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Chicago Underground Film Festival features filmmakers far from mainstream

As the third annual Chicago Underground Film Festival prepares to unreel, my first task is to define the term underground. 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.

And not only are they cheaper to make, they're cheaper to see. A Gold Pass, good for every single screening in this year's CUFF, plus the opening and closing night parties and the awards ceremonies, is only $50. Compare that with the $2,000 Patron's Pass at Telluride, which lasts about as long and shows about as many films. Single programs are $5. A $20 Punch Pass gets you into five programs.

What you get for your money is not only admission to the films, but admission to a subculture. Before, during and after the CUFF screenings, which will be held on two screens at the Theater Building, 1225 W. Belmont, from Wednesday through next Sunday, you'll find yourself discussing the entries with people who think that one major distinction between a filmmaker and a non-filmmaker is the availability of blank cassette tape. Some of the films have been shot on video; others in Super 8 and 16 mm. A few are in 35mm.

I incautiously asked Mark Siska, CUFF's director, to send me tapes of "a few of the more interesting films." Siska is a true democrat to whom all of the films are interesting, and so my mailbox filled up with 16 movies, not all of which I have had time to view.

Viewing some, sampling the others and reading the letters and press kits which accompanied them, however, I began to get a feeling for the filmmakers. I came across the biographies of James and Megan Westby, who made "Bloody Mary," which plays at 7:45 p.m. Thursday. Their careers more or less symbolize the spirit of modern underground films.

After they met and married, the bio says, they "began making Super-8 films together, starring Megan and chock-full of crude stop-motion trickery. The couple soon moved to California to become serious filmmakers. After less than a year in Hollywood they decided they did not want to be serious filmmakers and moved to Portland, Oregon..." That doesn't mean "Bloody Mary" is not, in its own way, a serious film. What it means, I think, is that they dropped out of the success-oriented Hollywood rat-race in order to make films for the splendid motives of art, fun and lifestyle. They would rather play the movies than the game.

A similar spirit is exhibited in the writings of Sarah Jacobson, described as the "Queen of the Underground Cinema' (by herself, I think). Her new feature "Mary Jane's Not a Virgin Anymore" has its premiere as CUFF's opening night feature, at 7 p.m. Wednesday.

Jacobson is a columnist for the Webzine "FilmZone," where in a recent issue she writes of a trip to a New York underground film festival, where she talked with filmmaker Helen Stickler who "made 'Queen Mercy,' a short film about a female serial killer. She told me about Deborah Twiss, who acquired the money for her film, 'A Gun for Jennifer,' from one of the customers at a club where she strips. (This was of special interest to Helen, because she strips to raise money for her films.) "

It is not that the CUFF's filmmakers do not want success, fame, fortune and Academy Awards. It is that they want to make exactly the films they feel like making, on budgets as high perhaps as $100,000 or as low perhaps as a few thousand dollars, and they want to be able to show them without tailoring them to the tastes of mainstream audiences.

The guest of honor at this year's festival is George Kuchar, who started making movies before he was a teenager; Siska says his "Hold Me While I'm Naked" and "Thundercrack!" were influences that helped John Waters ("Pink Flamingos") launch his own career. Now he teaches at the San Francisco Art Institute, where Sarah Jacobson was one of his students. Kuchar's most recent video work will be shown at 5:30 p.m. Friday.

Other featured events:

* After the opening night film, a party will be held at Thurston's, 1328 W. George, with the band Red Red Meat. Opening night is $15.

* At 5:30 p.m. Saturday there'll be a program of recent work by Nick Zedd, founder of the "Cinema of Transgression," whose ambition is to "violate all taboos."

* At 11:15 p.m. Saturday, the screening of "The Elegant Spanking" and "The Black Glove" will be followed by an appearance by director Maria Beatty, who will bring her whips. Admission is $10.

* Closing night will feature the world premiere of "Bullet on a Wire," by Chicago filmmaker Jim Sikora. The film was shot in seven days for $5,000.

* The awards party will be after the screening, at the Beat Kitchen, 2100 W. Belmont. Separate admission to the film and party is $5. Brief reviews or descriptions of the films are in the sidebar. Tickets will be on sale at the door, or at Quimby's Queerstore, 1328 N. Damen.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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