Previewing the 23rd Chicago Underground Film Festival

"Damn it, I came here to be in charge of this movie but look at it: it’s a bunch of junk”.                                                            -       Tony Conrad, Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present

That happens to be the prevailing attitude of a certain kind of moviegoer, the pedantic viewer who more or less blames a film for his/her malentendu and confusion.  And it’s not as if this audience hauteur is contained to your philistine summer audience types; if anything, it’s just as rampant among quote unquote cinephiles, festival goers, and critics.

Yet the fictile viewer will find much to admire at the 23rd Chicago Underground Film Festival, hosted at the Logan Theatre from June 1st-5th.  The festival’s growing local and global presence has attracted numerous titles, from the recondite to the emerging American filmmakers, developing a reputation for being one of the more carefully curated festivals in the city. This, compounded by the multitude of panels and events occurring throughout the five-day festival, positions the festival as a distinctly unique response to the programming you’re used to in Chicago.

A scene from Tyler Hubby's documentary, Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present {Photo: TONYCONRADMOVIE.COM}

A scene from Tyler Hubby's documentary, Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present {Photo: TONYCONRADMOVIE.COM}

Festivities begin with the world premiere of Tyler Hubby’s documentary, Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present (Noteworthy). This fairly conventional documentary about an unconventional man serves as a crash-course for a musician/filmmaker/artist whose work informs a great deal of the texts that I consume most. From Johnny Greenwood to Mica Levi, Conrad’s sonic architecture serves as the seminal foundation for future generations. Hubby, making his debut, provides an eloquent and consumable study on the m/f/a’s life without coming across protracted or dictated by any particular narrative thread. Rather, the film is edited and composed with a lightness and humor that befits Conrad’s own demeanor. The film will be followed by an after party taking place at the Elastic Arts Center, featuring performances by Ben Baker Billington and Tony Conrad’s Drone Strings.

Samantha Robinson in Anna Biller's The Love Witch {Photo: OSCILLOSCOPE LABROTORIES}

Samantha Robinson in Anna Biller's The Love Witch {Photo: OSCILLOSCOPE LABROTORIES}

The subsequent night presents the opportunity to catch Anna Biller’s sumptuous pastiche, The Love Witch (Recommended). What could’ve been a jejune exercise in replicating stylistic tropes of the Argento/Bava variety is given serious consideration through Biller’s distinct auterist command - beyond functioning as writer and director, she also edited, designed the film’s costumes and sets, and composed the score. Set in a small California town, the film sees Elaine (Samantha Robinson, seemingly plopped out of Elisabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra and placed here) utilizing her womanly wiles and the dark arts to bag a man. Concocting potions and devising wicked schemes to realize her fantasies, she’s left disappointed by men and their submissiveness. The feminist polemic here is simple yet effective, with Biller’s panoply of stylistic tricks accumulating in a significant way. Not merely content with being a simulacrum of 70/80s exploitation films, Biller repositions and re-contextualizes the narrative through a distinctly feminist lens.

A scene from Ben Rivers' The Sky Trembles {Photo: INDEPENDENT CINEMA OFFICE}

A scene from Ben Rivers' The Sky Trembles {Photo: INDEPENDENT CINEMA OFFICE}

My excitement is greeted with a degree of disappointment in Ben Rivers’ new film, The Sky Trembles and the Earth is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers. Having greatly admired Rivers’ previous credit, A Spell to Ward off the Darkness, The Sky Trembles comes across as strikingly linear and repetitive. The film follows a filmmaker (Oliver Laxe) as he leaves his Morocco set for the desert, isolated from the creative process and left to the wrath of locals. The connective tissue that I was able to extract from Darkness, it’s musings on loneliness and the creative enterprise as a communal exercise, are replicated less convincingly in The Sky Trembles, and often presented in a distinctly harsh and static environs.  Shot on 35mm, the film remains a striking visual experiment, most notable in its lapidary lighting design, whereby the distinction between light and shadow carries significant thematic weight. Yet the film never does come together, with its second half detour possessing a particularly unflattering, miasmic quality.

Ty Hickson in a scene from Joel Potrykus' The Alchemist Cookbook {Photo: OSCILLOSCOPE LABORATORIES}

Ty Hickson in a scene from Joel Potrykus' The Alchemist Cookbook {Photo: OSCILLOSCOPE LABORATORIES}

Closing night duties fall on Michigan native Joel Potrykus and his new film, The Alchemist Cookbook (Recommended)I’ve done little to conceal my outright enthusiasm for Potrykus and his work, what with Buzzard being a sincere, honest-to-God, capital R Revelation. The announcement that he’s bringing his new film to Chicago is a significant cinematic event.

Oscilloscope Laboratories asks that no formal reviews be given for The Alchemist Cookbook, so I’ll simply note that the film will likely satiate the wanton desires of those looking for some more Marty Jackitansky-Derek-Party Zone-Bugles lunacy (though this time around, we’re offered Doritos). It’s a more sophisticated, formally-assured, and often times terrifying work. And you’ve one chance to see it, at least for the time being.

For ticketing information, check out the Chicago Underground Film Festival’s website here.