La Ultima Pelicula, which screens Saturday at the 21st annual Chicago Underground Film Festival, translates as "The Last Film," an ironic reference to the death of celluloid (early this year Paramount became the first studio to announce that it would stop distributing its product in 35-millimeter). Yet even more ironically, La Ultima Pelicula was itself transferred from 35-millimeter to digital for exhibition here in Chicago, and journalists had to preview it on Vimeo.com, which delivered a picture quality so lousy it made me wish celluloid could have hung on a little longer. You'll probably have better luck at the Logan, which strikes me as an ideal venue for this long-running and always adventurous festival. Digital may have killed film, but it's saved the underground, and as CUFF often proves, that may be a Faustian bargain worth living with. —J.R. Jones
- American Arab screens Sun 4/6.
American Arab Veteran underground video maker (and former Chicagoan) Usama Alshaibi recounts his experiences emigrating from Iraq to the U.S. as a teenager and finding acceptance in the cultural underground; he also profiles several recent Arab emigres, a few adolescents who are second-generation Arab-Americans, and our society's ongoing Islamophobia. That's a lot of ground to cover in an hour, and one might wish that Alshaibi had gone deeper into some of his concerns or omitted them entirely. Yet what's here is personable and occasionally eye-opening. 58 min. —Ben Sachs Sun 4/6, 8 PM.
- Critical Paranoia: Conspiratorial Memes, Alternative Histories, and Disinformation screens Thu 4/3.
Critical Paranoia: Conspiratorial Memes, Alternative Histories, and Disinformation Curated by Ernest J. Ramon, this program collects YouTube videos excerpted from various news reports and documentaries on government, corporate, and underworld conspiracies. I've seen only 70 minutes of what's being billed as an 80-minute program, and the entries played in a different order than they appear on the CUFF schedule. But what I saw was cleverly arranged so that the most credible allegations gradually progressed into the most absurd ones, and the content of several videos overlapped to the extent that the whole thing began to feel like a global web of evil. Among the deep, dark secrets: the CIA smuggled drugs into the U.S. through a municipal airport in Mena, Arkansas, with the tacit approval of then-governor Bill Clinton; high-ranking federal officials enjoyed the services of a child sex ring operating out of a credit union in Omaha, Nebraska; Jimi Hendrix was murdered by COINTELPRO agents because he supported the Black Panther Party; and Stanley Kubrick collaborated with NASA to fake the 1969 moon landing. Ask for an extra grain of salt on that popcorn. —J.R. Jones Thu 4/3, 7 PM.
- Dream Town screens Fri 4/4.
Dream Town Reminiscent of Werner Herzog's Encounters at the End of the World (2007), which recorded life at a polar science station, this 2013 documentary fondly depicts life in secluded Barentsburg, Russia, a barren coal-mining community located in the northernmost part of the country. Director Adrian Briscoe focuses on the town's daily happenings and quirky residents, painting a vivid human portrait against the desolate backdrop. During the production he offered the townspeople a rudimentary filmmaking course, and their work is incorporated here, illustrating their inner lives, but the traditional documentary sequences are more stimulating, largely because Briscoe seems less meddlesome. In Russian with subtitles. —Drew Hunt 73 min. Fri 4/4, 8:30 PM.
- East of Hell screens Fri 4/4.
East of Hell / Dreams Less Sweet Two music-based videos, screening on a double bill. East of Hell (2013, 45 min.) is a fascinating French documentary about the black metal underground in Surabaya, Indonesia; director Mathieu Canaguier illustrates how the community incorporates Eastern philosophy and Western customs while dealing with government censors to sustain an idyllic (if extremely loud) cultural ecosystem. Psychic TV: Dreams Less Sweet (2013, 47 min.) is set to the sophomore LP by cult pop band Psychic TV, collecting 47 avant-garde videos by various artists. Like the album, the film is alternately amusing, disturbing, and nonsensical; a few of the individual videos are whimsical enough, but the overall work is carelessly structured, a barrage of images devoid of context or justification. —Drew Hunt 92 min. Fri 4/4, 6:30 PM.
- Shadow Zombie screens Sat 4/5.
Shadow Zombie The most surprising thing about this semidocumentary portrait of a 30-ish, drug-dealing speed freak who likes to go out in clown make-up is that he seems to be generally accepted by his suburban Louisiana community; some of his friends hold respectable jobs, and parents don't seem to mind when he hangs out at playgrounds or the local roller rink. Like Harmony Korine, writer-director Jorge Torres-Torres punctuates the verite-style freak show with expressionistic sequences that suggest drugged-out reverie (many of these transpire in slow motion and to ambient music, effectively bringing us inside the hero's headspace). Yet this feels less sensationalistic than Korine's work; Torres-Torres doesn't just present his subject but explains how he got to be this way. —Ben Sachs 78 min. Sat 4/5, 10 PM.
- Sick Birds Die Easy screens Thu 4/3.
Sick Birds Die Easy Nik Fackler directed this drama-documentary hybrid (2013), recording a trip he and his two burnout friends—a pill-popping, drug-dealing conspiracy theorist and a pseudo-intellectual, alcoholic trust fund brat—took to central Africa in search of the iboga root (said to induce hallucinations that connect one to the divine while also, somehow, curing addiction). Freeform almost to the point of being formless, this lacks any discernible structure, but Fackler keeps the action contained and finds resonant thematic notes amid the narrative chaos. The self-reflexive, self-critical nature of the story alleviates its inherent fatuity; the subject here isn't dependency or drug-induced spiritualism, but the neo-imperialism of bullshit twentysomethings whose veneration of aboriginal principles is just an excuse to get ripped. —Drew Hunt 87 min. Thu 4/3, 6:30 PM.
- La Ultima Pelicula screens Sat 4/5.
La Ultima Pelicula Directed by Mark Peranson (a contributor to this section) and Raya Martin, this fitfully wacky metamovie features Alex Ross Perry (who wrote, directed, and starred in The Color Wheel) as a filmmaker touring Mayan monuments in Yucatan and Gabino Rodriguez as his local guide, who can't make head or tails of the psychedelic western they're shooting. Peranson and Martin cite as their inspiration (and pillage for their title) Dennis Hopper's legendary freakout The Last Movie (1971), which also focused on a filmmaker treading ancient ground and used some of the same self-referential gimmicks (recurrent "scene missing" titles, for example). As the filmmaker, Perry proves to be every inch the whining, nattering, neurotic comedian of The Color Wheel, comparing himself to Orson Welles and delivering a priceless rant about American hippies who visit the Mayan sites as spiritual tourists. 88 min. —J.R. Jones 88 min. Sat 4/5, 7 PM.
- The Unity of All Things screens Sun 4/6.
The Unity of All Things A peculiar blend of science fiction, deadpan satire, and queer psychodrama, this experimental feature centers on several Asian women working at a top-secret particle accelerator beneath the U.S.-Mexican border. The discussions of theoretical physics serve mainly as a backdrop for ruminations on impossible longing, as the characters begin to experience unhealthy desires for each other; in the most extreme case, one woman's visiting teenage sons consider an incestuous romance with each other. The postsync sound rarely lines up exactly with the images, which were shot on 16-millimeter and Super-8, giving the impression that this was constructed from found footage and making the oblique narrative seem especially alien. Daniel Schmidt (Palaces of Pity) and Alexander Carver wrote, directed, and edited. In English and subtitled Cantonese, Japanese, and Spanish. —Ben Sachs 98 min. Sun 4/6, 7 PM.
- When My Sorrow Died: The Legend of Armen Ra & the Theremin screens Thu 4/3.
When My Sorrow Died: The Legend of Armen Ra & the Theremin Armen Ra is a renowned theremin player whose tumultuous adolescence informs his haunting, melancholy music. His family fled Iran during the Islamic Revolution, and he wound up in Boston, where he was bullied mercilessly by classmates; at 13 he hightailed it to New York City, where he ran around with the hard-partying Club Kids (of Party Monster fame) and became a fixture in the drag scene. Heavy drinking nearly derailed his musical career and ended his life, but a move to LA put him on the right track. Though this video documentary by Robert Nazar Arjoyan is rather straightforward aesthetically, Ra's gregariousness and tenacity make him a compelling presence. —Drew Hunt 85 min. Thu 4/3, 9 PM.
Who Took Johnny Twelve-year-old Johnny Gosch disappeared early one morning in September 1982 while delivering newspapers around his neighborhood in West Des Moines, Iowa; he's never been found, though nine years after his disappearance a former male prostitute came forward to claim that the boy had been exploited in a child sex ring operating out of Omaha, Nebraska. Documentary makers Michael Galinsky, Suki Hawley, and David Beilinson (who also collaborated on Battle for Brooklyn) interview Johnny's parents (whose marriage eventually collapsed from the trauma) and reconstruct an era before the milk-carton portrait and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, when few had even heard of human trafficking and child disappearances were seldom taken seriously by local law enforcement. The Gosch case helped change all that, but as this disturbing video argues, Johnny may have been so shamed and corrupted by his experiences as a sex slave that he'll never return home. —J.R. Jones 78 min. Sun 4/6, 6 PM.