Over the weekend, I was lucky enough to get to go to some screenings at the 18th annual Chicago Underground Film Festival (CUFF). For anyone who is unfamiliar with the Chicago avant-garde cinema scene (in other words, most people) you should know that Chicago’s film and video artists tend to lean toward the conceptual, and that is never more apparent than at a show like this. Those of you here at Flixist who know my tastes in films may not be surprised to hear that I totally enjoyed myself at these screenings.
However, I do realize that this type of film is not interesting to everyone, so to anyone who thinks that they would hate everything I’m about to tell you about, I’d just like to offer a friendly challenge to keep an open mind. Alright, if you think you’re up for the strangeness, let’s go make that jump!
The first CUFF program I got to see was titled: A Carrot is as Close as a Rabbit Gets to a Diamond. A bit of a mouthful, but wonderfully sassy and playful title, and an appropriate one at that. All of the following short films have something to do with the idea of images, representation, media, the desire of that media and complications and consequences of that desire. Lost yet? Well, lets just keep going!
The Man Who Went Outside
Jennet Thomas, 10 min, video, 2008, UK
The Man Who Went Outside tells us about “The Man”, played by preformance artist Richard Layzell. This man knows more than other men because he has had three remarkable experiences, “He has been Outside, he has had a Baby, and he has won the Game.” The Man, ever trapped in a void of changing colors, makes gestures at the camera while a narrator tells the viewer about him and his life.
Described as “A playful meditation on the idiocies of making sense,” The Man Who Went Outside is a critique on the idea of the truthful, static image. Thomas states that she seeks to “explore unexpected processes of sense-making through a critique of commonplace representational TV forms.” The Man represents the idea of the authoritative floating-head TV anchor, at times he is educational, charismatic, and powerful, but he quickly turns menacing, overbearing, and strangely false. The narration in The Man Who Went Outside tells you all about the three remarkable experiences of The Man and how you can attain them yourself, while opening the door to the question; “but at what cost?”
Negating the Increasing Powerlessness of the Most Photographed Thing in America
Olivia Ciummo, 5 min, video, 2010, USA
In Negating the Increasing Powerlessness of the Most Photographed Thing in America, Ciummo aims to take back the power of emotion and the female who expresses it by using sarcastic, deadpan humor to create a scenario where women pretend to express complex emotions to the camera and each other. Like with any joke, if you take it too seriously, it becomes awkward and you miss out entirely.
Negating the Increasing Powerlessness of the Most Photographed Thing in America is an exploration of the debasement of the image of the emotional woman using familiar television tropes and a sense of voyeurism.
Frédéric Moffet, 8 min, video, 2011, USA
Postface takes the viewer on the emotional rollercoaster of the life of Montgomery Clift, a 1940’s-50’s movie actor who, after a tragic car crash, was left physically and emotionally broken forever. Moffet employs both analog (VHS) and digital manipulations in this piece, making a layered effect that amplifies it’s disjointed and jarring nature.
As we descend with Clift into the psychological cataclysm of the accident and its aftermath, the outside forces that are hindering and rendering the image begin to overtake the image itself, and eventually we lose control of the recognizable, just as Clift lost control of his mind and life.
Accepting the Image
Karel De Cock, 19 min, video, 2010, Belgium
In Accepting the Image, we are confronted with a minimalist documentary of sorts that seeks to investigate the glamorous world of New York women, celebrity-yearning culture, and the way that various medias have blurred these spaces. As De Cock puts it, “Where once we valued that what surrounded us directly, this new generation is confronted with a mental world based on images and values the ‘what if’ and the ‘could be’.”
Accepting the Image interviews several young women about why they live in New York, what their aspirations and frustrations with their lives are, and through these dialogues we gradually see a picture of a reality of consequences, not pre-written endings.
Bathing in Milk
Jenna Feldman, 18 min, video, 2010, USA
Bathing in Milk is a humorous take on a young girl trying to understand what it means to be a woman and what beauty really is. She also tries to discover the secret of where jewelry comes from. Hint: see the above image.
Bathing in Milk probably has the most unnerving imagery of the whole program. (Although spoilers: Feldman told the audience afterwards that the poop was made from a recipe she found online and is completely edible!) The video plays with ideas of decadence, self-image, sensuality, self-pleasure and how an adolescent girl goes about discovering all those things.
D. Rickman, 4 min, video, 2010, USA
This is one of those times when an artist’s hesitation about having a presence on the internet frustrates me to no end. I loved this piece, and after reading its short description, I wanted to know even more about it and watch it again. But, scour as I might across the internet, I can’t find out any more information about the mysterious D. Rickman or his video Slipstream. Sad face.
What I do know is that he is using some kind of extreme digital manipulation in the piece to create what resembles a slipstream: “the region behind a moving object that is pulled along at the same speed as the object, it is also a subset of non-realistic fiction, which crosses conventional genre boundaries.” So, the piece can be thought of as visually creating a bridge between the fantasy and the mainstream.
The other piece of information that I know about this video is that it is celebrating the life of “artist, comedian, actor, and rapper Rudy Ray Moore.” Who, if you don’t know, played the main character Dolemite in the classic Blaxploitation film by the same name.
Watching Slipstream is insanely hypnotizing. The more closely you watch the screen, the more you notice faces, images of cars, and movement, these little pieces of the recognizable in this huge orgy of pixels and color. The idea of using this sort of digital technique to celebrate Moore paints his life as one of chaotic brilliance, something all-encompassing that pulls you into his slipstream, though once you’re there, the world is so unhinged that it’s barely recognizable anymore.
Luis Arnias, 3 min, 16mm, 2010, USA
In Like, Arnias paints the portrait of an American mall which he describes as “A layered cake that bears likeness to reality and sells by the products of fantasy.” And so the mall in Like is both surreal and sarcastic, but with its seething sterility, the place is susceptible to tenuous juxtapositions.
Magic for Beginners
Jesse McLean, 21 min, video, USA
Magic for Beginners is so much fun to watch. It is an investigation into the way that young people connect with media, from “fan-culture to obsession to psychic connections”. The piece regales you with three auto-biographical stories of people who were “bummed out by media” (Jesse’s words) at a young age and seeks to deal with the emotional needs that can be met through fantasies.
McLean uses found footage of a television adaptation of the film Heidi to represent herself and all young, easily influenced people as the little girl stares wistful and doe-eyed at the camera. McLean also cuts to what appears to be people trying to cry on cue, which I personally found really uncomfortable to watch, because it looked so fake, over-emotional and ridiculous. But of course, that’s her point. Magic for Beginners shows you these totally off-kilter scenes of people trying (and failing) to express emotions as a way of pointing out the contrived-ness of movies, television and other media that we young people will all-too-readily empathize with.
And then there’s a moment where the video breaks away from the narratives and previous symbolism and the viewer is bombarded with white light and told – through the accompanying heavy metal music – to look into that light. What happens when you force yourself to stare into that light? A moment of euphoria and inspiration? Or do you look down at yourself because the image is too painful to look at directly? Both are positive outcomes.
I think Magic for Beginners was my personal favorite piece from A Carrot is as Close as a Rabbit Gets to a Diamond. It was entertaining on a narrative level, hopped between conceptual ideas and visual stimuli, and the pictures of young Jesse used in the video are adorable.
All in all, I thought that this program was a lot of fun to watch. If anyone is interested in seeing it for themselves, the entire show will be repeated on Thursday June 9th at 6 pm in the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago, Illinois. Stay tuned for The Chicago Underground Film Festival Part 2: The Observers!