The 16th Chicago Underground Film Festival runs Thursday, September 10, through Thursday, September 17, at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State, 312-846-2800. Tickets are $10, $7 for students, and $5 for Film Center members. Following are selected programs; for a full schedule see siskelfilmcenter.org.
American Radical: The Trials of Norman Finkelstein A harsh critic and prominent target of the Israel lobby, Norman G. Finkelstein became a local cause celebre in 2007 when he was denied tenure by DePaul University, which argued that his attacks on such figures as Alan Dershowitz, Elie Wiesel, and Jerzy Kosinski violated the school's "Vincentian" values. This documentary by David Ridgen and Nicolas Rossier doesn't venture far into the substance of Finkelstein's controversial books (The Holocaust Industry, Beyond Chutzpah), but it does present an engaging portait of an academic whose work is both fueled and undermined by his vitriolic personality. As Finkelstein points out, his outrage over Israel's treatment of the Palestinians springs directly from his parents' sufferings in the Warsaw ghetto and Nazi concentration camps, a legacy that's hardened him against people who play "the Holocaust card" in their defense of Israel. A guaranteed argument starter, the documentary plunges viewers into an academic terrain that's thoroughly, and perhaps hopelessly, colored by politics. 89 min. —J.R. Jones Sun 9/13, 5 PM, and Wed 9/16, 8 PM. Ridgen and Rossier will attend the Sunday screening.
Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo Japanese consumers think nothing of spending $300 or more for a beetle, cricket, or caterpillar of symbolic importance. The capture, retail, care, and feeding of these critters are a significant industry in Japan, but this hushed and meditative documentary by Jessica Oreck is more concerned with mapping the religious, philosophical, aesthetic, and literary contexts of the nation's enduring bug fetish. At 91 minutes, her leisurely essay might prove too long for all but advanced Zen adepts, but it persuasively upsets our Western notion that turtles and goldfish, but not bugs, qualify as low-maintenance pets. Also on the program: Justin Chouinard's six-minute short The Sound of Crickets. —Cliff Doerksen Sat 9/12, 7:15 PM, and Mon 9/14, 6 PM.
The Boy With the Sun in His Eyes A blandly handsome gay man (Tim Swain) and a black actress with a cult following for her Italian horror films (Mahogany Reynolds) are brought together by the suicide of a mutual friend who was dying of AIDS. On a whim, the man follows this high-maintenance diva to Europe, where she's the toast of an A-list party circuit despite having all the charisma of a mollusk. Director Todd Verow, a specialist in no-budget adaptations of gay-themed novels, strives for an atmosphere of decadence and sophistication, but the vibe is weak and the acting uniformly terrible. 81 min. —Cliff Doerksen Fri 9/11, 6:15 PM, and Thu 9/17, 6 PM. Verow will attend the Friday screening.
Cellar Three loners in Hell's Kitchen find community in and around various basement apartments. A Colombian manicurist who aspires to be a writer (Daisy Payero) is wooed by a short-order cook who left his family in Beirut (Wael Noureddine). Their rocky courtship is more intriguing than the other story, about a black lesbian (Courtney Webster) who's returned from combat in Iraq; neither Webster nor the actors playing her support group are skilled enough to overcome the screenplay's more banal stretches. Noureddine and Danny Foxx's grainy cinematography conveys the rawness of life on the margins, though some of their visual touches, like intermittent scratches and light streaks, are merely decorative. Steve Stasso directed. In English and subtitled French, Arabic, and Spanish. 87 min. —Andrea Gronvall Sat 9/12, 7 PM. Stasso will attend the screening.
Gold Chicago improv guru Del Close is among the garrulous hippies wandering around this formless psychedelic time capsule (1968). Young honeys by a meadow pond defy a posted order against skinny-dipping; a longhair in a pinstriped suit (Gary Goodrow) gives a satirical stump speech; a hippie chick writhes naked in the dust behind a chicken-wire fence; drunken flower children revel in the streets of an Old West tourist attraction, backed by the sounds of the MC5. Bob Levis and Bill Desloge are credited as "organizers" rather than directors. 90 min. —Cliff Doerksen Sat 9/12, 9 PM, and Tue 9/15, 8 PM.
Impolex Shot on the cheap, this surreal World War II fantasy about a GI searching for German V-2 rockets was partly inspired by Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow. As the soldier, Riley O'Bryan thrashes about a forest where he encounters three sinister men, a nagging woman, and a talking octopus. The obfuscating dialogue is exacerbated by O'Bryan's adenoidal mumbling, though Kate Lyn Sheil, who plays the woman, delivers an affecting monologue in a long, unbroken take toward the end. Writer-director Alex Ross Perry admits that his film has no structure, but it has no discernible meaning either. 73 min. —Andrea Gronvall Fri 9/11, 8 PM. Perry will attend the screening.
It Came From Kuchar! Both together and separately, identical twins George and Mike Kuchar have been cranking out underground movies for a half century, and their delirious stew of camp melodrama, Grand Guignol horror, and expressive avant-gardism has inspired filmmakers as dissimilar as John Waters and Guy Maddin, both of whom sing their praises in this entertaining documentary portrait. Video maker Jennifer M. Kroot interviews both brothers and shows the freewheeling George Kuchar working with students at the San Francisco Art Institute (where he's taught since 1971) on a fever dream titled The Fury of Frau Frankenstein. Among the interviewees are Atom Egoyan, Wayne Wang, B. Ruby Rich, and Buck Henry, who points out how starkly the Kuchars' early movies contrasted with the affectless works of Andy Warhol and Stan Brakhage: "The Kuchars were all affect." 86 min. —J.R. Jones Thu 9/10, 8 PM. Kroot will attend the screening.
Recommended The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia More wild than wonderful, the Whites are a sprawling, brawling clan of self-described rednecks whose status as "Appalachian royalty" derives from their violence, their low-level criminality, their abuse of prescription drugs, and the fact that their late patriarch, D. Ray, originated a hillbilly variant of tap dancing. Julien Nitzberg's gleefully lowbrow doc (produced for MTV by Jackass star Johnny Knoxville) shares a lot of DNA with COPS and The Jerry Springer Show, but it's undeniably riveting. The main attractions are the White women—hard-faced, foghorn-voiced skanks who make even the convicts and gas huffers among the menfolk look cuddly. You may not like this, but you won't forget it. 86 min. —Cliff Doerksen Sat 9/12, 5 PM.