The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash
A solid documentary about a great musician, with passages of greatness.
The Windy City's own Chicago Underground Film Festival (CUFF) returns for another year of blissfully out-there cinema, offering moviegoers easily the strangest and most innovative movie-making one can find on a big screen in the city this weekend. In their 26th year, they continue the mission that started with promoting the best in underground cinema. Allow Roger to define the general ilk of CUFF, as in his 1996 coverage of the festival: "These films are not to be confused with 'independent films,' which are discovered at Sundance by Hollywood agents and lead to fame and fortune for their lucky directors. They exist on another plane--grottier, more anarchic, less eager to please, more willing to outrage. Underground films are to independent films as garage bands are to warm-up acts."
CUFF (which takes place at the Logan Theater) kicks off on Wednesday, June 5 with "Empty Metal," written and directed by Bayley Sweitzer and Adam Khalil. To start the festival, it's both the match and the dynamite, providing the exact kind of experience you want with a ticket to CUFF: guerrilla filmmaking that displays the physical and ideological limitlessness of indie cinema, injected with heavy doses of radical thinking that will undoubtedly offend some viewers. Plus it has some ear-testing pseudo-musical performances, paired with a few scenes of telepathy and boar carcass rubbing.
Inspired by a very real anger, "Empty Metal" concerns (in part) an elaborate assassination plot by three band members to kill people like [redacted] and [redacted], men who were infamously not punished in real life for murdering young men of color. More expansive than that, "Empty Metal" mediates on different sides of extremism in modern times, observing deadly serious militia men on a gun range, preparing their own way to bring down a government they feel has failed them. The dialogue often reads like a manifesto, especially as its characters flesh out their ideas about the purpose in such a rebellion, one that the opening monologue hints has lead to an apocalypse. This is the kind of dense, inspired societal treatise that feels like its every single idea warrants a heated debate.
Programmed as part of the festival's feature documentary programming, there's also the highly recommended "Desolation Center," which gets its name from the mid-'80s DIY punk shows that took place in the desert, hours away from cops, Los Angeles bureaucracy, and anything that would impede on bands like Minutemen and the Meat Puppets, and their fans, from celebrating the music they love. With Desolation Center organizer Stuart Swezey directing the film, it's a comprehensive you-are-there recount of an unbelievable chapter in music history, made possible by the very facets that define punk rock.
This is a doc where the insider perspective makes it all the more vivid. Not only does Swezey have talking head reflections from band members from bands like Redd Cross, the Meat Puppets, Minutemen and Sonic Youth, but he has also has footage for each show that creates a vivid sense of this experience. Especially as "Desolation Center" heightens the rascally underdog meaning behind people getting together and seeking to share their art in a place that's seemingly removed from civilization, it becomes exciting to see footage of the end results: explosive performance artist Mark Pauline trying (and failing) to blow up the side of mountain, the Meat Puppets rocking in the middle of the desert in complete darkness, as concertgoers experience the performance with a heightened sense of sound.
A history lesson and re-appreciation that's primed for fans of and newcomers to the musicians it centers on, "Desolation Center" is like the anti-Fyre Festival doc: the music involved is anti-establishment as hell, the show is an art piece itself, and the whole DIY operation actually worked, a few times over. The influence that Desolation Center would have on Lollapalooza, Coachella, and Burning Man is as obvious as it is bittersweet.
Other highlights in the festival include: the conversation piece "The Plagiarists," which ponders originality within art by using a conversation between a stranger and wannabe filmmaker who is partnered with a wannabe author. Fans of book three of Karl Ove Knausgard's My Struggle will catch earlier than other viewers the moment in which things truly get weird in director Peter Parlow's story, an act meant to stick in the minds long after the film is done.
There's also the Midwest premiere of Aaron Schimberg's "Chained for Life," which our own Vikram Murthi previously called the "a very funny, eminently quotable send-up of the independent film world that probes at how cinema constructs normative ideas of attraction and allure."
44-minute documentary "The Washing Society" (preceded by a few short films), directed by the Lizzie Olesker and Lynne Sachs, offers a vision of laundromat workers the mixes stark imagery with dreamy passages, all of it impeccably photographed. It's a striking portrait of people and their neighborhoods, empathetically captured and immersive.
The closing night feature is the pop culture parody "Dollhouse: The Eradication of Female Subjectivity from American Pop Culture," a direct descendant of Todd Haynes' cult classic "Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story," but with a more modern "Behind the Music" perspective and plenty to criticize about the current lives of pop stars. Director Nicole Brending's satire about a young pop star named Junie Spoons won the grand jury prize at this year's Slamdance Film Festival.
An essential part of the CUFF experience is the short films programming, which this year consists of 12 different bills, a collection of shorts that each run approximately 85 minutes each. If one of the features I described doesn't have you hooked, I recommend the mystery bag in one of these programs, where filmmakers from around the world have their pieces displayed next to each other without the usual tidy thematic organization. Five shorts to keep an eye out for, some which are playing before features:
"License & Registration" - A darkly comic tour de force from writer/director Jackson Ezinga, who stars in this warped fantasy about a Michigan man who decides to dress up as a cop. Ezinga uses a Jody Hill-like tone ("Vice Principals," "Observe & Report") to orchestrate an unpredictable course of events as his character Nelson makes his first traffic stop, and his rich lead performance is supported by a sharp eye for framing and editing. "License & Registration" is the kind of short that makes you instantly hungry for the feature version, and more from Ezinga. (Screening before feature film, "The Last of the Manson Girls")
"James E. Thompson Center" - A loving(?) tribute to one of Chicago's monstrosities, this short by Ellery Chalmers uses broken 16mm film cameras to capture the building as if it were rumbling, blurring its many sharp lines and openings of natural light. The general image quality only becomes more obscure as the short moves along, offering an ethereal visit to a place many Chicagoans pass through. (Screening as part of "Shorts 4: The Treachery of Images")
"Sir Bailey" - Matthew Ripplinger pays tribute to his beloved dog with this black-and-white portrait, which looks like a negative portrait that's further obscured. The director describes the filmmaking style as this: "The film's surgical cutting and state of decay symbolizes Bailey's suffering of bone cancer, consisting of home made photographic emulsion, contact printing, and reticulation." (Screening as part of Shorts 4: "The Treachery of Images")
"Memory" - Monica Panzarino celebrates a pre-9/11 New York City in a way that's unforgettable, and involves a famous Cats song, mixed with a homemade audio device and footage the director shot in 2000 of the World Trade Center. (Screening before feature film, "Dollhouse")
"Actually, This is Not a Film" - Making its world premiere, this adaptation of a contradiction-filled poem by Marco Kerler offers a kaleidoscopic, Kodak-captured view of the world that becomes hypnotic in its own way. (Screening before feature film, "The Plagiarists")
The 26th annual Chicago Underground Film Festival takes place at the city's Logan Theater, and runs from Wednesday, June 5 to Sunday, June 9. For more information about tickets and showtimes, click here.
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