“Underground” is one of those words, like “hardcore” after it, that connotes extremism in all its forms. Aberrant sexuality, disturbing bloodshed, radical politics, whatever; find it all in the mythical, all-meaning underground. How can a film festival do justice to such a descriptor? The Boston Underground Film Festival takes its shot each year with programming that spans both forms and formats: It’s a specialty festival that’s open to all specialities, a haven for the deepest cuts of dangerously gonzo film culture. Short films, music videos, features, and cartoons (served on Saturday morning with cereal) are mixed together in an egalitarian manner throughout the five-day festival (March 23-27) with each day punctuated by special appearances, live performances, or parties (see the sidebars). The fest itself is branching out even deeper this year, literally speaking—a second location has been added, with screenings now split on either side of Harvard Yard (most are at the Brattle Theatre, with the rest at the Harvard Film Archive). Some individual films are considered below, but the experience is the thing: To best enjoy BUFF, one grabs a pass and staggers along, until all the deviancy starts to bleed together. Maybe you even find the underground.
WENDIGO, directed by Larry Fessenden
Thursday, 3.24. Brattle Theatre. 9:45pm. 15th Anniversary Screening. 35mm.
On New York land that’s been ill gotten at least three times over, Fessenden illustrates a lineage of cultural theft: City people George (Jake Weber) and Diana (Patricia Clarkson) travel to an upstate vacation home with their eight-year-old son (Erik Per Sullivan), the father clad in a sweater adorned with decorative deer antlers, the mother wearing an animal-skin cap, the outdoorsiness of it all as insincere as a country welcome. They get one of those welcomes soon enough, after their Volvo strikes a deer that Otis (John Speredakos) had been tracking for 18 hours, when the townie responds with a rifle framed as big as a movie screen. He used to own the home they’re staying in, so he adds an accoutrement to the welcome—bullet holes in their windows. Waiting behind Otis, in turn, is an Algonquian spirit who appears and disappears at will, imposing a judgmental heft toward all these half-educated white men arguing about stolen land. He warns George’s boy about the eponymous beast—an immortal flesh-eater—then leaves the rest to their due judgments. Fessenden renders their chases and tortures in individual frames, often cutting up suspense sequences into split seconds; interspersed among the confrontations are domestic scenes with the family trio, all composed with a morally minded arm (Sam Raimi, meet Samuel Fuller) and perceived by a youthful eye (who seems sure to inherit all the hate he’s witnessing from these low angles). A campfire horror tale about dangerous intersections of class, region, and color, and the hatred that can brew between all those distinctions over the course of lost generations. The boy’s perspective is the one that Wendigo keeps, and it proves enlightened: The people fade, the land wins out.
CASH ONLY, directed by Malik Bader
Friday, 3.25. Brattle Theatre. 9:30pm.
The convenience store clerk in this neighborhood works behind a bulletproof panel; maybe that’s the only safe place that the working class has to offer. Elvis (Nickola Shreli, who also wrote the screenplay) is an Albanian landlord in Detroit, the widowed father to a young daughter, and the overseer (via video camera) of a slum that’s not gentrifying quick enough for his tastes. Three enemies catch up to him—his mortgage, his personal debt, and a local crime boss—so he’s left to squeeze money out of every outlet available to him (fraud, theft, and outright violence). Bader follows him with a handheld camera, invoking the Dardenne brothers—other tellers of tales about working-class people pushed to illegal limits—and framing this immigrant-heavy pocket of Detroit as a heavily trafficked intersection of worse-off wage workers (everyone subsists off their own chosen cultural comforts—European soap operas, Asian pop music, and American video games). The finale is Grand Guignol; the tragedy is that it’s no bleaker than the dog-eat-dog day jobs seen before it.
SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL, directed by Neil Edwards
Saturday, 3.26. Harvard Film Archive. 12:30pm.
They funded magazines and bands to spread their message; they hosted black masses that were described as “Dada meets Aleister Crowley”; they attracted artists like George Clinton and John Waters, even going so far as to get a member on a salaried post with the Beatles. They were the Process Church of the Final Judgment, and they preached of an inevitable union between Jehovah, Lucifer, Christ, and Satan that would hasten the end of human existence; in Sympathy for the Devil, they’re rewarded with the talking-heads nonfiction-film treatment. Edwards gathers surviving members (like self-described psychic “Sister Greer” and magazine designer Timothy Wylie) of the short-lived collective (it was most widely active in the ’60s and early ’70s) to reminisce about old times (shocking hippies and bourgeoisie alike in Britain, witnessing the existence of otherworldly beings while starving in Xtul, catching post-Manson heat while soaking up the last moments of the real ’60s back in New Orleans). Off-kilter sound design and prankish visual creations accentuate all their memories—jagged hisses, record scratches, digitally treated archival footage, warped corners—the usual info-doc jazzing up, but gone satanic. Wylie, with a beard fit for a Christopher Lee stand-in, speaks most insightfully about the group’s curious (and partially unexplained) journey “from psychological to psychic to spiritual.” A decade-long historical record is melted down into chapter-based segments small enough to fit between commercial breaks—one on their robed fashion, another on their Scientology-adjacent personality games, the next on their publicity-minded shock tactics. As numerous primary sources have either died or chosen to remain silent, this red-hued shock doc remains more an afternoon memory than a comprehensive record. A subject for further research, then, but Wylie’s recollections are a hell of a start.
CHASING BANKSY, directed by Frank Henenlotter
Saturday, 3.26. Brattle Theatre. 7pm.
Post-Katrina New Orleans circa 2008 is the dormant tomb; a Banksy piece spray-painted on the side of an abandoned building the buried gold. Hyperprivileged Williamsburg art bros—“Fuck money!” one of them rages sincerely while orating in front of street art, while on the way home from what was surely a hefty bar tab—see their one big score slathered across a series of wind-ravaged boards. By plane and by car they travel, first to Birmingham, then to New Orleans—the whole south rendered as a series of dilapidated buildings under picturesque sunsets, where black neighborhoods peer at the latest round of tourist looters. All this is advertised as a “true story” (Anthony Sneed is the screenwriter, the lead actor, and the primary character), and some preliminary research indicates that at least a few of these works have indeed gone missing (though the image used in the film is fictional, Banksy did leave a series of pieces in the South during ’08). There’s a modicum of self-awareness in the peering, but most often it’s just another adventure yarn, a cinematic humblebrag. Two black women—a New Orleans native and an NYC art figure—get to tell the main characters what for, with one or two sentences each. A few more sentences and that self-awareness might’ve gotten us somewhere.
ANTIBIRTH, directed by Danny Perez
Saturday, 3.26. Brattle Theatre. 9:30pm.
A cavern-based cabal of drug-dealing pseudo pimps forcibly implants an inhuman seed into a chosen female mark, then conspires against her to ensure that it is delivered and not aborted—pro-choice protest, à la Cronenberg. The first sequence has a patriarch dragging Lou (Natasha Lyonne) out of party staged around flaming garbage cans; she wakes up the next morning within the id of American trash culture: a hellish landscape of castoffs, tube televisions, cheap smokes, whip-its, reruns of Cops, and once-fashionable fishnets (the set decoration is by Louise Bergeron, the production design is by Peter Mihaichuk, and the costume design is by Alex Reda). Lyonne’s Lou comes down from her bender, then works her way through the ensuing conspiracy like a good noir heroine: with untrusty friends at her side (Mark Webber and Chloe Sevigny, as Bonnie and Clyde gone heroin-grunge) and with flippancy on her tongue (a trusted partner says that her alien pregnancy has caused tears in the psychic atmosphere, and Lyonne deadpans that she’s “definitely been seeing some shit” in response). But then comes the body horror—the results of an unwanted pregnancy, cheekily rendered as a creature from the black lagoon.
RAIN THE COLOR OF BLUE WITH A LITTLE RED IN IT, directed by Christopher Kirkley
Sunday, 3.27. Harvard Film Archive. 2pm.
An American filmmaker directs a West African remake of Purple Rain, shot in Niger and performed in the Tuareg language, with one of that culture’s prime musical artists playing the Prince role—Rain the Color of Blue with a Little Red in It is cultural appropriation made endlessly confounding. That promotional film’s plot is restaged in the Sahara—there’s an artist (Mdou Moctar) strolling into a new town, a rival (Kader, playing the Morris Day role) who threatens to steal his music, a girlfriend who supports him, a father that burns him down, and even a favorite romantic hangout (the desert stands in for Lake Minnetonka). Both the worldwide vise grip of Hollywood influence and the stalwart spirit required to drive away from it are combined into one ethereal symbol: a budget-priced motorcycle, adorned with purple Scotch tape.
BOSTON UNDERGROUND FILM FESTIVAL. 3.23-3.27 AT THE BRATTLE THEATRE AND THE HARVARD FILM ARCHIVE. SEE BOSTONUNDERGROUND.ORG FOR FULL SCHEDULE, TICKET INFORMATION, AND MORE.
OTHER BUFF SCREENINGS
THU 3.24 – BOSTON-BASED SHORTS PROGRAM HOMEGROWN HORROR [Brattle Theatre. 5:30pm.]
FRI 3.25 – ZACH CLARK’S BUSH-ERA MELODRAMA LITTLE SISTER [Brattle Theatre. 7:15pm.]
SAT 3.26 – PROGRAMMED BY KIER-LA JANISSE THE SATURDAY MORNING ALL-YOU-CAN-EAT CEREAL CARTOON PARTY [Brattle Theatre. 10:30am.]
MUSIC VIDEOS PROGRAM – SOUND & VISION [Brattle Theatre. 2pm.]
FEATURING LIVE AUDIO PERFORMANCE BY DIRECTOR ROSS SUTHERLAND – STAND BY FOR TAPE BACKUP [Harvard Film Archive. 2:45pm.]
SUN 3.27 – CLOSING NIGHT FEATURE TRASH FIRE [Brattle Theatre. 8:45pm.]
ALL TICKETS FOR INDIVIDUAL SCREENINGS PRICED AT $12.
THU 3.24 – PARTY WITH THE UNDERGROUND ZUZU. 474 MASS. AVE., CAMBRIDGE. 10PM.
FRI 3.25 – KARAOKE PARTY TASTY BURGER. 40 JFK ST., CAMBRIDGE. 10PM.
SAT 3.26 – AERONAUT PARTY AERONAUT BREWING CO. 14 TYLER ST., SOMERVILLE. 10:30PM.
SUN 3.27 – CLOSING NIGHT PARTY FIRE AND ICE. 50 CHURCH ST., CAMBRIDGE. 10:30PM.
PARTIES REQUIRE FESTIVAL BADGE OR PASS FOR ADMITTANCE.