On the edges of Sydney’s inner city, as the terrace housing thins, depots and warehouses begin to mingle with a vast suburban prairie. Here, in the aptly named Factory Theatre, the still youthful, one might say swaddling-clad, Sydney Underground Film Festival holds an annual, short-lived, series of screenings. Since 2007, festival founder-director Stephan Popescu and helpers have conjured brief flickers of cinephilic communing, quickly dulled amidst the greyish, amnesiac hues of Sydney’s otherwise lacklustre cinema circuit. A variegate throng supplement their otherwise sustenance wage of mediocre film and erect their cult here.
During these four days, a small cluster of films are given the chance to be fertilised, to be inseminated. It is the chance to cling to the next wave of passing hosts. But the filmgoers themselves are just as much parasites as the films. Cinema-going, a reciprocal parasitism, is at the same time something less than symbiosis. If most cookery simply disguises a voluptuous auto-toxification drive, then cinema, I believe, disguises an unnatural longing to look inside unopened boxes. Alas, like rarefied fungi spoors in the Northern forest, much cinema crumbles away in the wind, never having found the dark dampness needed to sprout, the underground interior, that cavern, where a musky, lurid, peripheral light illuminates the way.
With two simultaneous midnight screenings, an odorama screening, the inclusion of a John Waters work, both this year and last, as well as a documentary on the Kuchar brothers, SUFF’s aesthetic antecedents were clear: New York underground movie-going of the ‘60s and early ‘70s. Originally coined in the late ‘50s by Manny Farber in reference to marginalised action directors such as Raoul Walsh, the term “underground film” was first used in the sense of experimental, art cinema, in a pamphlet published in 1961 by Stan Vanderbeek, “The Cinema Delimina: Films from the Underground”. Vanderbeek deemed Hollywood occupied territory, as a result of which “artists, poets, experimenters” had been forced to become members of a “secret underground”. The members of the underground are the exiled, rightful rulers of Hollywood. Implicit in this of course is an above ground phase, and the expulsion of the occupier.
Although primarily a New York phenomenon in the early sixties, underground movie culture spread westward first to San Francisco, and then to heartland America on the back of evangelicals like Mike Getz. Even a young Waters living in Baltimore was proselytised. The films in this festival, I imagined then, would be cult films, films which manifest themselves directly in the cinema, ushered before us by an attentive cadre of acolytes.
The program was made up of two simultaneous, themed, viewing streams. The first of the viewing spaces was a large, curtained-off two-tiered section of the theatre’s main hall, and the second, a long, expertly darkened adjoining room. In fact, this smaller, second room was amongst the darkest cinemas I’ve visited, possibly as a result of the low luminosity of the screen. My only gripe with the venue itself (apart from having to walk upstairs into an underground cinema) was the small size of the screens. But I suppose if Hollywood often defines the cinema in terms of screen size, and other technical parameters, then maybe we need to overlook the dimensions of the screen, and consider instead the depth of the room itself, the depth of its possible viewing conditions, film and spectators above all. And maybe a bigger screen.
Then suddenly, my short reverie broken, Kamahl appears, in a pale, brown, interwoven suit, and a thin, gold sliced belt, his nearly invisible eyes bordered by a wide wrinkle of bliss. Despite the tinny PA, he is a success. Well-measured hand gestures accompany three short, professionally delivered numbers culminating in Sinatra’s My Way. Finally, his work done, Kamahl exits crisply to catch his plane.
There was a brief moment, as Kamahl emerged from the matt drapes behind the stage, in which I thought a third “Yes Man” had donned black-paint in the most grotesque of pranks. An unpleasant, unwanted interval of discomfort followed, where one both partakes in public embarassment and welcomes the mediating buffer of cinema. In other words, I wanted my image experience callibrated to projection machinery, impersonal cogs, digital data streams, anything but the human vagaries of live performance. The appearance of Kamahl was uncanny, unsettling, exhilarating, and added a new variation to the Pavlov regularity of my pre-light-dim-butterflies.
With the amphetamine-like riffs of Rankin and Maryniuk’s Cattle Call the show starts. A bada bada ode, the film’s rhythm, unchanged, insistent, tirelessly arranges a melange of fragmented auctioneering symbols and cut-animated cows and cowboys, then abruptly jars to silence. In the spirit of hybrid analogies I would call it a cross between porky pig and Frederick Wiseman’s Meat (1976). After which came “Pochsy”, but more of her below.
Though not quite Fantomâs, the accessible cunning of Bichelbaum’s and Bonanno’s The Yes Men Save the World immediately drew me in. The film itself is a performance anthology, stretching from Bichelbaum’s 2004 appearance on BBC World as Dow Chemical spokesman Jude Finisterra, to their more recent fake edition of the New York Times, published shortly after the election of Obama, and which announced the end of the Iraq war, and the indictment of G.W. Bush for treason. A story of anti-capitalist superheroes, complete with secret lair, disguises, and technical genius stitches these events together. Like all confidence tricksters they rely on the credulity and greed of the “victims”. Accomplished in their use of props, in one sequence Bichelbaum, playing Exxon spokesman Shepard Wolff, demonstrates, by use of a “Vivoleum” candle, a new, alternative energy source, made from the volunteered human biomass of janitor Reggie. In another, “Gilda”, a golden skeleton, is the mascot of acceptable risk.
Despite enjoying their antics, I couldn’t help but feel that the Yes Men were yet another of John Grierson’s almost countless brood. Grierson sought stability for democracy under the shelter of a unifying, socially cohesive documentary didactics. Grierson, flanked by a coterie of bespectacled Cambridge alumni, and financed by The Empire Marketing Board and Royal Shell amongst others, was most certainly no prankster. He took state institutions seriously and feared their erosion at the hands of excessive information flows. Instead of state and corporate bureaucracies as support networks, the Yes Men have hideouts, disguises and workshops. So why then do I say the Yes Men call Grierson father? Because their relationship to the filmed material is thoroughly Griersonian. Well peppered slices of information are cooked up into civic good, everything duly witnessed by an informative divinity playing the narrator. There are no fragmentary or indigestible slabs of image to be found. In one sense, the film is a documentary that “cites” earlier, preexisting filmed performances. They exceed Grierson I suppose, in that they have pragmatically adopted his doctrine of popular, informative cinema, that is, they have disguised themselves as Griersonians in order to gain entry to the cinema.
Orgesticulanismus is the unusual title of the most classically drawn of the animation films. The title has several possible etymologies. “-gesticulanismus”, taking away the -ismus suffix, must refer to the Latin family of “gesticulari” which means “to make mimic gestures”, and ultimately to “gerere” meaning “to do, to bear”. The “or-” however presents several possible readings. It might refer to French “or” meaning “and now” yielding the combined meaning “and now the making of mimic gesture-ism”, which makes perfect sense. On the other hand, it might also refer to two Greek word families, those stemming from ὀργ- (org-), ἐργ-(erg-) such as organ, organic, energy etc. meaning “to work, to get done”, or alternatively from ὀργή (orgē) originally meaning “natural movement, disposition, temperament, character” and later “anger, passion” and from which the word orgasm derives. The last two would necessitate an original portmanteau formation, in the first case, organogesticulanismus, and in the second orgasmogesticulanismus. Both fit the film and thus justify the portmanteau.
Each short segment in Orgesticulanismus (d. Mathieu Labaye) represents one discrete, continuous cycle of action. Lyrical human figures stretch against a web of strings and are in turn restrained by them. All of this takes place against a white grid overlaying a black background. In the second part of the film, dancing figures burst their string cages, and replot their own now relatively limitless movement. In this flashing dilation and contraction of bodies I thought the film achieved a certain natural, organic, limpid figuration of movement. Its unpronounceable, but no less apt title, as well as its direct treatment of cinema’s perennial question, movement, endeared this film to me.
What would animation be without dirty id monsters? In Down the Rabbit Hole (d. Asa Mori) a lobulated six-nippled humanoid is suddenly pushed out onto the surface and away from a blood dripping rat. Its eyes turn, the resonant, inorganic bass clangs, and as if on cue, yet another avatar of the rabbit-eared weirdo kind wanders off, this time encumbered by a television head. Sleeper (d. Marina Roy) is drawn in a contorted, Crumb-like style. Its central image is the gentle sado-masochistic toilet-bound invalid. Several repeated, semi-articulate grunt-motifs unify an unusual chain of gut-munching stabs. But much of the imagery of the film deals with the cycle of anal control and anal suffering, or the obverse of this, that which eats and that which is eaten. Then the film suddenly explodes into a sadistic, gut wrenching knife orgy. Bravo.
Martha Colburn’s Triumph of the Wild in two parts, an obvious allusion to Riefenstahl, is a jigsaw animation of outfolding cardboard corners and brightly coloured cutouts. Several hundred years of the American war effort are unfurled as hunter-hunted allegories. The redcoat-fox melée of part I becomes the carnivore infested indo-chinese jungle of Part II.
After the uniformly synthetic, sometimes sterile soundtracks of most of the preceding animated works, Heavy Metal Parking Lot (d. Leslie Supnet) brought welcome respite. In the best of those earlier films in this regard, the above-mentioned Triumph of the Wild, the freeish jazz piano deftly sets rhythmic and chromatic cues for the image. Heavy Metal Parking Lot, although mediocre visually, was electrifyingly alive sonically. Maybe because the direct-sound underlay came from the 1986 film of the same title, where enthused “Priest” and “Metallica” fans channel the hair metal gods of eighties stadium rock.
Chris Butler in Life With Ashley takes a cinéma vérité approach to adolescent social idioms in suburban Sydney. Ashley is filmed by her brother at home during the week leading up to a party she’s planned. At this party she intends to “jump on”, “rape” a recent crush of hers, an arty youth named Mark (or was it Michael?). At home in their lounge room, Chris and Ash engage in intimate, frank ad libs in the true sense of that word, where the camera seems more a jovial familiar than an unwelcome outsider. Although later in the film the camera does become both the pretext and cause of much distress, it never ceases to have a persona: that of a mute all-seeing all-hearing soft toy. Whether chastising their hapless, cranky mother, disputing the finer points of modal philosophy (“What about the best of all universes? Should the others be destroyed?” asks brother, “No, because the best of all universes may only be the best for that person”, answers sister), or laughing at their recently impregnated cousin’s boyfriend Randall, Ash and Chris are lounge-room naturals. A notable absence is the familiar TV set, replaced by a laptop.
Like all domestic spaces, the lounge room has its own peculiar idioms of humour and usage. Ashley possesses an at times corrosive comic imagination. For example, in one sequence, after seeing some samurai swords hung on her cousin’s wall, she paints the ghastly image of ordering a “foreign child” in order to quench the kill lust such swords would undoubtedly awaken in her. An even smattering of “pregnant whores”, “hoes”, and “bitches” colour this vernacular. Pop’s laconic outburst “did che try jiggln’ et a bit” finds its humour in the sounds of the language itself, in broad gaping triphthongs.
Outside of the home, a less reassuring, and sometimes elliptical image appears. This is especially apparent during a night-time car trip or the arrival of party guests at the local station. The dark lighting, the brief transition snippets, the unpredictable rhythm of the montage function as meditative antiphons. Even the lounge room itself, all syrupy browns and amber yellows, has a certain uneasiness to it. Maybe it is this uneasiness that has allowed such a sardonic yarn culture to flourish. Its violent irony, the characters’ hasty glosses on their own emotions, the absence of sadness even in the final drunken dénouement make “Life for Ashley” compelling, complex vérité.
I wasn’t overly impressed by Sundance alumnus Anywhere USA (d. Chusy Jardine). Three interconnected stories chug along a little dispassionately with smatterings of hill-billy weird. Of particular note though were some exceptional moustaches and the phrase “looking at cocks on the internet”. Although the inclusion of an arab in the role of sleazy internet lover, and subsequent talk of “jihad” were obvious attempts at social commentary, the film’s stolid, literal mise-en-scène inhibited such speculative modes of viewing.
Outside in the lounge after seeing Ben Ferris’ Penelope, a Croatian language film that shows the Odyssey from, you guessed it, Penelope’s point of view, I wondered why this film had left me so nonplussed. Maybe it was the clear distinction made between dream and non-dream. Although the staging of the violent murder sequences, the rumbling, clanging thunder, the sudden unleashing of death, the animalistic massacre, were almost Buñuelesque, the surrealists themselves drew no line between dream and quotidian experience, the two being blended, inseparable. Their separation is a convention, sometimes heuristic, and at other times, as here, thoroughly prophylactic. We are protected against the openness and ambiguity of dream. In limiting our knowledge, an element of personalised “precision” viewing replaces the exactness of explanation and narrative stability. Secondly, the balanced plot, in which moments of punctuation, explicatory chorus, all act organically, as Aristotle once commanded, in the interests of regulated catharsis. In contrast, Albert Serra’s recent adaptations of two other mammoths of the Western tradition (Don Quixote in Honore de Cavalleira and the Bible in El cant dels ocells [Birdsong]), show how more sparse modulations of image, light and blocks of direct sound might reactivate a genuine literature in the cinema.
Ah, Poschsy! Karen Hines’ alter-ego Pochsy stood at the centre of two films shown as part of a session entitled “Titillations”. All the films shown here had literature and especially poetry either as explicit theme or aesthetic interlocutor. The Pochsy films themselves, My Name is Pochsy: An Industrial Film and A Tax on Pochsy were in part delicate gestures toward the late silent cinema, and particularly the Expressionist cinema’s flickering contours, grimaces, longing stares, and sharply angled faces. “I am Pochsy, and I believe”, she begins, and what follows is a monologue pastiche of Buddhist aphorism and corporate self-help literature, a kind of dysfunctional bank ad, in which superbly recited dialogue wavers over shivering chiaroscuro photography and inter-titles. Pochsy’s monologues, even if they occasionally slide into laboured observational humour, are a mesmerising counterpart to the looming close-ups and poetic address of Hines’s face.
Another rich offering in the series was Amber Dawn’s Hans Belting variation What’s My Mother F**cking name, in which a neatly bound naked woman squirms against her ropes to the strains of free verse on identity, gender, sexual slavery and what not. As might be expected in this sort of very personal literary cinema, there were some excruciating moments. I’m nearly convinced that strictly metered verse doesn’t function cinematically except within very well defined parameters, for example, Straub-Huillet’s Othon. The live-action mixed animation of The Crooked Eye (d. D.C. Douglas), although its dialogue and narrative were uninteresting, managed moments of tender uncanny, quite sudden “titillations” of sense, where the questions of artifice and “realism” lingered unresolved, and just long enough to make us forget the tiresome platitudes of the protagonist.
pJohn Waters’ infamous 1972 filth epic Pink Flamingos was shown to a full house in the early evening Saturday night slot. Waters it seems has acted as a sort of absentee patron and inspiration to the festival. Pink Flamingos’ already overwhelming sensuality was further supplemented by scratch’n’sniff cards. Viewers were prompted to sniff at the film’s most olfactorily terrifying moments, such as when a man-cum-bouncing frog-torso turns his puckering alter-maw camerawards and performs the well known sphincter waltz.
Waters’ films belong in the cinema. At the beginning of the fifties, Hollywood cast about in search of a cinema which TV sets couldn’t broadcast, settling on technological answers like CinemaScope and 3D. Waters’ work on the other hand, although by no means a response to the threat of TV proliferation, is certainly part of the tradition of ‘60s cinema that reintroduced performance, that is, audience theatre into the space of cinema projection. This constituted a very specific public for itself in the same way that theatres do. The films of Jack Smith are a good example. The aesthetic failure of Hollywood throughout most of the sixties, and the explosion of the New York underground in the same period, show how these divergent approaches balanced out against each other.
So, amongst my fellow cinephiles, I saw Waters as he should be seen, in the midst of a giddy crowd. Interestingly, we were collectively most aghast, not at the film’s astounding coprophagic finale, nor at Divine’s incestual cock-gobbling, and certainly not at an egg-addicted mammy, but rather at a bloodied pair of chickens, smeared over the bodies of two young perverts fornicating in a barn. I suppose the sacrifice of innocents to an unnatural voluptas, even if those innocents happen to be a couple of stringy chooks, still has the power to shock.
Sydney Underground Film Festival
10-13 September, 2009
Festival website: http://www.sydneyundergroundfilmfestival.com/