2001).
Borowczyk’s early films were Eastern European inspired animations. He later went on to make live action films, three of which were screened at MUFF3.
Goto: Island of Love (1968) is Borowczyk’s first live action feature. Shot in black and white except for the brief close-up grabs of objects that appear in the scene. This technique is curious as the colour of these images contrast with the predominantly black and white film. The inclusion of such a technique forces the spectator to find that object in the subsequent scene. This nuance also encourages the spectator to scan and appreciate the whole film image rather than just character movement in relation to the narrative. On the other hand, the long silences in some takes tend to foreground character movement and behaviour. Given the silence, the spectator is not directed to look at a particular movement or action and so he/she is given more freedom to admire and appreciate the filmic image as they wish.
Blanche (1971), for me, possessed a feeling of distance, which I felt was most likely due to the period in which the film is set, 13th Century France, where King’s, knights and monks negotiate their commitments of honour and loyalty within a context of strong religious ritual.
The costumes that Blanche (played by Ligia Branice, Borowczyk’s wife) wears are also worth a mention and there’s one particular grey number with a headpiece that frames and accentuates her facial features. Blanche is obsessed, and fought over, by the stepson, husband, the King and the King’s page. The notion of Blanche as an object of desire is furthered as she rarely speaks while the men fight to possess her. The position of powerlessness Blanche is subjected to can be attributed to the feudal state where social structure is strongly informed by religious beliefs.
The Beast (1975) is probably one of Borowczyk’s better known works. Usually (and easily) dismissed as “porn”, it has nevertheless garnered some critical attention (see, for example, Kerri Sharp’s article on the film.
Though I haven’t seen any of Borowczyk’s later works, reportedly of the “sexploitation” genre, from what I heard most of them can be sourced in erotica sections of Italian video stores in Melbourne. However, Borowczyk as artist and filmmaker still attracts attention and retrospectives can be seen popping up around the globe now and then.
There is also a forthcoming publication on Borowczyk, entitled Heroines of Desire, by Scott Murray. Also check out the Mondo Erotico site for updates on Borowczyk.
Closing night film was the much anticipated, Dario Argento’s Sleepless (2001), which, for me, was rather mediocre – neither bad nor great. It contained all the conventions of the thriller/horror genre Argento is renowned for, but at moments I found it tiresome. Although it isn’t an interesting variation of the genre, the Goblin soundtrack, turned up loud, is well rocking and the murders are sublimely gruesome. But overall I found Sleepless ordinary, even a textbook thriller/horror. I find thrillers very manipulative and without their complex plots they can be merely a series of gruesome murders whose killers are either someone’s brother or the pet budgie.
Not to Mention…
A program called “8mm Magic”. These were early Super 8 films by Mark Savage (Sensitive New Age Killer, 2001), Colin Savage and Richard Wolstencroft. Described as Australia’s own cinema of transgression, it was certainly not quite Nick Zedd or Richard Kern material. These films were made when they were in their early to late teens. So the films came across looking like a bunch of kids having fun rather than transgressive cinema. But this shouldn’t undermine the validity and seriousness of these films. The filmmakers’ prolific output and collaborative efforts indicate a passion for filmmaking that adheres to the spirit of DIY cinema. However, I couldn’t help feeling this program was more an exercise in nostalgia, as a good proportion of the small audience appeared to be friends of the filmmakers. A broader selection of early local Super 8 works would have been better.
That’s Exploitation was a compilation of film trailers from horror and exploitation films obtained from the Incredibly Strange Film Festival in New Zealand. Some of the titles for the films were amusing: 99and 44/100% Dead and Dirty McIves: The Love Life of a Cop. But I couldn’t figure out why Apocalypse Now and A Chinese Odyssey were included.
Three James Fotopoulos films were scheduled to be screened, Zero (1997), Migrating Forms (1999) and Back Against the Wall (2000). I managed to catch the last one even though Zero was scheduled for that day. Apparently the video quality was too poor to screen, but what makes matters worse is that all of the Fotopoulos films at MUFF were video copies and apparently Fotopoulos makes a point to screen his films in 16mm.
Of course I didn’t manage to see every film at MUFF3, namely the films at Gutter MUFF (skating and music docos) and Sexy Aust Retro (’70s soft-core films).
The main venue for MUFF3 was the George cinema in St Kilda. Quite fitting for “sexuality” MUFF as St Kilda has a long history of sex and sleaze. And although this suburb has yuppified exponentially in the past years, it’s reassuring to see some of the usual suspects still cruising around the area.
All politics and philosophical musings aside, the team at MUFF3 have, in the end, done a satisfactory job. Screening the films of Harun Farocki, Walerian Borowczyk, James Fotopulous; new international underground features; pornography at Sexy MUFF; and a selection from Jack Sargeant, the Melbourne Underground Film Festival is a welcome addition to film culture in Melbourne.
Let’s see more woman directors next year!