By Mike White
Running an independent film festival is a thankless job. There you are, running around making sure that all the films are in, seeing that the filmmakers who said they'd be there have shown up and haven't gotten lost on the way from the airport or been mugged on the way to the theater, never catching a break or a breath, not even being able to kick back for a second an enjoy the fine program you've put together. Instead of thanks from the hundreds of folks kicking around the theater, you hear the grumble of "When's it going to start?" "I paid six bucks for this?!" and "That movie sucked!" No one sings your praises and most folks who come in wouldn't even know that you're the guy who's been up until three in the morning for the last month getting all of the tiny, yet crucially important, details in order.
CUFF '99 was held at The Village Theater – an arthouse in Chicago's Old Town area. Switching locations from The Theater Building on Belmont Street, this year's fest had a more "upscale" feeling, being a few blocks from Urban Outfitters instead of a few doors down from Taboo-Tabou. The theaters at the new venue proved to be roomier but the lobby was cramped and ill-equipped for the crowds that the CUFF attracts (the opening night film, AMERIKAN PASSPORT, sold out twice and had a third, emergency show added – just one of many jam-packed exhibitions!). For better or worse, the cramped lobby didn't have to host an area for t-shirt vending or CUFF programs as technicalities kept both of these in-demand items away for the festival's opening weekend. Luckily, Chicago's popular free paper, The Reader, kept audiences abreast of showtimes and descriptions (with a much more readable font than the rare CUFF programs).
What the CUFF had plenty of was films and videos. The weekend runneth-over with programs running for twelve hours a day in two or more theaters. As the festival stretched into the week (running from Friday August 13 to Thursday August 19), the pace slowed a bit but the CUFF's line-up was so replete that few films were repeated.
Film festivals are like lotteries. You spend six dollars on a ticket and can end up being subjected to some boring movie about rival pet store supply salesmen (SUCKERFISH), wishing you were watching GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS or TIN MEN. On the other hand you can roll the dice again and hit the jackpot (THE LOVE MACHINE)! When the dust cleared, I found myself cashing out from the CUFF table a winner.
I had learned a bit last year about how to play the odds and stick to feature films over shorts; catching some classic films like Lou Adler's LADIES AND GENTLEMEN THE FABULOUS STAINS and Paul Morrissey's FLESH FOR FRANKENSTEIN along with the Kevin DiNovis' terrific, disturbing SURRENDER DOROTHY. Anything under 83 minutes was a bust for me last year. Fortunately, there were a few exceptional shorts to be seen this year.
MAN OF COURAGE (dir. Doug Lussenhop)
This documentary of Graham Smith and his band, Kleenex Girl Wonder presents its subject matter simply enough. Without putting on airs, Smith first appears as a social reject and claims to have written over two-hundred songs in his career thus far. Eventually, through the aid of cutaways to performances and videos of Kleenex Girl Wonder, one begins to realize that Smith is exuberant rather than naďve. His poppy, catchy tunes are really likeable and the videos (also shot by Lussenhop) are a real treat, recapturing the experimental early days of music videos before folks like Hype Williams turned them into overblown million dollar mini-movies. Good luck, Graham!
SID (dir. Jeffry Noyes Scher)
The ASPCA might not approve of this one but Sid the dog certainly seems to be an eager participant in this short film. Hanging on with joyous tenacity to a pork chop chew toy, Sid is happily spun in circles through the air to a groovy soundtrack. At two and a half minutes, this might be a touch too long and folks without dogs might not get it.
TURKISH TRAFFIC and BANG BANG (dir Jeffry Noyes Scher)
Jeff Scher has a good ear for music. Like SID, these two experimental films employ terrific songs for the soundtrack. BANG BANG is a seizure inducing Rorschach Test of a film. As jungle beats pound, black and white images flash on screen. Meanwhile, TURKISH TRAFFIC appears to have no patterns among the wondrous chaotic confusion of colors. The title of the film comes from the music, which sounds like a Middle Eastern marching band. Both films are highly hypnotic and neither overstays their welcome.
FISHING FOR BRAD (dir. Nichole Koschmann)
I once had a professor who talked about the importance of titles in experimental films. With a title, the viewer has a basis with which they attempt to interpret what they're seeing. Usually the title contains the nubbin of information that may otherwise be too vague to catch otherwise. FISHING FOR BRAD has no such title. In addition, the description provided by director Nichole Koschmann doesn't shed much light on her film either. What the audience sees is a split screen. Images vary from side to side but usually we watch a guy fishing on the right in black & white and a woman stripping in color on the left. What are we supposed to get out of this? I'm without a clue.
Koschmann holds that her film is a "provocative look into human sexuality by juxtaposing two seemingly unrelated images and forcing one to question the nature of desire." The split screen is supposed to be a metaphor for the "dual nature of sexuality, (specifically female sexuality); the tension between desiring someone and desiring to be desired." Even with the information Nichole sent me, I just still don't get it. Yes, I'm such a Philistine! Sorry, no sale here.
NEW CLEAR FARM (dir. Daniel Deloach)
Outrageous and clever, NEW CLEAR FARM is the tale of two guys who find an unexploded bomb in a field. Yet, this point is inconsequential in the film as all the fun takes place on the way to the discovery. Narrated with redneck aplomb and rife with brief flights of fancy, NEW CLEAR FARM is a true delight.
MIND'S EYE (dir. Gregory Godhard)
Using single-frame animation, MIND'S EYE is a roller coaster of a short film. The viewer travels through the portals of the filmmaker's imagination, and feels as if they've been sucked into a M.C. Escher painting. The film is dangerously close to being too long (even at five minutes), especially when we're taken through vistas that we've seen before. However, aided by Godhard's soundtrack, the film ends up being just about the right length for his experimental journey.
DIRT (dir. Chel White)
Based on (and performed by) a piece by Joe Frank, DIRT is a narrative about a man obsessed with earth. He eats it on his food and rubs it on his body. Eventually be becomes self-sufficient, growing plants from his skin. Shot with deep, rich black & white cinematography, the narrative is wonderfully descriptive. One can almost smell the moist earth.
THE MANIPULATORS (dir. Clare E. Rojas & Andrew Jeffrey Wright)
Recalling the collage work of Baltimore's Martha Colburn, THE MANIPULATORS is a quick flip through a magazine wherein images are defaced with black & white animation. Among other things, models are given wrinkles, provided with thought balloons, and hold chickens (!?). The title's sure to be a double meaning in that not only are these images being manipulated, but the images by themselves are manipulative of our perceptions of beauty. Without keeping this in mind, the simple film is much more enjoyable.
RAPING STEVEN SPIELBERG (dir. Anonymous)
Now that you've read the title and looked at the poster art (right), you've seen the only clever things this interminable, amateurish, shot-on-video piece has to offer. A narrative about Barney Cocburn (the big joke is that his name is supposed to be pronounced Coburn, not "Cock Burn" hardy har har), an obsessive wannabe movie-maker who likes to jack off to E.T. He's hoping to get his screenplay shot; "The Intern", a story of political espionage that smacks of gay porn and has lines like, "I claim this ass in the name of France." At least, that's what I think they said—somewhere under the John Williams score one can occasionally catch the muffled, crappy dialogue.
Barney is like an unfunny, unsuccessful Rupert Pupkin. His delusions of grandeur are completely annoying. This is definitely one to be missed.
SEARCHING FOR CARRIE FISHER (dir. Stephen Dooher)
Again, clever title but uninteresting video. This is a documentary in which Stephen and his childhood pal Andy try to get in touch with Carrie Fisher in order to give her a tape they made when they were eight whereupon Stephen confessed his undying affection for the woman who played Princess Leia.
What we see are endless static shot-on-video shots of Stephen on the phone trying to arrange a meeting under the guise of shooting a documentary film about crushes and using the Carrie Fisher section as a framing device. Now, maybe I'd like to see that documentary. Or, I'd like to see a movie about Chris, Carrie Fisher's swishy assistant—he seems like an interesting dude! A cute video, but passable.
NUCLEAR BODY (dir. Davide Grassi)
A well shot, albeit overlong, video short in which we are privy to the finite details of radiation therapy. Using match form editing and extreme close-ups, director Grassi shows a keen sense for visuals and doesn't pull any punches.
CRAWLEY (dir. Lisa Hammer & Ben Edlund)
A disturbing look at OCD (obsessive-comp-ulsive disorder), CRAWLEY succeeds in taking viewers into the mind of someone afflicted a little more seriously than Jack Nicholson was in AS GOOD AS IT GETS. Shot on B& W Tri-X Super-8 and edited on video, the stark visuals aid in creating a horrific mood. At first I thought the title was a reference to Aleister Crowley (Magick in Theory and Practice), but rather, it is descriptive of the main character's mode of ambulation: skittering along, afraid to step on any cracks as he thinks his doing so once broke his mother's back. Wonderfully off beat.
DIVIDED INTO ZERO (dir. Mitch Davis) Beautifully filmed with loving attention to detail and a terrific use of filtered lighting, DIVIDED INTO ZERO is a nightmarish look at a killer obsessed with his crimes. Unfortunately, as the film wore on, my interest waned. I began to get the sense that I was witnessing "shock for shock's sake", especially with the copious amounts of urine and fake blood flowing through the frame. I'm hoping that director Mitch Davis might ply his obvious talents to produce more fruitful films in the future.
COMMANDER TONGUE AND HIS BEST FRIEND VAG (dir. John Morgan Curtis) Primed and ready for the next Spike & Mike Animation Festival, this is the blissfully short tale of an anthropomorphic tongue out to destroy Bob the Living Feces. It's typical gross-out animation and should be enjoyed for just that.
BURY ME IN KERN COUNTY (dir. Julian Nitzberg)
I almost didn't go into this film as I was afraid the "Kern" in Kern County might have been a reference to Richard Kern – one of my least favorite of the untalented New York directors from the laughable "Cinema of Transgression." Luckily, KERN COUNTY seemed to have nothing to do with bad camerawork and childish shock tactics. Instead, it was a fun story of the perils of living in a loser town where time seems to stand still and bad hair is the rule, and not the exception.
Sandy (Mary Sheridan) and Dean (Judson Mills) are busted on a police reality show reminiscent of COPS, bringing them instant infamy among their friends, family and neighbors. This only fuels Dean's persecution complex as he sits in jail formulating ideas that his imprisonment is part of a global oil company conspiracy to crush his entrepreneurial drug-selling business. Out on bail, as she has no prior convictions, Sandy tries to maintain her strained relationship with Dean's mother. Eventually, Sandy is kicked to the curb and forced to go back home to her mother and sister.
Mary Lynn Rajskub gives a terrific performance as Amanda, Sandy's sister. She shines whenever she's on screen, especially in the scene where she displays her many and varied artistic homemade water pipes.
After Dean's mother decides she can't take the negative publicity and offs herself by sucking down some car exhaust, her son is let out of jail to attend the funeral where he finds that he needs an additional eight hundred dollars to bury his mother. From there, the story really kicks into high gear, twisting and turning with unexpected and hilarious results.
Beautifully filmed and edited with a good pace and fine acting (Dean often reminds me of a young Nick Nolte with serious anger management problems), BURY ME IN KERN COUNTY could have easily turned on its protagonists, openly making fun of their white trash ways. Yet, though we know our heroes aren't the brightest bulbs on the Quickie-Mart sign, the film affords viewers with ample opportunity to laugh at them, our sympathies never stray and, thus, we can allow ourselves to be swept up into the hell of small town life.
Director Julian Nitzberg was one of the folks behind DANCING OUTLAW (see CdC #8). He also directed a documentary about West Virginian wildman Hasil Adkins. Look for a review of the Adkins film in the next CdC!
RED, WHITE & YELLOW (dir. Mark Littman & Marshall Dostal)
Every year folks from around the globe gather at Nathan's Hot Dog in New York on the Fourth of July for a hot dog eating contest to see who can eat the most frankfurters in an allotted time. The "Yellow" in the film's title might refer to the "Mustard Yellow Belt" that is bestowed upon the contest's winner or it could be a reference to the Asian contender, Hirofumi Nakajima, who bested Ed "The Maspeth Monster" Karatchie. Having the contest won by a non-New Yorker and, moreover, a foreigner is painted as an indignity that besmirches the long-held American tradition; as undignified as a splotch of mustard on Lady Liberty's lower lip.
The struggle to regain the title becomes the framework for RED, WHITE & YELLOW which is set up similarly to WHEN WE WERE KINGS but this time around it's a rumble in an urban jungle. Instead of interviews with George Plimpton and Don King, viewers become overly familiar with Nathan's representative George Shea and New York Post writer (and cool guy - see CdC #3) Gersh Kuntzman. While a good idea, sadly RED, WHITE & YELLOW wears out its welcome about midway through, becoming tedious instead of suspenseful. It could easily stand to be a half hour short instead of a full ninety-minute extravaganza.
THE LOVE MACHINE (dir. Becca Campbell/Gordon Eriksen)
It's odd that when I think of hard-hitting, skillfully crafted documentaries that I don't think of PBS but HBO. The cable giant has become my favorite source for modern excursions into documentary filmmaking from WACO: RULES OF ENGAGEMENT to its Real Sex series. THE LOVE MACHINE is highly reminiscent of the latter's adventure into the manifestations of modern sexuality in its use of an internet swingers site as subject matter.
Hosted on a college's physics server by the smart-alecky Malcolm, www.thelovemachine.com is the URL of a website that has attracted a wide range of sexually adventurous folks. Filmmaker Becca Campbell wants to find out what makes these exhibitionists tick. Who are the people on the other end of the keyboard? She convinces Marcus to subvert his "clients'" anonymity and manages to track down five Love Machine clients who allow her to enter their lives.
Not only does she come into her subjects' lives but she turns them upside down. Campbell is a highly volatile filmmaker who constantly strives to upset her "victims", pulling the rug out from under their feet whenever she can. When we first meet the five folks—Akira the closeted Asian homosexual in denial and engaged, Julio the lecherous Latino professor who cheats on his wife and collects compromising photographic trophies of the students he seduces (and posts them on his site), Beverly the lusty older lady who spins tales of her two young lovers, Chip the boisterous gay Black man, and Shino the Asian gal with a dorky boyfriend and voracious sexual appetite—they claim to not know anything about the internet; doing a terrific job of hiding their online personas. Unsatisfied with their façade of normalcy, Becca reveals her knowledge of their secret "double lives" a half-hour into the film.
I was very aware of the pacing of the film, noting the time at which Becca would turn from a seemingly passive observer to bloodthirsty provocateur. Fifty minutes into the film, Becca shows her subjects a "rough cut"—again to prove that she knows more about her subjects than they want her to know making them, and the audience, question whether her film is exploitative. Becca's place as a documentarian is frequently compromised afterwards as she pressures Akira into coming out to his friends and confronts Julio's wife with evidence of her husband's affairs.
Regardless of her questionable motivation and morals, THE LOVE MACHINE has a terrific balance of the five (should we count Becca as six?) subjects of the film and their significant others. As an example, just when one wonders how Shino is progressing with her boyfriend and their first threesome, they're reintroduced into the film. Likewise there is a nice balance in the film between color and tinted black and white film, giving the entire documentary a good overall look.
THE LOVE MACHINE poses the question of the rights of the documentary filmmaker. How far is too far? When should the cameras be turned off? And, conversely, when do the subjects of documentaries reveal too much? Shouldn't they be more wary of the strangers entering their lives? How much of an act do we put on in daily life and when do we lower our guard? To bring to mind a very poor documentary and one that always rings false, MTV's The Real World drives me crazy. Everyone on it seem so exhibitionistic and self-centered that they don't attempt to act with any civility at all. They're all id with no superego. Where does MTV find these jerks?
Becca theorizes at one point that the internet has become an abode for people's collective unconscious and that she has taken on the mission of forcing these five folks into confronting their "dark selves"—the images they've painted of themselves on their web sites. While Chip is unabashed in his self-portrait, Akira runs from his and Beverly lives in denial of hers—admitting to and then contradicting herself about the fantastic tales she spins on her site.
The most wonderful thing about THE LOVE MACHINE occurs during the end credits after we learn the extent of Becca's effect on her subjects' lives. The credits roll and observant viewers see that Becca was played by Marlene Forte, the part of Akira was performed by Jun Suenaga, Chip was associate producer Chip Garner, et cetera (for a full cast list check out www.olympiapictures.com). Yes, THE LOVE MACHINE is an expertly crafted mockumentary. All the startling revelations, all of the shocked expressions, all of the lewd conduct, all of Becca's probing questions, had been scripted.
Working from an informal shooting script, the actors would improvise extemporaneous dialogue during rehearsals before the cameras would roll. Eriksen culled his cast from an ad he ran in Backstage and lucked out with leads that not only appeared fresh and realistic, but weren't afraid to doff their drawers when it was called for!
Shooting a faux documentary is a cost-effective move but few are so completely successful in their believability and inherent interest of their subject manner. The wonderful trickery of director Gordon Eriksen doesn't undermine his work. Instead, it only serves to intensify the questions that the viewers should be asking themselves during the duration of the film and amaze the audience in regards to the fantastic performances of the performers. Even knowing that the film was faked when going in, I often found myself believing that the characters on screen were real.
WADD: THE LIFE OF JOHN C. HOLMES (dir. Cass Paley)
I don't know how I missed them for so many years but it wasn't until I was about sixteen that I uncovered some choice pornography in my dad's sock drawer. Years before I had got to sneak a peek at the Vanessa Williams spread in Penthouse (I can never look at her without picturing her face artfully buried in another woman's muff) but now I had found something far more wonderful. Super 8mm, glorious full color, Swedish Erotica starring none other than John Holmes.
Minutes later I was in my basement, screen up, projector threaded, and watching John Holmes walking his dog down the street. Two women come out of their apartment, standing on the balcony they beckon to him. "Tie up your dog!" they say, in subtitles. He does. Then he goes upstairs and bangs the two of them. Thus I had been finally introduced to John C. Holmes, the legendary porn star.
I invited friends over and we'd watch the film that became known to us as TIE UP YOUR DOG time and again. We couldn't believe Holmes' immense talent – a dong as long as my forearm. Luckily, instead of coming to the conclusion that I was vastly unendowed below the belt, I realized that porn is the place where freaks go to fuck. This was only confirmed, years later, when I got my first glimpse at a Ron Jeremy movie. But that's another story.
A few months after my first encounter with John, I was sitting in English class in high school. It was Tuesday, the day that our school papers came out. "The Pirate Log," was more affectionately known in my circle of friends as "The Poo Poo Log" for its lack of hard-hitting journalism. Along with several other downriver high schools, "The Pirate Log" was printed in a special edition of the Detroit Free Press. So, along with looking at stories about who was being crowned "Mr. Riverview," we were able to peruse the rest of the newspaper—from Guidon's incomprehensible comic strip to Neil Ruben's insightful "Names & Faces" column.
It was March 16, 1988, and the word spread like wildfire; "Look in the obituary column!" Sadly, it was there that I found that Holmes had passed away the day before.
Some say it was a hilarious coincidence, and others say it was tribute. That day, when I went down to our cafeteria, I found that someone had cut out Holmes' obit and taped it up next to our lunch menu. There, written above our main meal selection were the words, "In Memory". We were having hot dogs...foot longs.
Until WADD: THE LIFE OF JOHN C. HOLMES, I hadn't realized the immense impact that Holmes made on the porn industry. Certainly, pornography was becoming more mainstream thanks in great part to films like I AM CURIOUS, YELLOW and DEEP THROAT, but Holmes helped put a real face on pornography. Armed with a 13-inch penis, his Johnny Wadd series which melded seventies action flicks with hard core intercourse, Holmes' name became synonymous with pornography.
Filmmaker Cass Paley takes us from Holmes' early days in Ohio to the height of his career to the depths he frequented: painting a fascinating picture of an imbalanced, strung-out, power-hungry sociopath who would believe the stories he and his manager made up about his career.
In interviews with folks like Bill Amerson (Holmes' manager), Bob Chinn (the director of the Wadd series), Bob Vosse (the creator of Swedish Erotica), Ron Jeremy, and Al Goldstein, several times we hear analogies between Holmes' standing in pornography with Elvis' impact on Rock & Roll. Indeed, a close look at these two entertainers show several similarities, including Holmes' selling out of his co-workers to vice squads the way that Elvis hoped to wield his power over the young people in America to stop the spread of drug use.
The interview with the director of BOOGIE NIGHTS, Paul Thomas Anderson, shows him to be mumbling, disheveled, and undoubtedly strung out on something. When hearing the details of Holmes' career, it becomes quiet obvious how much Anderson modeled the long-donged Dirk Diggler after Johnny Wadd. However, Holmes led an interesting life while BOOGIE NIGHTS isn't interesting at all. With all the Scorcese moves, BOOGIE NIGHTS often reminded me of a bad parody of GOODFELLAS wherein Dirk Diggler/Henry Hill (nice alliteration) would begin the film saying, "All my life all I ever wanted to be was a porn star."
A review of WADD is certain to invoke snide analogies involving the length of Holmes' sexual apparatus. I'm certainly not going to break with tradition. Even though Paley shows us the extent of Holmes' huge career and expansive life, the film did not have to be two hours. It's not the length that counts but what you do with it. As the girl I saw Holmes cornhole in TIE UP YOUR DOG would probably say, you can have too much of a good thing.
Certainly, WADD is no BOOGIE NIGHTS or SHOAH in terms of belaboring the point–I think that, like porn in the 80's—the documentary suffers somewhat from being shot on video. Video is a cheap medium and in porn the sex scenes can go on forever, likewise Paley is given to reiterating points well-made. Luckily, after talking to Paley, I found that WADD is still a work in progress. Having been edited from thirty five hours of raw footage to a five hour cut before being caressed into the two-hour version I saw, Paley intends on tightening the documentary in spots, having at least eleven minutes he wants to remove. At five hours, two hours and, especially at a hundred and nine minutes, I recommend seeing WADD as a fascinating portrait of a Hollywood giant.