17th Chicago Underground Film Festival
A doc about small towns that promote themselves as having the world’s largest version of something (lemon, Lava lamp, boll weevil, you name it); a drama about people into live-action role-playing; a program of shorts by avant-garde godfather Jonas Mekas. What’s the common thread? These are the films that are too far outside the mainstream to make the usual festival circuit, and they’re certainly not likely to come to a theater near you for a commercial run. That’s the mission of the Chicago Underground Film Festival, and while this year’s offerings are short on the kind of ultra-low-budget shock and schlock that used to be the fest’s signature (no George Kuchar films this year), maybe that’s a sign that even the underground is adjusting to the brave new world where cheap cameras mean that making your own movie isn’t the exclusive bailiwick of the obsessive fringe.
The good news is that, though you may not find the so-bad-it’s-art stuff, there are some gems in the festival. World’s Largest, directed by Amy Elliott and Elizabeth Donius, strikes a delicate balance between comedy and tragedy in its examination of America’s dying small towns and their quaint giant novelty items that someone at some point thought would be a tourist draw. When a resident of Soap Lake, Washington, (known for the disgusting but totally natural foam that sometimes builds up along the shores of the lake) tries to persuade the townspeople that a giant Lava lamp will revitalize their economy, you can’t help but laugh and cry at the same time. Elliott and Donius know exactly how far they can push this before it becomes cruel.
An utterly different take on the American fantasy is Americatown, a jaunty little flick set in a an imaginary village that apparently has everything you could ever want, from Niagara Falls to Chicago’s “Bean” to the Grand Canyon. The whole film is a series of playful riffs—when one character says he wants to get someone on the telephone, dozens of people play the game of telephone, passing along his message. It takes awhile to settle into the film’s vibe (for the first ten minutes we were grinding our teeth), but once you relax and accept it on its own terms, it’s simple unapologetic fun.
Chuck Workman, the guy behind those Oscar montages, pays homage to Jonas Mekas, but also to the whole history of American avant-garde film, in Visionaries: Jonas Mekas and the (Mostly) American Avant-Garde. It’s an ambitious, perhaps too ambitious, survey, but incredibly useful for anyone who comes to the avant-garde with no sense of how to connect the dots from Maya Deren to Kenneth Anger to Stan Brakhage to Michael Snow. Those dots are pretty darn far apart, but even if Workman’s history gets flattened out, it’s good to see the numerous clips he uses. And, if Visionaries whets your appetite, you can catch a program of Mekas shorts. It plays on Saturday, and on that day you could also catch Americatown or a doc about an American jihadist. That’s the kind of range CUFF offers. Not all the films are great, but extra points for variety.
The Chicago Underground Film Festival runs from Friday 24 to July 1. See cuff.org for showtimes.