“I suck at the thing I love,” shouts Tom Dong (Kelly Sry) at Steve Driver (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) near the end of Mope, which made its East Coast premiere at the 2019 iteration of the Boston Underground Film Festival. Tom makes this declaration with an unusual confidence and clarity (both for the character and for anyone who has ever pursued their dream). For him, this is liberation, a way of freeing himself from Steve’s increasingly far-fetched and even unsettling tactics for achieving superstardom. Tom hopes his friend will see the light as well—because at this point Steve is strange, detached, manic, and unable to separate fiction from reality. He should be thankful for what little they have: Someone is paying and housing both men to live out some portion of their dream, even though neither is particularly gifted.
The key point left out of the above description is that the two are at the bottom rung of the porn industry, performing the most humiliating work for the least pay and virtually no recognition. But anyone who has ever pursued their passion will identify with Tom’s expression, beyond the particulars of his situation. What if I suck? And even if I don’t suck, what if someone else who’s less passionate is better than me? What if I do get my chance only to learn that I never had it in me to be good enough in the first place? “I suck at the thing I love” is a profoundly sincere statement, and one that marks Mope’s transition from a gross-out comedy about the world of ballbusting and cuckolding into a study of alienation—from sex, from work, from friendship, and from one another.
By way of either serendipity or zeitgeist, another of this year’s BUFF selections also revolves around a character who is objectively bad at their dream job. Tone-Deaf, this year’s offering from festival regular Richard Bates Jr., uses the premise of a cat-and-mouse game with a spree killer to explore intergenerational conflict and the absurdity of finding happiness in the hollow shells of other people’s expectations. Single and unemployed, Olive (Amanda Crew) follows her friends’ advice to escape the chaos of Los Angeles and rents a house in the country owned by the recently widowed Harvey (Robert Patrick). Delivered amid the immediate madness of Harvey’s increasing psychopathic behavior and monologuing about the standard Boomer vs Millennial talking points is the story of Olive’s piano playing. She loves playing piano more than anything and is frequently encouraged by her friends and mother. The only problem is that she might be the worst pianist alive; she’s not only unskilled, but aggressively terrible. With passion and grace she plays chords and scales that make no sense to even the most untrained ear. How do you tell someone they are awful at the thing they love most when they’re not able to figure it out for themselves?
Aside from being an appropriately direct reference to the film’s title—she is tone-deaf to music as Harvey is tone-deaf to the world—Olive’s disastrous piano playing points to one of the larger ideas of the film: Does any of the stuff we gripe about actually matter? Is any of this real? What exactly are we all doing with our time that’s so important that we’d willingly define ourselves by it? The entire structure of Olive’s life was ready to crack at any moment: Her relationship was so strained it ended over a parking ticket and the timing of a pork chop dinner. Her boss fired her to preserve his ego after his creepy behavior was called out. Her self-care weekend, an escape to the country, boils down to paying money to do nothing in particular in someone else’s house in a town where everyone is on autopilot out of sheer boredom (or a murdering psychopath).
Bates contrasts the issues facing both generations without resorting to vulgar equation or bothsidesism. When Olive finally gets to vent to Harvey about his generation’s failures—the economy, the environment, and other very real but admittedly well-trodden talking points—it comes after he reacts in disgust to her playing. Here they are, bloody and bruised, only one of them going to survive this gambit. The least important fact has now come to light, and only Olive recognizes that being good at piano is not as important as basic survival. Playing piano is Olive’s dream, but like everything else, it’s just a way of filling up the time between birth and death. Anyone could have told her at any time and she would have been fine, but it’s been elevated to this life-or-death by her friends and family. It doesn’t actually matter to her that she’s bad.
An artist’s drive to improve their craft is a good impulse, but when it comes to appraisal and criticism, technical mastery is far too narrow a way to appreciate inherent worth. It’s too easy to identify a cut didn’t work or sound that wasn’t clear as a substitute for addressing what the filmmaker is working to convey. One of the virtues of BUFF, and underground cinema as a whole, is that artistry is not judged solely by craftsmanship. A film of small scale and meager resources can have tremendous scope, and a production with rough edges that resonates on some level will have a longer life than a hollower one, no matter how slick.
For instance, this year’s BUFF also featured a screening of the digital restoration of Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore (1997), by the late underground legend Sarah Jacobson. It’s a triumph of passion and sincerity, using limited resources for maximum impact. Mary Jane is raw yet sensitive look at a young woman coming of age, learning the facts of sex at the same time as its emotional component, good and bad. It’s a notable contrast to most teen sex comedies where the act alone is the goal, as well as to the male-oriented gabfests that boil down to elaborate punchlines about dicks. Yet according to some contemporary reviews, it was a “hopelessly amateurish GenX comedy suffused with the self-satisfied air of something made by and for a small group of friends” (Variety), or an “overly long, exceedingly talky, preachy film, something between a bad after-school special and a feminist version of Clerks” (Film Threat). The Variety critic also criticized the audio syncing in Mary Jane, specifically during Jello Biafra’s end-credits cameo, as evidence of its generally low quality.
But to call Mary Jane “amateurish” overlooks the artistry it takes to make its limited resources go such a long way. It also fails to recognize the influence of zine culture and the riot grrrl movement of the 1990s, and the relation those traditions have with Jacobson’s feature. A ’90s zine made no effort to conceal the way it was constructed, with scissor and tape marks aplenty, and many even found value in these supposed faults. It was as though the message was too important to be slowed down—that the revolution depended on this issue reaching people in time. Yes, the audio of Jacobson’s film is often out of sync, but the meaning is never lost. Yes, Mary Jane was made by a group of friends, but it was meant to reach those who need to hear what it has to say. Anyway, what the hell is so wrong with a “feminist Clerks”? Jacobson creatively distinguishes the mechanics of sex with how pleasure feels. She can get as explicit as the rest of them, in dialogue and imagery, but her work’s focus is far beyond puerile fascination.
Fans of outsider cinema are used to seeing festival favorites get trashed or misunderstood on wider release, and usually for similar reasons to the ones leveled against Mary Jane—knocks on “low-quality” filmmaking, in cases where those supposed deficiencies are either unrelated to what the movie does well or are in the eyes of many actually important aesthetic choices. Honesty is a far more interesting metric for artistic merit—and one which can be applied equally to all genres and budgets. Slick, large-budget productions can be a lot of fun—who doesn’t love a good explosion, space battle, or dinosaur chase? But is that soundtrack cue aiding the story, or is it distracting from a fatal flaw? Is the film covering up for having nothing to say by saying it loudly? Is that music swell meant to mask that there’s been no real character growth? There’s no inherent virtue in the size of your budget, but there is a unique beauty to films that don’t have the safety net of spectacle.