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Chicago Underground Film Festival


The tenth annual Chicago Underground Film Festival continues Friday through Tuesday, August 29 through September 2, at Landmark's Century Centre. Tickets are $9, festival passes $30 (for five screenings) and $100 (for all screenings). For more information call 866-468-3401. Films marked with an * are highly recommended.


* Tricky Existence

Humans seem to be devolving in these videos. In Animal Charm's demented Body Prep robotic workout videos are followed by an amazing image of a rotund man holding a spare copy of his head in his hands, its lips moving while his are still. Kent Lambert's chilling Security Anthem is an exercise in post-September 11 dementia in which banal lines delivered by talking heads ("The onions made him cry") become increasingly sinister, leading to a surprise ending featuring John Ashcroft. The equine puppet in Ben Coonley's nutty parody of children's TV programs, 3-D Trick Pony (2002), plays the lead in a faux-academic demonstration of a principle of film editing known as the Kuleshov effect. Humans reenact William Wegman's dog skits in Anne McGuire's After Wegman (2002), but they're not nearly as cute or well-groomed as the originals. 68 min. (FC) (5:00)

For Those About to Rock

Six music-related shorts ranging from the goofy to the sublime. Unintended humor abounds in two profiles of metal bands: Deron Grams's Six Feet Underground: Life in Death Metal finds members of the Florida-based Six Feet Under ruminating about their status as small fish in a small pond, while David Frazier and Sean Scanlon's Dark Funeral: A Black Metal Documentary features the "five satanic Swedes" of Dark Funeral earnestly explaining why church burnings aren't a good idea ("at least not the wooden ones"). Director Joe Losurdo and local band the Goblins spoof Sam Jones's recent Wilco documentary in the mildly amusing I Am Trying to Take Your Cash. The program's real gem is Cortlandt Alley, Laura Kraning's video montage of events occurring in the alley below her apartment windows. Kraning's exquisite editing creates a haunting mosaic from the stuff of daily life, culminating in a bizarre and unexpected musical performance. (Reece Pendleton) (5:15)

Tiny Plastic Rainbows

This first feature by Chicagoan Jennifer Reeder, best known for her "White Trash Girl" videos, is a study in anomie in which a group of emotionally detached characters (among them a therapist, a private detective, and a claims adjuster) somnambulate through a nameless city, only dimly and intermittently aware of one another's presence. Reeder's long takes and isolating compositions evoke profound alienation, but she also leavens her dystopian theme with oblique absurdist humor. A woman graphically describes the onset of her period but then claims to have slept through it. The closest thing to a human connection is a failed flirtation involving the pickup line "Are you from Tennessee? Because you're the only ten I see." Airplanes passing repeatedly overhead are like additional characters trapped in their own occluded worlds. Most of this works splendidly, but even where it falters, the scope of Reeder's ambition has to be taken into account. 80 min. (FC) (6:45)

Mutiny: Asians Storm British Music

Shot on video and film over seven years, American filmmaker Vivek Bald's absorbing examination of the Asian Underground movement in English rock in the 90s combines interview and performance footage of all the key players--Talvin Singh, Fun-Da-Mental, Cornershop, Joi, and Asian Dub Foundation. Nearly every musician interviewed talks about experiencing anti-Asian racism while growing up. Bald shows how defensive identification with England's black population led them to embrace reggae and hip-hop in addition to Indian sounds like Bollywood sound track music, bhangra, and Indian classical music. A passing moment of attention from the mainstream media and major record labels has embittered some of the performers but left others more focused and still hopeful. 83 min. (Peter Margasak) (7:00)

Final Exams From Underground U.

Brian Frye and Marie Losier of the Robert Beck Memorial Cinema in New York City curated this program of short films. (8:30)

Rockets Redglare

A stickler could complain that Luis Fernandez de la Reguera's 2002 documentary about his late friend, actor and comedian Michael Morra, never gets around to explaining how he picked up the moniker "Rockets Redglare." In fact, the intimacy of this portrait may be a disadvantage: Jim Jarmusch, Steve Buscemi, Willem Dafoe, Matt Dillon, Alex Rockwell, Nick Zedd, and Julian Schnabel are among those interviewed, and it seems like practically everyone loved this guy despite (if not because of) his excessive ways. Then again, lack of balance seems so central to his life and character that an inside view is probably the most appropriate one. A heroin addict from birth, born to a teenage junkie mother, Morra grew up surrounded by violent crime, worked as bodyguard and drug supplier to both Sid Vicious and Jean-Michel Basquiat, and appeared in over 30 films. A compulsive hustler who became obese once he decided to substitute beer for drugs, he was also a gifted raconteur, and there's plenty of mesmerizing footage here to prove it. In fact, his informal and private storytelling registers more strongly than his public performances. 88 min. (JR) (8:45)

Occult of Personality

Short films from the Robert Beck Memorial Cinema in New York City. (10:15)

The Last Fuck

Local enfant terrible Shawn Durr has become a festival fixture with his no-budget, gay-themed trashcapades (Meatfucker, Fucked in the Face), but this 80-minute feature proves there's nothing more tedious than watching yesterday's taboos being resmashed. Essentially it's a gross-out remake of George Romero's teenage-vampire classic, Martin, lumbered with John Waters-type shtick, satirizing such preapproved targets as cowboys, Christians, bodybuilders, and dominatrices. I had a hard time staying awake till the end, which is a sad comment on a movie that shows a guy getting a burrito jammed up his ass. (JJ) (10:30)


Fever Dreams

Most of the ten works here are experiments in abstraction, but the best, To the Happy Few, is the only real "fever dream." Editing together found footage from a variety of sources and eras and accompanying the result with a song from a Bollywood film, filmmakers Thomas Draschan and Stella Friedrichs conjure semidementia out of unexpected connections: after some porn snippets, footage of a finger pressing a button on the model of an atom seems weirdly sexual. White blobs against a black background come together evocatively, as if kissing, in Euphrosyne P. Konti's Your Kiss (2002). ReMI's Vincit Veritas (2002) begins promisingly with intricate geometrical patterns that suggest a strange emptiness, but then veers off in too many different directions. 73 min. (FC) (1:30)


In 1995 student filmmakers Adrienne Jorge and Tamy Ojala gamely threw themselves into the world of American truck drivers, hitching rides across the continental U.S. and eliciting some colorful commentary with their wide-eyed questions. As Studs Terkel proved in his book Working, people tend to relax into simple eloquence when quizzed about their occupations; crisply edited by Jorge, the truckers' observations and anecdotes are consistently entertaining. Jorge and Ojala's naive approach limits the project--there's a lot more folklore than hard information about the job--but at 55 minutes this 2002 video allows us to hop out of the cab before it gets tiring. (JJ) (1:45)

The Fountain

James Fotopoulos's meditative video consists mostly of stills of three actresses--variously clothed, nude, or masked--so similar in appearance that their identities sometimes seem to merge. Allusive dialogue spoken by various voices (one of them computer generated) traces the outer boundaries of narrative coherence, but also contains echoes of Bergman's Persona. Some of the dialogue bespeaks the characters' discomfort within their own bodies ("Why are you cutting yourself and hitting people?"), a theme that informs much of Fotopoulos's work. While the corresponding images reinforce the theme of the body as a trap, his use of techniques that amplify video noise seem to leave room for the possibility of transcendent transformation. 61 min. (FC) (3:15)

Noble Sacrifice

Part freak show, part recruitment video for jihad, this confused piece of exploitive ethnography (2002) by Lebanese video maker Vatche Boulghourjian crudely juxtaposes Muslim ritual with the political phenomenon of suicide bombers. Catching blood droplets on his camera lens, Boulghourjian immerses himself in a flagellant procession as worshipers lacerate their scalps with straight razors, slap their hands on their heads, and chant. In subtitled voice-over a prominent Shiite cleric discourses on suicide versus martyrdom and terrorism versus resistance, while pulsing dance music accompanies rapid-fire montage of goat slaughter, Israeli jets, a corpse ejected from a hijacked airliner, and clips from the Hezbollah video archive. Also showing: Haruko Tanaka's Around Special Registration, a spare video (mostly a black screen with voice-over) in which a student from the United Arab Emirates objects to registering as an alien under the Homeland Security Act. 57 min. (Bill Stamets) (3:30)

Prohibited Beatz

A potpourri of shorts with no apparent thematic unity. The best of the bunch is Julie Covello's Prohibited Beatz (2002, 50 min.), a profile of Swiss drummer JoJo Mayer, whose band Nerve is an underground hit in Manhattan. Mayer is an engaging subject steeped in the history of alternative music, but Covello is a less than polished storyteller, relying too heavily on talking heads and abruptly abandoning her primary subject to rail against New York's crackdown on clubs. Local critic Ray Pride's Six Corners (6 min.) documents the antiwar protest that shut down Lake Shore Drive last March. Also on the program are works by Dylan Griffin, Doug Lussenhop, Paul Lloyd Sargent, and Jonnie Ross. (TS) (5:00)


Local filmmaker Scott Petersen (Out of the Loop) traveled to Las Vegas in 2001 to document the World Scrabble Championship, and the result is a casual valentine to a tight-knit community of nerds with an uncanny ability to spot words in a scramble of tiles (Chicago options trader Brian Cappelletto took the top prize). Petersen's interview subjects explain how they were hooked by the game, tout its virtues, and wax poetic on the Zen of Scrabble. There's little of the hand-wringing and family history that make Jeff Blitz's Spellbound such a dramatic experience, but this breezy 50-minute account is quite enjoyable. (TS) Also showing: David Munroe's 24-minute video Compulsory Breathing (2002). (5:15)

Muhammad and Jane

A laconic drifter (Piotr Tokarski) born in Iraq returns to Chicago to straighten out his U.S. immigration status, and though a friend warns him of the prevailing anti-Muslim sentiment, he unwisely hooks up with a desultory woman (Melina Paez), accompanies her to a hedonistic party, and attracts the attention of the FBI. Local video maker Usama Alshaibi is the sort of canny visual stylist who can sustain a mood even when the storytelling falters, which is certainly the case here: the characters' motives are vague, the plotting episodic, but the handheld videocam, tight close-ups, and disorienting angles create a potent sense of paranoia. The haunting score is by Andy Ortmann and Camilla Ha. 75 min. Also on the program: Alshaibi's five-minute video animation Allah Wa'akbar, a mesmeric montage of morphing geometrical patterns from Islamic art, flashed to the beat of Middle Eastern music. (TS) (6:45)


If you've seen Wayne's World or American Movie, you'll have a pretty good idea what to expect from the dumb but lovable Canadian duo at the center of Michael Dowse's 2002 mockumentary. Lifelong buddies Terry (Dave Lawrence) and Dean (Paul J. Spence) lustily pursue their limited passions--arguing, playing heavy metal, shotgunning beers, etc--until the filmmaker profiling them (Gordon Skilling) discovers that Dean has been diagnosed with cancer and decides to push the issue. Unoriginal and only sporadically funny, this shouldn't work, but it does; Spence's deceptively simple but surprisingly nuanced performance makes Dean both charming and utterly believable. The title acronym stands for "Fucked Up Beyond All Repair." 80 min. (Reece Pendleton) Also showing: Ken Throwaway's four-minute video Purple Casket Lining. (7:00)

The Platinum Tapes

A program of music videos, curated by Lauren Cornell. (8:30)

Cheesy Values

Fox News's attempt to stop the publication of Al Franken's book Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right--because its mocking subtitle supposedly infringed on the network's "fair and balanced" trademark--echoes the efforts of Dick Cheney and others in the Bush administration to silence criticism by labeling it unpatriotic. Also questionable is the lawsuit launched by Kraft against another flaky individual, Wicker Park erotic comic book artist and Web designer Stu Helm, for using the nickname King VelVeeda and thereby tarnishing Kraft's "wholesome" image. That suit is the focus of Brigid Maher's lighthearted yet informative and absorbing 45-minute documentary The King, the Lawyers, and the Cheese, which is so funny it hurts. (JR) Also on the program: Steve Seid and Peter Conheim's Value-Added Cinema (47 min.) (8:45)

Smalltown Boys and Girls

None of these seven films and videos is an unqualified success, and several lapse into student-film cliche, such as Sean U'ren's Light of Other Days (2002), in which the filmmaker recounts his life story in a voice-over to family home movies, or Stephanie Gray's Kristy, which addresses celebrity worship via repeated TV images of Kristy McNichol's face. Much better are Zack Stiglicz's meditation on eros and death, Posthumously Yours, in which writhing superimpositions of male faces and bodies are juxtaposed with intimations of a final farewell with poignant effect, and Clive Holden's 18,000 Dead in Gordon Head, a meditation on violence filmed on a stretch of road where a girl was felled by a sniper, filmed from the vantage point of the victim. 80 min. (FC) (10:15)

Trailer Town

Amateur-video garbage shot in a northern California trailer park by B movie actor Giuseppe Andrews (Detroit Rock City), with down-and-out residents reading obscene purple prose off cue cards. The dialogue is so warped that I did find myself laughing a few times, but not as often as the actors. I'm sure the festival organizers will justify this as black comedy, or street theater, or outsider art, or something; the only insight I took away from it was that I deserve a raise. 80 min. (JJ) (10:30)


* Pastry Selection

Several of the best of these 11 videos successfully pair abstract images with music--no small achievement. Michaela Grill's Trans uses a fog of unfocused shapes to add space and mystery to Martin Siewert's dreamy track of pulses and silences, and Michaela Schwentner's Jet uses Radian's music to accompany shifting hints of grids. ReMI's terrific Zijkfijergojok melds intricate flickering geometrical patterns with snatches of imagery and appropriately pointillist sound. On a very different note, Emily Vey Duke and Cooper Battersby's I Am a Conjuror shows a nude couple talking about how they plan to revolutionize science with their "discoveries"; the charm lies in the mix of playful nonsense, the hints of genuine belief (they like endangered species), and the use of long takes and drab delivery to evoke serious anomie. 76 min. (FC) (1:30)

The Silence of Green

In the best (and shortest) of these three landscape videos, Peter Rose's The Geosophist's Tears (2002), images of a slide rule, views from a moving car, and shots of overhead wires echo our culture's geometrical subdividing of land. In the longest, Andreas Horvath's The Silence of Green (2002), images of British farms and herds being culled combine with voice-over of residents talking about the 2001 outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease and suggesting numerous conspiracies; the mix is emotionally effective, but the form is rambling, the cinematography artless. Julian Goldberger's almost unwatchable The Eulipion Chronicles Vol. 2 consists of nearly random footage of Southeast Asia; two girls smiling at the camera in rapid freeze-frames is one of many low points. 75 min. (FC) (1:45)

Retooling Dissent

Short experimental and documentary videos, many of them advocating low-tech tools to resist global economic power. StreetRec's Retooling Dissent: Creative Resistance Projects at the World Economic Forum Protests 02-02-02 surveys such novel communication devices as a bicycle with stencils attached to its wheels that paints slogans on city streets. But its best segment, tacked on at the end, is 4n6's "Surveillance Report," in which Bill Brown, part of a New York guerrilla theater troupe that performs in front of surveillance cameras, delivers an articulate harangue on privacy and the Fourth Amendment. In Eye of the Storm, Raphael Lyon and Andres Ingoglia weakly argue that activists with camcorders effectively combated Argentina's recent neoliberal crisis. And Elizabeth Witham's Stealing Air is a promo for unlicensed microradio stations in Berkeley and Santa Cruz. Also showing: work by Mary Patten, Walter Forsberg, Bryan Boyce, and Jim Finn. 75 min. (Bill Stamets) (3:15)

A Certain Kind of Death

Or "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About the County Morgue but Were Afraid to Ask." Documentary filmmakers Blue Hadaegh and Grover Babcock follow three corpses through the Los Angeles county coroner's system, from site of death to cremation to auctioning of personal effects. The film captures the challenges facing employees of the coroner's office when confronted with bodies that have little to identify them or have no apparent next of kin, and even at its most gruesome--and it's mighty grim at times--it's never exploitive or cheaply lurid the way HBO's Autopsy series frequently is. Still, its take on the proceedings is as perfunctory and clinical as the work being shown, and it allows the bodies and the workers to remain depersonalized throughout. 69 min. (Reece Pendleton) (3:30)

* Families

Not yet 30, James Fotopoulos may be Chicago's most prolific filmmaker. This, his best feature to date, presents a series of conversations between various pairs of characters, including a mother and son and a boyfriend and girlfriend, as well as characters whose relationships to each other are left unexplained. The result is a fascinating mix of coherence and enigma that reproduces the unpredictability of real life. Most fascinating is the way Fotopoulos's one-take scenes and taut framing reinforce the prison of mundane concerns within which the characters dwell. Long takes of sheep at the beginning and end offer a metaphor for the people; like the football team repeatedly shown, none of the characters moves with real freedom. Also on the program: Fotopoulos's short The Hemispheres. 101 min. (FC) (5:00)

Nobody Needs to Know

Drifting along as casually as the spooky dub reggae on its sound track, this black-and-white metafiction by Azazel Jacobs interweaves three story lines: an anonymous black guy peers into and then disappears behind the camera, his voice-over a mix of whimsical rap and omniscient narration; an aspiring actress suggestively named Iris (Tricia Vessey) ponders the meaning of her profession while waiting for a callback about a movie role; meanwhile, a series of attractive women in slips audition for the same film by acting out death scenes for a director (Matt Borrum) who becomes increasingly confused as to what he's after. This runs out of gas long before its 95 minutes are up, but on the whole it's an intriguing inquiry into the modern obsession with seeing and being seen. (JJ) (5:15)

It's a Maddin, Maddin, Maddin World: Films by Contemporary Winnipeg Filmmakers

Curator Walter Forsberg picked this bouquet of shorts from the Canadian prairie that spawned visionary filmmaker Guy Maddin (Dracula: Pages From a Virgin's Diary), and in keeping with the program's namesake, there are numerous droll and indulgent homages to silent cinema and other marginalized genres such as educational films. The mannerist aesthetic is expressed most successfully in John Paizs's Springtime in Greenland (1981), a supremely weird and understated evocation of 50s suburbia in which homoeroticism surfaces at a backyard pool party. But Jeff Erbach's pervy Soft Like Me (1996) overreaches with its tale of slave boys who wear metal harnesses and horse bits, harvest wheat for an obese masked pedophile, and are rewarded by being fed into a meat grinder. Also showing: works by Danishka Esterhazy, Matthew Rankin, Noam Gonick, and Deco Dawson & the Royal Art Lodge. 78 min. (Bill Stamets) (6:45)


Todd Verow pursues his interest in marginal and troubled people in his latest digital video, which comprises four vignettes about couples, romantic and otherwise. Each character is caught in some form of trap; those who aren't running in place are locked in downward spirals. A mother's attempt to reconcile with her estranged daughter reaches an ambiguous conclusion; a gay male couple who used to spice up their sex life with scenarios in which one pretended to be a hustler now rehearse breakup scenes; an addled actress clings tenuously to life in retirement. Scenes of these self-absorbed depressives feel like real-life footage of Andy Warhol's superstars minus the glamour. Verow's work is less visually enticing than Warhol's but arguably more honest. 72 min. (FC) (7:00)

Threads of Belonging

The guiding light of this fitfully gripping drama by Jennifer Montgomery is 60s psychoanalyst and author R.D. Laing, who took an anticlinical view when it came to treating mental illness. He called for doctors and patients to live together and undergo mutual catharsis, and here actors demonstrate the process, improvising from case histories. Things get pretty intense at times, but now and then it's painfully obvious that the therapists' ideological confrontations are staged. Montgomery's debt to Lars von Trier is considerable; her sincerity in reviving Laing's radical notions can't be doubted. 94 min. (TS) (8:45)



See listing for Saturday, August 30. (5:00)

Rise Above: The Tribe 8 Documentary

In this routine documentary about the lesbian punk band Tribe 8, director Tracy Flannigan interviews the players about their lives, their sexuality, and their reasons for choosing hardcore punk as a means of expression. Interspersed throughout are clips of the band's raucous stage show, which actually prove far less interesting than the women's genial commentary. It's telling that the only real drama dates to 1994, when Tribe 8 was confronted by a handful of angry feminists at the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival. Apparently the protesters were outraged by the players' onstage shenanigans: performing topless, wearing dildos, flirting with bondage equipment, closing their set with a mock castration. It's a shame they couldn't come up with a few gimmicks to liven things up. 80 min. (Reece Pendleton) (5:15)

Hot and Bothered

In the likable High School Reunion, San Francisco video maker Sarah Jacobson returns to Edina, Minnesota, to settle scores with her old classmates a decade after they graduated. Hot and Bothered: Feminist Pornography is an industry-sponsored plug for woman-friendly sex aids (including such videos as The Ultimate Guide to Anal Sex for Women and Bend Over Boyfriend 2, for guys who don't realize their prostate is really their G-spot); director Becky Goldberg offers talking heads of articulate entrepreneurs but provides little insight into their business. Also showing: minor satiric exercises by T. Arthur Cottam, Eileen Maxson, and Sterling Ruby. 79 min. (Bill Stamets) (6:45)

A Certain Kind of Death

See listing for Sunday, August 31. (7:00)

* Hitler's Hat

Jeff Krulik has attracted a healthy cult following with pop-anthropology exercises like Heavy Metal Parking Lot (1986) and Neil Diamond Parking Lot (1998). I've never been very taken with his winking celebrations of American kitsch, but this 50-minute video documentary is another story. Shot at a reunion of the 42nd Rainbow Infantry Division, it focuses on Richard Marowitz, a Jewish-American soldier who helped to liberate Dachau and came home with a singular war trophy: a silk top hat abandoned in a Munich closet by the Fuhrer himself. Krulik offsets the veterans' sobering reminiscences with all manner of goofy anti-Nazi propaganda (featuring, among others, Bing Crosby, Jack Benny, and the Three Stooges); the delicate blend of epic tragedy and inane pop culture borders on the elegiac. Also on the program: Rosie and Rebecca's Jeff Krulik Picks the Weasel (2002, 10 min.), a cable-access segment in which Krulik talks about his work while taking a shower, and Jim Trainor's The Skulls, and the Skulls and the Bones, and the Bones (12 min.), about a devoted collector of skeletal remains. (JJ) (8:30)

Mutiny: Asians Storm British Music

See listing for Friday, August 29. (8:45)

Noble Sacrifice

See listing for Saturday, August 30. (10:15)


See listing for Saturday, August 30. (10:30)


Retooling Dissent

See listing for Sunday, August 31. (5:00)

Threads of Belonging

See listing for Sunday, August 31. (5:15)

* Tricky Existence

See listing for Friday, August 29. (6:45)

Cheesy Values

See listing for Saturday, August 30. (7:00)


See listing for Saturday, August 30. (8:30)

Muhammad and Jane

See listing for Saturday, August 30. (8:45)

* (Un)natural Order

Disruptions of order are nothing new in the avant-garde, but several of these eight films are true originals, and the most ordinary looking, Ben Russell's The Quarry (2002), proves to be the weirdest. Aside from one intertitle, it consists of nearly identical static shots of an Easter Island landscape; in the foreground, flowers sway in the breeze, but with each passing minute the hill in the background seems more ominous. In Ablution (2002), Eric Patrick uses time-lapse photography to create an affecting meditation on loss of identity in the face of an accelerating world: as shadows race by, a man sitting on a porch seems to vanish into a blotch painted on the film. In Outline, Sandra Gibson makes effective use of 35-millimeter 'Scope, her semiabstract images offering enticing labyrinths, and in River, Jean-Claude Bustros rephotographs Marlon Brando's 1961 feature One-Eyed Jacks with video breakup that undercuts the stability of the close-ups. 78 min. (FC) (10:15)

Rockets Redglare

See listing for Friday, August 29. (10:30)

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