Chicago Underground Film Festival

By Roxanne Samer

“To see these films, be it Michael Snow or Andy Warhol or Stan Brakhage, one just has to commit that reality that is on the screen to work on you through your eyes, to work on your body, on your mind. One has to be totally relaxed and open.” –Jonas Mekas in Visionaries: Jonas Mekas and the (mostly) American Avant-Garde

“You have to be more patient. You have to be more thoughtful. You have to challenge yourself, even your own values some times, which is not easy…Our minds aren’t used to going there, going that deep, into even our subconscious.” –Christen McArdle in Visionaries: Jonas Mekas and the (mostly) American Avant-Garde

These two quotes from first twenty minutes of the Chicago Underground Film Festival’s opening documentary, Visionaries: Jonas Mekas and the (mostly) American Avant-Garde, typify the experience to be expected by festival attendees. Experimental film is not always easy, and while the films featured in this year’s weeklong festival vary greatly in structure, tone and subject matter from the classic avant-garde films of the sixties and seventies, they, for the most part, maintain the legacy of challenging their viewers. Many of the films contain a relatively traditional narrative, with a distinct beginning, middle and end, but some do not. Many feel “low budget,” making no attempts to mask their tawdry sets and costumes. Some are comedic, others serious, and still others, purely informative. The festival runs Thursday June 24th through Thursday July 1st and is being hosted by the Gene Siskel Film Center at 164 N. State Street in the loop. It’s going to be a jam-packed week, and I would recommend checking out a couple screenings if you’ve got the time. I had a chance to preview a fair number of the festival’s films, and here are my picks for what to see and what to maybe avoid, depending on your interests and taste. Each of these films—whether one that I found more pleasurable and/or worthwhile or not—did not go down smoothly but demanded an active viewership on my part, which was greatly appreciated.

Visionaries: Jonas Mekas and the (mostly) American Avant-Garde (2010), directed by Chuck Workman. There is a reason why I could not choose one but had to go with two quotes from this film to open this review: it is an extraordinary film. Perhaps I’m a traditionalist, but this is my top pick for the festival. It’s a one of a kind documentary that provides the broad and thorough filmic introduction to the history of experimental filmmaking in the United States that was absent up until this point. It brings together new interviews, archival footage and clips from tens of films, and most of the key players are included: the historians (Scott MacDonald, P. Adams Sitney, Amy Taubin, Fred Camper), the filmmakers (Stan Brakhage, Maya Deren, David Lynch, Andy Warhol, Kenneth Anger, Su Friedrich, Ken Jacobs) and of course the filmmaker/critic/cinephile/preserver and screener of it all, Jonas Mekas. The film is most certainly broad, touching on film practices from the 1920s to present and the wide range of styles and approaches therein, which is why I recommend it for those new to the experimental film arena. At the same time, however, the quality of the content and the concepts are not watered down, and I think even those most passionate and knowledgeable of American avant-garde cinema will enjoy the interviews dug up from throughout history as well as the enthusiastic conversations had with those still practicing, writing about and screening experimental film today. The film screens Friday June 25th at 8:15pm. The director Chuck Workman, Jonas Mekas and the Chicago film critic Fred Camper will all be present for a discussion after.

Life is Unpredictable: Films by Jonas Mekas. If one is going for the historical shebang then this screening is not to be missed. It also, obviously, pairs well with the documentary the evening before. These films are for the most part unavailable to the public in any manner. One must see them projected on their original 16mm (or in one case video) format in a theater if one is going to see them in their entirety at all (I have, however, included an online clip from one film above), and this is your opportunity to do so. The screening includes eight films, four to twenty-three minutes in length, and demonstrates a wide-range of Mekas’ approaches to the medium. There is political work, including two pieces commenting in very different manners on the Vietnam War, and there is also work primarily concerned with aesthetics and playing with rhythm, image and sound. Notes on a Circus, for example, takes circus footage and reworks it, at times speeding up the actions, slowing them down or overlaying them on top of one another, all the while bringing them together with a aural montage of music from the sixties to an enchanting effect. My only qualm with the screening is that the original programming seemed to imply that the evening would be a temporal survey of Mekas’ work, and while there is one newer film in the mix, a majority of them (or at least their footage) seem to come from the sixties. In any case, it is a great grouping of films, and one will leave with a better understanding of the motivations, humor and interests of one of America’s most influential independent filmmakers. These films screen Saturday June 26th at 4:45pm, and once again Jonas Mekas will be present for questions and answers afterwards.

Modus Operandi, directed by Frankie Latina, is being touted as an up and coming “cult classic,” but I found little of redeeming value in the film. With the exception of one major plot twist, the story is superficial and dull, and like a mediocre porn flick seems to merely guide the viewer from one sexualized scene of violence to another. At the same time, if one is feeling nostalgic for the seventies and look for something extremely camp, this should be your pick.

But if quirky confusion is your thing, I would also, instead, highly recommend Americatown by Kenneth Price. It’s fun and contemporary, relevant and humorous, using parody and hyperbole to shed light on the ridiculousness of many “American” values and the concept that they can be shared by all US citizens. It is screening June 26th at 9:15pm and June 30th at 6pm. The director will be present for an audience discussion at the first of these.

On a more serious note, I also recommend Scrappers, directed by Ben Kolak, Brian Ashby, and Courtney Prokopas. It is an in-depth and moving documentary about two Chicagoans’ struggle for survival through the collection and re-selling of scrap metal found in our city’s alleys, a lifestyle that though difficult is far from uncommon in today’s economy. It screens June 17th at 4:45pm and July 1st at 8pm, and the directors will present at the first.

I hope this random sampling gives you a sense of the diversity of films being shown at this year’s Chicago Underground Film Festival. In addition to these and other feature-length films, there will be six evenings of shorts, organized thematically throughout the week. From what I’ve seen the week promises to be exciting, and I hope some of you will consider checking it out!