Underground Film Journal

Posted In » Movie Reviews

Movie Review: 2001 NYUFF: Day 7: Vanessa Renwick & Friends

By Mike Everleth ⋅ March 13, 2001

Persian woman lying down in old movie

The assault of the short films continued for the last day of the 2001 New York Underground Film Festival for me. We’re gonna get right into it here ‘cuz I’m starting to get hand cramps and I can’t waste time on extraneous crap.

The first batch was labeled “Send Word” for whatever reason with the lead film being another hyperkinetic flashdance of image bombardment. Though it was called Things to Remember About Daumier, I still don’t know who Daumier was. A rapid succession of cartoons and text from some unknown book: I don’t know if the book was by or about this Daumier person, but I suppose that isn’t necessary to enjoy Matthew Konicek’s film.

The next couple films all had sort of an animal theme running through them. It took 2 people to put You Can’t Keep a Good Snake Down together, Moira Tierney & Masha Godovannya, and I wonder if one of them has a kung fu fetish and the other a belly dancing obsession or if they both collaborated together on both themes. Anyway, the film is a collection of snippets from chopsocky movies and other exotic looking films, played back superfast, all of which included a snake in some manner.

Switching from the hyperkinetic to the languid, the next “Send Word” was  Micromoth, a beautiful look at some revolting insects. Utilizing some astonishing microscopic cinematography, Julie Murray‘s camera lovingly passes over the bodies of moths, magnifying their little insect parts to gigantic and grossly distorted proportions. I’d love to know what type of equipment Julie used to shoot this.

At first, Josef Dabernig’s Jogging didn’t seem to have anything to do with jogging or animals. A road movie in the literal sense, an unseen driver motors across a sunny, but dirty, urban landscape that becomes more and more rural up until one point where the vehicle has to stop to let a herd of sheep cross the roadway. The film ultimately ends up in the parking lot of what I assume to be a sports stadium, but looked more like a UFO in a field, surrounded by packs of mangy dogs. I rather enjoyed this ultra-slow moving film, until an unnecessary lingering shot of the sky, which I only assume was included to let the song on the soundtrack fade out gracefully. There seemed to be quite a few films this year that felt needlessly padded out to accommodate music on the soundtrack, tho’ this is the first time I’m mentioning it here I don’t want to seem like I’m particularly picking on Jogging.

Chickens sitting in their coop

The animal motif ended with Adrianne Jorge‘s Songs of Azores. Adrianne is also a projectionist at the Anthology Film Archives who ended up working during this batch of shorts, projecting her own film. Her movie was like a classic experimental documentary from like the ’70s or so. Shot in very tight close-ups under horrendous lighting conditions, a visual style that makes the film all the more beautiful to watch. As one of Adrianne’s Portugese aunts tends to some chickens in a coop, another, more elderly aunt endlessly sings a bizarre, mysterious song, the meaning of which isn’t revealed until the film’s final moments, an excellent tact on Adrienne’s part. A lyrical, fascinating and intriguing picture.

An equally intriguing documentary, but for completely different reasons was Uncle Eugene by Aaron Lubarsky. Eugene started with a disembodied voice making some extremely odd comments about the song “American Pie”, claiming it was written about him. That voice we come to discover belongs to Aaron’s actual Uncle Eugene, a middle-aged guy who is the unfortunate victim of drug abuse.

Eugene Lubarsky towering over the camera

A brilliant child who became a chess master at a very young age, Eugene went on to experiment with drugs, particularly LSD, which fried his brains. Aaron confesses that when he was a kid himself, his parents told him not to accept collect calls from his crazy uncle. The only question I would have liked answered was how and why Aaron got in touch with Eugene: Was it just for this film or was there a relaxation of the handling of Eugene in the Lubarsky household? But that’s a trivial complaint for a fascinating and loving portrait. Like the other documentaries I’ve been praising in the NYUFF, Eugene is wonderfully constructed with Aaron really knowing how to dole out information in incremental bits that build upon each other to keep the film moving and increasingly interesting.

The final movie of “Send Word” I already saw on Sunday: The Magic of Radio by Greta Snider. I contemplated ditching this film the second time, but decided to stay and see it again. I’m really glad I did, too, because I enjoyed it a lot more this time since I wasn’t so distracted about leaving. Check out Day 5’s reviews to see what I’m talking about if you don’t know already. Or check out Greta’s credits and bio site for more info.

Next up was a batch of shorts curated by one Astria Suparak, whom I’m not familiar with but she apparently gets a special sidebar each year in the NYUFF. I missed her selections last year, but tonite Astria was hawking a videotape compilation of them. I regret now not buying it. At the time, it seemed a bad night to drop yet another 15 bucks or so after having already spent so much already at the fest. Anyway, Astria’s selections were collectively titled “Some New Romantic/T.V. Sounds”.

And if you want to learn a little about Ms. Suparak, visit her official website.

Artist Kirsten Stoltmann talks into the camera

Starting things off was Self-Reflecting by Kirsten Stoltmann, a film that if you blinked you woulda missed it, but nevertheless intriguing, but then I’ve always had a thing for doughy chicks in bikinis with emotional problems doing their dishes. This is not the last we’ve heard from Ms. Stoltmann, either.

I loved the dialogue in Zakery Weiss’ Communication, recounting an awkward phone conversation between Zakery & his grandmother checking up on him at college. But I’m not too sure if I agreed with the video, a static, extreme close-up of Zakery on the phone. Obviously, Zakery was trying to intensify the irritating conversation, but it didn’t totally work for me.

Kirsten Stoltmann’s second, and last, film in the batch was the longer, but not necessarily more ambitious True Confessions of an Artist. The only pixlevision film I saw in the fest and shot in an eerie green glow reminiscent of Curse of the Seven Jackals, Kirsten’s actual confessions are crises that I think all artistic types go through at one time or another. But a cute, quaint little flick regardless.

And the Most Psychotic Film Award of the fest has to go to Karen Yasinsky’s creepy Drop That Baby Again. Featuring some of the most fluid, realistic stop-motion animation I’ve ever seen, Drop stars a drab couple in a drab living room, kind of like a moldy Gumby set, that actually do drop a baby again. Completely unsettling without much of anything actually happening. I get shudders just thinking about it.

Woman standing in a corner

Cheryl Weaver’s Pedestrian Errors was a brief silent flick about a woman unable to dress herself competently. Pretty funny when she gets lost in her own sweater, but overall kinda light.

Bouncing in the Corner #36DDD is supposed to be a tribute by filmmaker Dara Greenwald to another avant garde filmmaker, Bruce Nauman, but I don’t get the reference. Regardless, an anonymous woman with gigantic breasts (see film title) bounces off the walls in the corner of an empty room, while another anonymous pair of hands places objects under the breasts, e.g. a tennis ball, to see if they’ll stay, which they do. I can appreciate a good tit joke and I enjoyed the unique angle from which the film was shot, which I can’t really describe here.

In another homage, American Graffity bears some reference to American Graffiti, but I couldn’t figure that out from watching the film, but which doesn’t mean I didn’t like this beguiling little flick. I couldn’t follow anything thing that was going on, but I found the incomprehensible plot engrossing and the images beautifully shot in a faux ’70s low budget style with appropriately gritty cinematography and interesting to watch characters. The programming notes by Graffity‘s director, Seth Price, claim that the elderly man and young rabble-rouser are different personalities of the same person, but whatever. Puzzling and gorgeous and vaguely depressing: Always a winning combination!

Continuing the ’70s look was Letters, Notes by Stephanie Barber, another silent film but with loads of text printed on top of pictures cut out of ’70s magazines. The text being snippets from letters hinting at the budding sexuality of adolescents, memories that if they don’t go forgotten will scar young innocents for life, even if the memories are accompanied by pretty pictures.

These colorful films were followed by an oddly colorful B&W film, Naomi Uman‘s Private Movie. The film is split into 3 parts, which I’m not sure what the connection to each other are, but I sure enjoyed the interesting cinematography. I’m not sure how this film was shot, but the images appeared to be burned into the actual film instead of photographed, giving everything a haunting luminescence.

Then, wrapping up “Some New Romantic” was the most conventional film of the bunch, In Love With Love, directed by Brian L. Frye. Shot kind of flatly, the magic of the movie is in the editing. The story of a love triangle surrounding a porno magazine, the action is repeated several times from different angles which, for some reason, accentuates the humor of the piece, which was pretty funny to begin with.

At the beginning of my very last program of this year’s NYUFF, called “Small Detachable Heads for Birds” (so named from a line in one of the films in the collection), Andrew Lampert announced that we would be watching three short films and then an hour compilation of films by Vanessa Renwick. An hour! I was really beat at this point and beginning to look forward to going home, so I wasn’t overjoyed to hear this news. However, the 3 shorts turned out to be very short and Ms. Renwick to be absolutely brilliant, so it turned out to be a not so bad final screening after all.

Also, when we entered the theater, we were greeted by a video loop by Renwick called A Perfect Ass, which is exactly what it was, a naked giant butt wiggling in our faces. Not sure if it was “perfect”, but it was a pretty nice ass, I must say.

The first actual film, Ass being more of an installation piece, was Flip Foot by Paula Kinsel. I have to be completely honest here. I’m actually writing these reviews almost a full month after seeing the films and shit ass movie reviewer that I am I completely forgot to take notes on the “Birds” films. I don’t remember much of the imagery of Flip Foot, but the soundtrack was a constant stream of nonsense alliteration, such as “Flip Foot”, and rhyming. Very lyrical and soothing, even though the phrases were being yelled out by an unseen crowd.

Three Legged by John Wood & John Harrison, 2 obviously insane Brits, I do remember quite clearly. Two guys tied together at the knee and ankle dodge tennis balls being shot at them from a swerving automatic ball pitcher. The film was only about 3 minutes, but I think I could have watched these guys for hours. They were pretty good at not being hit, too. Once in awhile a ball would catch one of them in the stomach, tho’.

Filmmaker Shannon Plumb is a cross between Buster Keaton & Marlene Detrich. Well, more like Buster than Marlene, tho’ Shannon does dress up like a man for some of her Film Sketches. Included in the collection were 3 sketches: The Stewardess, Pizza Man & Food Critic, which were all just Shannon in silent sepiatones either in front of a blank wall or in a pizzeria kitchen maniacally acting out the kooky roles she assigned herself.

DVD cover featuring a tattooed woman wearing Converse sneakers

I had never heard of Vanessa Renwick, but she’s quite the prolific filmmaker and it was interesting seeing a bunch of her films in a row. While each one was uniquely different, whether they were documentaries, autobiographical and/or experimental, they were all stylistically similar in an ethereal way. They all had a nice “Renwick” quality to them.

Unfortunately, as I noted before, I have no specific information regarding Vanessa’s films to work from and am only relying on my own sketchy memory to write this. However, a few of them made very deliberate impressions on me. I just can’t give you their titles or running order nor will I know if I’ve left any out when I’m done, tho’ it’s relatively certain I’ll leave out most.

I’m almost positive that the first film was an experimental piece that I can only assume was autobiographical. A woman, of whom we only see her bare feet, walks down an essentially deserted backroad with fields off to each side and stretching out to the edges of forever. On the soundtrack is the woman’s story of traveling and spending an extended period of her life completely barefoot, even while living in a city. If the tale is autobiographical, it is deeply fascinating and personal. If fictional, fantastically and tightly constructed. I didn’t think I was going to enjoy this film for the first few seconds of it, but I became completely engrossed by the narrative and captivated by the visuals.

The most striking film in the bunch was another questionable work of fact. Supposedly about a young underground author living a Bukowski-esque existence, the finished video is more a documentary about making a documentary about an underground writer. Taking place entirely in one room in a flophouse (maybe in San Francisco, but I could be mistaken), Vanessa fools around with an unfamiliar camera, experimenting with different angles and such while the writer invites a spaced-out (drugged-out?) prostitute into the room and proceeds to draw her on an artist’s tablet. Snippets of the writer and hooker’s conversation filter through, but most of the soundtrack is Vanessa recounting how uncomfortable she felt in this situation. While I have no real reason to doubt that the action onscreen wasn’t actually happening, I can’t totally discard the possibility this was a set-up. Nonetheless, an especially harrowing little flick.

Alas, due to my rapidly deteriorating memory, or more accurately my gradually deteriorating memory as it’s taking me so long to bang this out, my review of Ms. Renwick’s films has to be cut shorter than I originally intended. The only 3 other films I remember are:

One: A debatably pro-abortion quickie featuring an impromptu street interview with an elderly anti-abortion activist man with a decidedly radical theory – very shortly the government is going to be killing all babies they don’t like – followed by an unfortunate folksy protest song by 2 girls whose main point was to characterize all anti-abortionists as hypocritical wife beaters. Given the old man’s whacked-out and poorly conceived argument and the girls’ simplistic and self-righteous attack, the film may have been criticizing both sides of the abortion debate’s irrational reactions. But I was getting the vibe the film was sympathetic to the girls and not to the man.

Two: A girl rides her bike down empty rural Oregon roads and magically loses all her clothes while doing so.

Three: The concluding film of Vanessa’s retrospective, of “Small Detachable Heads for Birds”, of my week at the NYUFF, was a film of people yawning, nicely lit shots of people yawning, but just people’s mouths opening and closing in lucid, lyrical succession.

A nice end. To everything.

Go back to 2001 NYUFF: Day 6: Short Films.