DANTE’S INFERNO: Sean Meredith, like Dante, has an agenda.
The pickings this year at the ninth Boston Underground Film Festival are relatively slim. I’m sure the number of independent films and videos made on minimal budgets with maximum ambition and little respect for conventions or good taste hasn’t declined, especially in this age of YouTube. Perhaps the glut of such efforts has diluted the genre. Perhaps the Internet has drawn off some of the more accomplished, daring, and transgressive filmmakers. Whatever the reason, I found this BUFF a little undernourished.
To their credit, the programmers have stuck to their subterranean roots. I’m referring in particular to one of the festival’s best films, Melody Gilbert’s URBAN EXPLORERS: INTO THE DARKNESS (2007; Harvard Square March 24 at 5:15 pm, with Gilbert), a savvy, freewheeling documentary about the growing movement of postmodern spelunkers and adventurers of the title. Maybe these people have too much spare time on their hands, compelled as they are to climb into sewers and break into derelict buildings, ignoring “No Trespassing” and “Danger” signs to see what’s hidden. Or maybe they’re the latest in the tradition of those driven to cross the limits of the known and the acceptable. Bearing monikers like Slim Jim, Katwoman, and Danarchy, they have in recent years utilized the Internet to expand and organize, hooking up with others like themselves around the world
Gilbert profiles some of these explorers, who take her on tours of fecal-dripping sewers, abandoned Scottish insane asylums, and bone-littered Parisian catacombs. The film at times seems a combination of cable shows like The World’s Most Haunted Places and Dirty Jobs, except that the stills and videos evince a haunting, surreal beauty. A visit to an abandoned NASA site, a deep pit in the Everglades housing the remains of the world’s largest rocket engine, proves especially ironic: the relics of the space program serving as a new generation’s final frontier.
Buried artifacts of a different kind surface in Benjamin Meade’s AMERICAN STAG (2006; Brattle March 22 at 7:30 pm, with Meade), a meager documentary of “stag” or “blue” movies, the short amateur porn flicks that entertained horny male audiences until video and the Internet rendered them obsolete. The grainy, silent, black-and-white celluloid fragments from as far back as the dawn of cinema demonstrate that the mechanics of tawdry desire haven’t changed much over the decades. But more than the naked bodies, it’s the anonymous, vulnerable faces that stir the imagination. Unfortunately, Meade interrupts these images with an assortment of talking heads — academics and “celebrity” experts. Do we really need to hear Adam Corolla or Chris Gore recalling that first experience of watching a porn film?
For a tongue-in-cheek and slyly insightful look at the conflict between innocence and desire, curiosity and taboo, bad taste and kitsch genius, I’d recommend Anna Biller’s VIVA (2007; Brattle March 24 at 9:15 pm, with Biller). She writes, directs, and stars in this sui generis pastiche of a John Waters/Frank Tashlin/Douglas Sirk/David Lynch parodic morality tale; she even designed the outrageous, candy-colored sets and costumes. Her Barbi is a buxom, vacant-eyed, heavily made-up housewife in ’70s LA who’s not quite aware enough to realize that she’s bored and exploited. She’s lost her job as a secretary after responding poorly to sexual harassment, and when her workaholic, Tab Hunter–like hubby (Viva wavers in period style and sensibility from the ’50s to the ’70s) storms out after a spat, she decides to seek “adventures” with her mercenary next-door neighbor, Sheila. A grandmotherly madam obliges them in Belle du jour fashion, sending them off to meet clients attuned to their needs. For Sheila, now “Candy,” that means codgers willing to provide her with a girl’s best friend; for Barbi, reborn as “Viva,” that means someone “kind and sensitive” — not easy to find among the gloriously realized ’70s male grotesques in Biller’s sweetly ruthless satire.
After such indulgence in the hidden, forbidden, and depraved, only punishment can follow. Set in Slacker capital Austin, Kevin Ford’s WHEN IS TOMORROW? (2007; Brattle March 24 at 2:30 pm, with Ford and producer/actress Angela Bettis) offers some 24 hours in the relationship between Jake (Ford), who’s far too old to act as if he were 24, and Ron (Eddie Steeples), his old friend from New York who has come to attend Jake’s supposed wedding. Ron, who has improbably made his fortune as a poet, now wants to put all his youthful misbehavior behind him. Jake, of course, wants to suck his successful pal back into his cesspool of puerile indulgence, procrastination, and co-dependent self-destructiveness. This means as much punishment for us as for the characters, as Jake’s wheedling quickly loses its charm and Ford pads his skimpy fable with one-on-one basketball, a ping-pong game, lots of repetitious dialogue, and a bad party before answering the title question with the expected platitude.