Underground Film Journal

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Glimpses Of Beauty

By Mike Everleth ⋅ November 3, 2008

Jim Finn‘s recent piece at CinemaScope, “Damn Dirty Apes: Dead Festivals in the USA,” is a great and a must read for the underground film crowd. So, go check it out if you haven’t already. In it, he discusses the closing of the New York Underground Film Festival as well as some other avant garde film fests this year. It’s a terrific personal remembrance piece as well as containing some insightful musings on the changing underground fest scene.

Finn came into that scene just after I moved from New York and thus stopped heavily attending and covering NYUFF. But his recollections of the fest match my own. Although I didn’t personally socialize much at the actual festival, each year it felt like both a gathering of old friends to see what they’ve been up to, as well as being introduced to a whole new bunch of interesting people. That’s what draws me so heavily to underground films. The work is usually so aggressively personal that you can feel a kinship with a director you’ve never met.

I also personally felt, as Finn’s piece implies, that the shuttering of NYUFF was like an end of an era. But I disagree with the overly melancholy tone of the piece. Writing as someone who just cuts and pastes underground festival lineups and not someone who travels to many — if any — of those fests, I think the state of avant garde, experimental and underground film is pretty strong.

Finn only mentions a few small festivals that continue in the NYUFF tradition, but he misses some of the bigger ones. For example, the Boston Underground and the Atlanta Underground, entering into their 11th and 6th years respectively, have become two bold, proud and significant festivals on the underground scene that seem to only get bigger and more diverse as they get older. Compared to the 15-year runs of both NYUFF and the Chicago Underground, Boston and Atlanta may still seem like the “new kids on the block,” but they’ve definitely hit their confident young adult stages.

It was also interesting to see this year that while some of the old guard was retiring, two new fests entered the workforce: The Arizona and Minneapolis Undergrounds. Plus, rather than shutting down the New Haven Underground, co-founders Michael Mongillo and Todd Dzicek, handed the reigns over to veteran underground film critic Phil Hall.

Having not been to an underground film festival in quite some time, I can’t really get a sense of what kind of comeraderie and community exists out there. Plus, as the only person running a news and review website devoted exclusively to this kind of filmmaking, that adds an extra layer of difficulty in trying to gauge “the scene.” I don’t know if the spirit of the underground scene is the same or different than it was seven or eight years ago. It’s different for me personally, for sure, but I’m no marker to set a standard by.

What I do know, from all the generous filmmakers who send me movies to review, that the films are just as strong as ever. I’ve seen some absolutely stellar and remarkable films this year, both features and shorts. These are movies I’m as excited by and about as I was by the ones I saw during my times at NYUFF. These are the films that I write about ad nauseum on the site because I’m such a huge fan. And there’s lots of new filmmakers for all of us to keep our eyes on, like Carlos Atanes, Joshua Brown, Georg Koszulinski and Rona Mark, just to name a brief few feature directors I’ve been introduced to this year.

(One thing I feel badly about is that I haven’t seen any of Finn’s feature films. His latest feature, The Juche Idea, is actually playing in Los Angeles at AFI this week, but I unfortunately won’t be around for the screenings.)

Finn named his CinemaSource article after Planet of the Apes and he concludes his observations with:

These festivals, like highly evolved educated chimpanzees, helped give all of the filmmakers who screened at them the opportunity to live as humans in a world that often seems like it’s made for apes.

That’s the filmmaker perspective. (And I like how he puts it.) From my own perspective as a viewer, a fan and a critic, I’ve named this response piece after Jonas Mekas‘ epic diary film As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty, which, unlike Planet of the Apes, I haven’t seen. But still, that title is how I feel regarding the underground films I’ve seen, whether they were years ago at a festival or just a few weeks ago at home on DVD.