Soon after the polished self-congratulatory Oscar silliness in Hollywood, in little old New York it’s the time to see unpolished underground cinema. Even if you annually go only to a few formulaic studio features or watch a couple of "well written" commercial TV shows, it’s almost a responsibility to get a taste of the other side. Underground cinema is the form where "gritty" doesn’t mean expensive high contrast film processing or celebrities playing drug addicts or the handicapped. Rather, you can have it straight from those who have found the tools to express their largely noncommercial and subversive vision. While you might not like everything you see, it’s guaranteed that you will see something you’ll never forget.
Here is a preview of just a few of this year’s myriad offerings. For a full schedule, go to www.nyuff.com.
Fleshpot on 42nd Street
This year NYUFF celebrates Staten Island’s own 1960s trash queen Andy Milligan. A highlight of this retrospective is Fleshpot on 42nd Street, a treasure of New York sleaze history and a glance at Time Square’s not-so-long-ago past. It’s a harsh, misogynistic, and gratuitously fleshy week-in-the-life of a pack of Broadway hustlers. The film neither judges its characters nor glorifies the lifestyle. Dusty, the film’s centerpiece, and her aging tranny cohort (played fantastically by Neal/Lynn Flannagan) do what they can to get by. There are no good or bad characters: Dusty and her friends are elements of a perverse environment that sets off their alternately kind and conniving behavior. This detail makes this film just a little more than its package of sexploitation. It’s dark, ugly, sexy and mean all at once, and should not be missed on the big screen.
Goldstein: The Trials of the Sultan of Smut
Al Goldstein served an important role for many NYC adolescents who watched Midnight Blue on public access— the pre-Internet world. But, along with the free T&A and the disturbing images of Al pigging out on ribs, Goldstein was also the purveyor of sociopolitical satire that was so outrageous it consistently pushed the limits of the First Amendment.
Sultan of Smut tells a typical story of the truculent Goldstein, though it’s clear that it’s a battle waged after the golden years of sex and satire. Obese, loud, honest and obnoxious, Goldstein is followed as he battles a harassment charge based on an answering machine message he left a former assistant. True to character, as soon as the trial begins Al begins excoriating the District Attorney’s office using his magazine Screw to publish the phone numbers of DA staffers and creates illustrations where DA Charles Hynes’s head is on a naked female body and injected into gay sex scenes. We learn about Goldstein through his own brand of self-reflection, his refreshingly insulting interactions with the filmmakers and from interviewees like Ron Jeremy and Larry Flynt. But while he’s abrasive we also see a side that he is vulnerable, especially when he talks about the estranged son he obviously loves. It’s also evident that he loves a fight and the well-crafted film is honest about the pitfalls of this strategy. As the trial goes on, he becomes irrational, psychotic, even pathetic. But it’s also clear that what Al does, and the antics he pulls, are probably more important than what most politicians do. Goldstein is not only pure NYC, but is one of those rare, troubled soldiers on the front lines of the First Amendment.
Based loosely on a 1950s pulp novel by Erskine Caldwell, Certain Women observes four working-class women suffocating in a small American town where their attempts at financial success, romance, and stability are constantly thwarted by Middle America-style sexism, ignorance, and gossip. Shot on a combination of ostentatiously cheap DV, VHS, and spy-cam, Certain Women doesn’t even pretend to be polished, neat, or dynamic. The actors are non-aspiring non-professionals. No-budget work, once an art of necessity for unsupported filmmakers, is an intentional aesthetic choice for directors Peggy Ahwesh and Bobby Abate. While the style of cinematography renders well the quaint yet cold and stagnant feeling town, stronger direction would have gone a long way in making much out of a little. The authenticity of unrehearsed line delivery can be rewarding, but in this case some practice would have helped. Despite those (unintentional) flaws, the plot is actually compelling and keeps us desperately hoping for a surprise happy ending.
A NYUFF specialty is, of course, the shorts programs. And while they’re inevitably a mixed bag (according to your taste) they usually surprise, compel and ultimately, satisfy. "Patriot Games" is a loose definition for this mix of short docs, experimental and repurposed works about our very own hegemony. Some of the highlights include the alt-nature documentary "American Nutria" that gives sociopolitical significance to this population of large rodents that has damaged ecosystems across the US. In the truly bizarre "Strategic Cyber Defense," which "redirects" a 2002 DARPA government video on cyber-terrorism, evil ethnic types are in a room full of computers and try to attack the U.S. during a reenactment where "Kuracq" invades "Ardabia." The acting is actually worse than C-grade corporate industrials, showing that in government video production, as in war, your tax money at work is not a pretty sight. "Decision 80" is a composition of chilling, grainy footage from the Carter-to-Reagan presidential hand over with a soundtrack from some wacked-out Star Trek episode. "Old Glory" reminds you of the proliferation of red, white and blue since 9/11 and how the flag reigns as the ultimate, frightening, symbol of instant patriotism. "Oil Wells: Sturgeon Road and 97th Street" is for the film aesthetes who appreciate just enough beautifully degraded 16mm footage of pumping oil wells to linger for a few psychedelic memories.
Made five years apart, these two pieces act as doubles in form, process, and narrative. Both follow a family of Mexican dairy farmers: Leche’s members stay in Aguascaliente; Mala Leche’s emigrate illegally to California to work on large U.S. farms. Leche is a hand processed, extra gritty black & white film. Its focus is on the day’s tasks: pressing cheese, making tortillas & milking cows. It’s quiet, but has a subtle ominous quality, one in part answered by the sequel. Mala Leche pursues members of the same family living as dairy laborers in Pixley, California. It’s in color, with more narrative voice and political bent. We see shots of highway signs unkind to the immigrant population, and hear details about the families struggles with alcohol abuse, domestic violence, debt, and 12-hour workdays, a too typical fate for illegals in America.
We Interrupt This Empire
San Francisco’s Whispered Media serves up a compendium film of extreme protest footage, fragments of newscasts, historical context and testimonials on the perils of being Arab-American in post-9/11 America. There’s a lot in here to remind one of "reasons" for war that dominated airwaves a year ago and the outrage that followed. But it’s also a paean to the activism in good old SF where, when the war started, the city was nearly shut down with scores of street protests and blockades and where Black Bloc youth were in full effect. The intro films could be stronger but "About Baghdad" does portray, through the eyes of an exiled Iraqi writer, an interesting snapshot of the wrecked city last summer.
The 11th NYUFF runs from March 10th to 16th at the Anthology Film Archives (32 Second Ave at 2nd St.). Go to www.nyuff.com for full schedule and times.