You already know why they call it the Boston Underground Film Festival. The happening plays host to the too strange, the too scary, the too sexual—the films that are all too something to play anywhere else around here. Since we’ve published reports from BUFF for many years, we presume you might already know some details. You might already know that the programming is diverse in terms of both creators and forms (with entries including animation, fiction and nonfiction, “hybrids” and more, spanning both features and shorts). You might already know about the heralded “Saturday Morning Cartoons” block (Sat 3.25, 10 am, Brattle Theatre, and cereal is included). You might know about some of the other annual events, like the “Hometown Horror” shorts program (Fri 3.24, 5:15 pm, Brattle). You might even know that BUFF hosts “Secret Screenings” on occasion, and has one scheduled this year (Fri 3.24, 7:30 pm, Brattle). And if you didn’t know, now you do.
But there’s another potential reading of the festival’s moniker: To go underground, you’ve got to do some digging. Every year of BUFF that I’ve attended has brought with it at least one or two deeply inspired features buried within the five-day schedule, often from directors, actors, and producers you’ve never heard of. And while the films don’t get totally buried under the surface after the fact—last year I singled out Cash Only  and Little Sister , which are both available on Netflix—they also rarely achieve wider theatrical distribution so far as Boston is concerned. Meaning that BUFF provides the sole chance to see them the right way, provided you figure out the right ones to see. Right now, we can only answer for what we’ve seen this far—but that includes at least a few movies worth unearthing.
PREVENGE , Written and directed by Alice Lowe
Prevenge is a movie about a pregnant woman’s murder spree; it also has punchlines. Sometimes they’re sharp and unexpected, as when Ruth (Lowe), the aggrieved mother-to-be, explains why she needed to kill an innocent witness to her crimes: “No one called Josh is not going to call the authorities.” In other cases, as when Ruth slits the jugular of a boardroom executive, those verbal rejoinders are dull enough to sound like deleted throwaways from an ’80s vigilante picture: “It’s a cutthroat world.” Sometimes Ruth is talking to herself, and sometimes it’s her baby that she’s conversing with—the baby talks back, by the way, with the traditionally squealy demonic accent, usually instructing Ruth to kill. But whoever’s doing the talking, it’s usually pretty cheeky.
You’re don’t too bad about the whole murder scenario, and it’s not just the jokes that provoke that reaction. Most of Ruth’s victims represent the most grotesque dregs of humanity that a screenwriter could imagine. There’s a self-described “weekend warrior” disco DJ who vomits into his own afro wig, then immediately tries to make out with Ruth; a boardroom executive who tells her to come back if she’s ever without child; and a pet store salesman who asks if she’d like to touch his “big fat snake”. It’s possible we’re not meant to take these characterizations entirely literally: Lowe’s film takes a distinctly subjective perspective, doing the thing where the main character’s traumatic flashbacks (we see splotches of blood and flesh on a cliff) are intercut with the present action (eventually they reveal the motivation for scenes we’ve already seen.) There is a legitimately grotesque psychological headspace that Prevenge is working to inhabit: it considers the undiluted effect of our societal impulse to regard women as hosts, in every sense of the word, be they pregnant or not. That part of the picture is valid and heartfelt. But the framework it uses to get there—one borrowed from cathartic-violence horror-comedies—well, not so much. Prevenge creeps skillfully, but only in circles.
SCREENS ON WEDNESDAY, MARCH 22. BRATTLE THEATRE. WILL BE AVAILABLE ON VOD VIA THE SHUDDER PLATFORM FRI 3.24. NOT RATED.
FRAUD , Directed by Dean Fleischer-Camp
Branded a documentary by most festivals, Fraud is comprised of camcorder footage featuring a white American family burning their own home down, committing insurance fraud, and then using the illicit gains to indulge various consumerist desires. It is bookended by visits to a mall, where they purchase new Apple products; the Biblical significance of that company’s name and moniker is invoked by the footage, and not very subtly. The last mall trip is framed to suggest an apocalypse, in fact, to an extent that’s alternatively unnerving and laughable (one wonders what Rep. Chargers would make of all this.) Anyway, bound up in this surface critique of capitalism’s low-level pilferers is a semi-related second critique: that of men with cameras. The father in this family—which consists of himself, a mother, a son, and a daughter—is always the one with the camcorder. And he’s always zooming in on his wife’s ass. It’s leeriness communicated via film language, and it’s more unnerving than any Apple metaphor. This is perhaps the finest achievement of Fraud: that it can imply a whole ruptured perspective while leaving the person’s body almost entirely behind the frame.
But as much as it’s a movie about the character behind the camera, Fraud is also a movie about the creator behind that character. There are date stamps in the corner of every shot, identifying days like “May 25, 2012.” The question, then, is who did the stamping. We’ve been assured this is legitimately nonfiction footage of a real family, and we see them buying products, and driving around the country, and staying in hotels. And we also see a home burning, and we see news reports regarding their insurance fraud, and we see the five-figure check they receive in the mail… but we never see any of these “incriminating” details in the same frame with the family unit. They’re always separated by editing—suspiciously, and perhaps deliberately. And the editing rhythms are blindingly fast, with shots often lasting two seconds or less, essentially confirming that the initial observational footage has been given a post-production cut-up. Which leads you back to the title, and to the obvious question it asks: sure, a fraud, but by who? And thus a 52-minute procedural record of a standard crime instead becomes a heady study in media literacy and misleading editing. Whether that’s an upgrade or a downgrade is on each viewer—or, rather, each consumer—to decide for themselves.
SCREENS ON SAT 3.25. HARVARD FILM ARCHIVE. NOON. NOT RATED. $12.
A LIFE IN WAVES , Directed by Brett Whitcomb
A Life in Waves is a nonfiction biography film about musician Suzanne Ciani that’s constructed the way most nonfiction biography films are constructed. It opens with a montage of archival clips before moving into the standard “talking heads” structure: interviews with semifamous friends plus historical footage plus “day in the life” clips. This is not to imply that Ciani’s life—which saw her begin with classical training before emerging as one of the most innovative artists in the early days of the electronic music scene—cannot sustain the narrative on its own. That life story, which led through California in the 1960s and right into the home of the person who invented modular synthesizers, adds an extra line to an old cliche: right place, right time, sure, but also right person. Suzanne Ciani—whose exceptional sense for the emotive qualities of electronic music led her to do sound work on everything from Coca-Cola commercials to The Stepford Wives —was the right person.
Whether Brett Whitcomb is the right person to be directing this film is up for debate, but he probably isn’t the wrong person either. A Life in Waves is an exceptionally competent movie, marked by traditional compositions, stable camerawork, and smooth editing rhythms—it takes far less chances that Ciani must have. The structure of the editing dedicates ample time to many different stages of Ciani’s career, allowing the esteemed artist to articulate her own memories on subjects including commercial agencies, university culture, and her solo albums (all of these efforts are treated with something like equal gravity, for better or for worse). And in saying all this, we’re focusing on the wrong elements of film craft. It’s the sound that matters: the entire film, front to back, provides a showcase for Ciani’s supremely-expressive tracks, which contemporary artists are probably just now catching up with. The opportunity to hear them in Harvard’s well-equipped Carpenter Center auditorium is sure to be a rare pleasure in its own right. This whole “cinema is a visual medium” philosophy can be a misleading one—look too closely at what’s traditional, and you risk not hearing what isn’t.
SCREENS ON SUN 3.26. HARVARD FILM ARCHIVE. 3:15PM. NOT RATED. $12.
BOSTON UNDERGROUND FILM FESTIVAL. CONTINUES THROUGH SUN 3.26. SCREENINGS IN HARVARD SQUARE, AT THE BRATTLE THEATRE, AND THE HARVARD FILM ARCHIVE. FOR INFORMATION ON FESTIVAL PASSES, INDIVIDUAL TICKETS, AND OTHER INFORMATION, SEE BOSTONUNDERGROUND.ORG