Movie Review: 2001 NYUFF: Day 5: George Kuchar & Friends
Tho’ I had planned to see the documentary Coffin Joe, about Mexican horror movie director José Mojica Marins, at 11pm last night at the 2001 New York Underground Film Festival I decided instead to go home and get some much needed beauty sleep, all the more necessary to prepare for a virtual 9-hour Sunday marathon. Granted, I had a nice 90-minute break between the shorts program “Swingin’ on the Flippity Flop” and the feature The Curse, during which I could grab a relaxing “size-of-your-head” cup of coffee at the Des Moines on Ave. A, but still I knew it was going to be a punishing day.
All Hail, Jonas Mekas! Without whom the Anthology Film Archives would not exist. Jonas’ Do It started off the day and the shorts program “Kuchar & Co.” Do It is a brief exercise video consisting solely of Jonas himself simply bending his left index finger to the strands of some relaxing classical music.
Following was Kerry Laitala‘s The Escapades of Madame X, a revisiting of Esther Williams films and the excessively opulent dance numbers of movies of the ’30s. Escapades did a fabulous reconstruction of that era, but then the film ends with a woman, Madame X I presume, with a lit cigarette in her mouth and blowing the smoke out of her vagina, so I don’t know what that was all about.
Then, of course, the “Kuchar” of “Kuchar & Co.” is George Kuchar (well, not totally of course, it could have been Mike) who chimes in with not one, but two featurettes: Planet of the Vamps and the wondrously titled The Stench of Satan.
I was a little distraught to see that the garishly beautiful designed sets of the Kuchars’ Sins of the Fleshapoids era has been replaced by cheap garish video lighting, cutting swaths of phosphorescent reds and deep blues across the action. Storywise, George is in top form, however. Planet of the Vamps is a jumbled mess that jumps from an outer space “pleasure station” to an inexplicable visit to ancient Atlantis before jumping into high gear with the actual vamps: 2 warring queens of Mars battling over a grotesque alien baby with not-so innocent Earthmen caught in the middle. A fun & sexy romp, the fact that the film is a jumbled mess only enhances its charming qualities. And tho’ the Mars sets are not as lavish and creative as the Fleshapoids ones, Kuchar and his crew did do a decent job creating a believable alien world with the obvious 5 cents and bargain basement video SFX they had to work with.
On the other hand, The Stench of Satan started out with a semblance of a plot about a young woman getting a job at a museum that collects objects imbued with the essence of evil. Then, with a team of crack researchers, the young gal goes on a globe-hopping trip to exotic locales, but mostly Egypt. Stench also devolves into a muddled glob of raunchy excess, including a T-Rex rampage, an elderly woman getting her tits suckled and glorious dialogue such as, “You smell so good baby, you’re like hot butter in my arms.”
This had been also the first spot in the fest when I got to see a good conglomeration of shorts. Following “Kuchar & Co.” was the collection “Swingin’ on the Flippity Flop”, named as such “for no good reason” as stated by NYUFF’s Programming Director Andrew Lampert, of which I’d have to believe him as “Swingin'” was an eclectic mix.
First up was Star Spangled Baby Doll, a mildly diverting, funny in an MTV “Jackass” kind of way home video by Skizz Cyzyk featuring the melting and blowing up of a Cabbage Patch© doll at a 4th of July barbecue.
This was followed by the annoying, but in a good way, Mother & Son by Matthew Silver. An interesting concept, Matthew got his grandmother & uncle to recreate scenes of when the pair lived together in a small Queens apartment. The resultant film is a non-stop screech fest between a grating middle-aged man who hand washes his socks in the bathtub and his easily irritated elderly mother who would prefer to live alone. Like friggin’ nails on a blackboard for a grueling 15 minutes. (Watch this underground movie online)
Almost equally grating, but mercifully shorter, was Jimmy Jang Jang, a music video of sorts starring a rambling, incoherent grizzled mountain man singing the nonsensical “Jimmy Jang Jang” endlessly. Endlessly for 3 minutes until the film was over, at least.
During the course of a week of the NYUFF, you are pretty much expected to sit through any number of semi-, full-out and pseudo-pornographic films. Forever Bottom!, however, was one of 2 truly absurdist non-porno movies I sat through this year. Bottom! features a cast of one, director/star Nguyen Tan Hoang, a slender Asian male enjoying anal sex received from an invisible partner in a plethora of peculiar locations, including the backseat of a car on the side of a busy road and on a jetty on a public beach. Hysterical & crude.
What this world needs more of are good punk rock zombie movies. That void is filled up partially by the enormously entertaining Hot Trash by Rick Spears. Two slackers eking out a meager existence in a dingy basement apartment, their chaotic existence crosses paths with a bitter girlfriend, an irate landlord and a brain-eating zombie one of them brought home from a wild party the night before. Filled with great writing and brilliant characters, Hot Trash almost feels like the first quarter of a feature, tho’ if the joke were to be dragged out too much it probably would get tiresome. So, what we have is a nicely crafted, humorous flick that knew enough to not get too carried away with its subject matter. Excellent disgusting make-up on the zombie, too.
The beautiful Hot Trash was then followed by a not very interesting documentary from England, Greenidge Meantime. What was most disappointing about this doc was that an infinitely interesting subject, eccentric animator & musician Dennis Greenidge, was inexpertly caught on tape by director Oliver Griffin. I left this film not knowing who Dennis Greenidge is. Is he just a lunatic making horrible experimental cartoons and even more horrible electronic “music” or does he have some sort of professional career making this shit? While Mr. Greenidge was fascinating to listen to, there was no context presented about his life and was filmed in a very ugly manner. Meantime was but one in a series of “eccentric character” documentaries running through the fest and was by far the least entertaining.
Finally, rounding out “Swingin'” was the uneven Pleasureland, a horror film which somewhat evoked recollections of James Fotopoulos and David Cronenberg. What bothered me the most about Pleasureland was the abrupt, unsatisfying ending. Had the film ended in the way I was expecting, then the film would have been just a cheezy “Twilight Zone” rip-off. Yet, the way the film just stopped was a real letdown, too, because I had been enjoying it up until then. Director Bryan Poyser was somewhat backed into a corner with where he could go with the subject matter. I was also disappointed that a substantial supporting character never really went anywhere, either. This is not to say that Pleasureland can be written off as a failure, but that it doesn’t fully live up to the promise of the creativeness that was put into the film. Great acting and great directing, the script just needed some work I think.
Offering a break in the day’s shorts marathon was what I thought was an odd selection for the fest, but I’m glad they included it, the feminist horror-comedy The Curse. However, I should say that Curse was preceded by yet another short, Bibb Bailey’s Beauty (try saying that 3 times fast). Beauty was several quick B&W portraits of the residents of a nursing home. Quite lovely, it reminds us that all of humanity is beautiful, even the discarded and almost forgotten.
Jacqueline Garry’s The Curse was the most non-experimental, mainstream flick of the entire festival, but I assume it was selected to screen because of its cleverness, ingenuity and originality, a tale that equates PMS with lycanthropy. Starting out in a fairly cliché and obvious manner in which an over-the-top mousy young woman, who is obviously absolutely gorgeous despite lame attempts to “uglify” her up by wearing glasses and by hanging her hair in her face, is transformed into an over-the top aggressively hot babe after being bitten by another woman during a department store sale.
However, the film quickly picks up steam with some incredibly clever writing. For a horror-comedy, The Curse takes the smart tack by not writing any jokes, or not many anyway, and relies instead on allowing the humor to grow naturally out of the situation and nicely developed characters. The film also smartly makes great suggestive use out of limited special effects and gore. The Curse is an excellent example of an ingenious concept, expertly developed and creatively executed with limited resources. I really hope some smart distributor snatches this up for a regular theater run.
The next batch of films I sat through, collectively titled by the NYUFF “The Out of Towners” due to most of the films being foreign productions and two being made on the West Coast, were more of a batch of mini-features than short-shorts. Well, except for the first flick, The Residual Artifacts of Communication, an experimental animation piece by Richard Mathias Sandoval. I don’t often see 35mm experimental films, but Residual was one of two in the fest this year.
**Unnecessary side note: I’ve noticed I’ve been making many grand pronouncements about what’s “in the fest” this year. It would be very easy for someone to point out to me that my numbers are wrong, e.g. there may have been many more than just 2 35mm experimental films “in the fest”. However, tried as I might, I was not able to see every single film playing this year, so whenever I claim what was “in the fest” actually refers to what I was able to physically see. And now back to our regularly scheduled review:
I don’t know the technique that Sandoval used to create the eerie Residual, but it was like staring at alien landscapes accompanied by a soothingly calm soundtrack. I also liked the wide expanse of the film being on 35mm, enhancing the landscape effect, and think the film would have been less entrancing had it screened in a square format such as 16mm or video.
Quickly shifting from the weirdly abstract to the painfully real, the next film in “The Out of Towners” was More Or Less, a sublime Austrian short by Mirjam Unger quietly chronicling a deteriorating relationship. I perceive the title of the flick to be a sly question rather than a bold statement. By focusing almost solely on seemingly non-events as a couple lounge around in bed, is the film a more effective look at an awkward romantic coupling or a less effective one?
An almost as quiet film then followed: In the Cycling Park, a Japanese short by Masaki Hosokawa. But while More Or Less was about the “familiarity breeds contempt” stage of a relationship, Cycling Park slowly describes the hopeful promise of a love affair in the making as a damaged bicycle leads two young strangers on a romantic ride. The couple in Cycling Park, however, are a not terribly engaging pair and tho’ I could admire the gentle sweetness of the film, its laconic pace kind of annoyed me. I was also distracted by the grainy video-to 16mm film transfer, a process that has not been perfected yet in the field. It might have been better if it had just been projected on video.
Rounding out the “Out of Towners” collection was supposed to be a Norwegian documentary. However, Programming Director Andrew Lampert announced that the film was still supposedly “out of town”. Instead, it was replaced by an American Northwest documentary, The Magic of Radio by Greta Snider. Radio was in the unfortunate position of trying to entertain me while I was eager to duck out in time to catch the closing night film, Gone. All I wanted was for the thing to end, which was a shame because its a really great flick, but the good news is that I was able to watch it again in a more relaxed mood on Tuesday. Radio is a fun mix of three quirky radio “stories” separated by nice experimental sound & video montages. Microradio is currently a hot potato issue in the radical world right now and while Radio doesn’t make any allusions to any larger political/social issues, it is a quaint look at an obscure, but important and overlooked, art form and method of modern communication.
Greta’s made a bunch of kick-ass movies, so to find out more about her check out her credits and bio site.
So, as Radio‘s credits started to roll, I booked out of the downstairs theater as fast as I could only to run smack into a packed lobby waiting for the repeat 9:30pm showing of Gone.
The first screening, at 8:30pm, ran over, presumably by an extended post-film Q&A session with the movie’s director, Cecilia Dougherty. I myself am unfamiliar with Cecilia’s work, but she must have some sort of following as I think this was the most crowded feature at the fest.
I also had the misfortune of being stuck in line with a garrulous, loud, obnoxious bunch of excited, screaming people. As I stood there wishing that they’d shut the hell up and stop polluting my ears with their pretentiousness, I also tried to remember my Buddhist training and attempted to stay calm and be respectful of other people’s emotions, which was good because as I came to find out I was standing behind the film’s star and some supporting cast members. If I were them, I would be an overbearing prick, too.
I wasn’t looking too forward to Gone anyway. As the NYUFF’s closer, the film is actually a featurette clocking in at a brief 37 minutes, but projected as a split-screen, i.e. 2 screens side-by-side displayed the action simultaneously. I had never seen a split-screen film and wasn’t sure how I’d enjoy the effect.
Turns out I liked the split-screen just fine. The best way to describe the experience is that one screen would hold the main action while the second screen displayed supplemental information. The story of Gone was also quite simple, about a transplanted Californian lesbian in NYC who receives a visit from her mother. Interesting and emotional, the movie unfortunately completely lost me when an extended performance art/interpretive dance sequence was unnecessarily inserted in the middle of the flick. I suppose it meant something, but I’m not a dance fan to begin with so I was lost. Others may not be as distracted as I was. But the loud actress who stood in front of me in the lobby, she actually turned in a reflective subtle performance that really holds the film together.
Finally, following Gone was a NYUFF closing party at a bar I can’t remember the name of around the block from the Anthology. If I haven’t mentioned or made it clear thus far, I attended all of the NYUFF by myself and tended to shun any social interaction. I wasn’t too enthralled to attend the party. However, I was essentially forced to go as the party was being DJed by uber-chick band Le Tigre. If you don’t have at least one of Le Tigre’s 2 CDs — 1 LP & 1 EP — go buy one now!
What I ended up doing at the “party” was I bought one over-priced Manhattan, got a good gander at Le Tigre’s foxy Kathleen Hanna, whom I’ve admired so much in her many incarnations — Bikini Kill, Julie Ruin, Le Tigre — but had never seen before, either in concert or elsewhere, then I went home. Tho’ this was supposedly the “Closing Night” of the fest, I still had 2 days and approximately 50 films to go (all being repeats from the previous 5 days that I had missed).