By Ray Pride
Among Chicago’s many, many film and video festivals small or large, three claim the greatest longevity. At Lake FX Summit and Expo last month, a “Festival of Chicago Film Fests” event welcomed programmers of more than thirty independent festivals to make a case for their mission. Of the three longest-running on display, Chicago International, in its fifty-second year, claims the title of “the longest-running international competitive film festival in North America.” Reeling, now in its thirty-fourth year, is the second oldest gay film festival in the world. And then there’s Chicago Underground, at twenty-three, the oldest underground film festival on the planet. (I’ve been an observer of the festival since its start and also present the annual “Bar Talks” series where extended conversations between filmmakers and audiences are encouraged daily.) I caught up with Underground co-founder, artistic director and programmer Bryan Wendorf after the schedule was completed in May. We talk about what “underground” means in this century, honoree Tony Conrad, special guest (and underground expert) Jack Sargeant, as well as highlights from the features and shorts programs.
Tell me a story from early on when you realized the festival would go on, if not on and on, and on and on and on.
When Jay Bliznick first approached me about being a part of the original team that organized the first festival, I put him off for several months. Deep down, I knew that if I committed to being a part of this, I would be in it for the long haul and be involved with it for years. Then as we were planning that first event in 1993, it became clear that one member of that team wasn’t pulling their weight and was avoiding calls from the other organizers. We met together in my dining room and basically fired that person. That was a huge step, because it was someone we were all friends with, but as a working relationship it was a disaster. Making that difficult decision was the biggest step in realizing that we were serious. The other big step that pointed toward the festival surviving for the long haul was in our third year, when we shifted our model away from the film-fan convention model that had inspired Jay, and more closely resembled other film festivals. We also managed to get Roger Ebert to write a substantial piece for the Sun-Times, which raised both our profile and attendance. That gave us the drive to continue.
How did you get Roger’s attention?
We got his address from someone, I don’t remember who. Jay and I wrote him a letter and he responded expressing interest and asking us to send him samples of the work we were screening. In our youthful enthusiasm we sent him everything we were screening that year. All on VHS! I have no way of knowing what made him decide to devote so much of his time and energy to this upstart festival, but I’ll always be extremely grateful.
Did you ever have any idea what it would mean if you lasted at least twenty-three years? That CUFF would become “the world’s longest-running underground film festival?”
CUFF and the New York Underground Film Festival both launched the same year, and for years the festivals shared a healthy rivalry that alternated between friendly and not friendly. The existence of similar events in different major cities roughly six months apart was, I think, a key factor in both events’ success. One underground film festival was a quirky anomaly, but two meant the beginnings of a movement and helped create a network of new festivals and screening events that sprang up around the country. Other events were started by filmmakers who struggled with the challenge of furthering their own filmmaking careers and organizing screenings. In most cases, the desire to make work won out and other festivals folded. In 2008, the New York Underground Film Festival organizers decided to end that festival which left CUFF as the longest-running event like this in the world. We definitely took advantage of that and it has helped raise our profile internationally. I said this in Newcity’s Film 50 issue and I’ll say it again, the key to keeping something like this going is to not stop doing it. If you do something long enough, people who were skeptical when you began will come to respect your tenacity. Also, therein now is a generation of younger filmmakers who can’t remember a time that CUFF didn’t exist. We’ve become the established “anti-establishment” festival. At this point, I think the festival will continue even after I’m no longer doing it. It has its own life and identity even if I’ve largely shaped what that is.
What kind of growth did CUFF have last year? With the ongoing partnership with Independent Filmmaker Project, and continuing at the Logan Theatre, is the festival on good footing?
Our relationship with IFP has been great and the efforts [executive director] Nicole [Bernardi-Reis] and the board have put into the organization in the past few years has meant both the festival and IFP are stronger than they’ve been in years. I’ve known Nicole for close to twenty years now, and she has always been supportive of what we were doing. IFP is a big-tent organization that supports all sorts of independent filmmaking, from the type of work we show at CUFF up to the bigger, more commercial side of the film world. Nicole and I both share an understanding of what it means to be an independent filmmaker, and she knows how to talk about what we are doing to people who can provide support. The Logan has been a great base for us. For years, finding the right home for the festival was one of our biggest challenges. The Logan is an ideal size for a festival like ours, and the atmosphere created by the lounge adds a lot. It makes the festival feel, well, festive, and being in a neighborhood where a lot of our audience lives is key to getting people to check it out.
If the festival were brand new this year, considering what you’ve programmed, would the festival be called “underground”? Or something else? I like what John Waters said in 1997, “The word ‘independent’ carries a stigma of whininess. ‘Underground’ means a good time.”
The question of what we mean when we say “underground” is still the thing people ask more than anything else. Obviously, what was meant in the 1950s and sixties when the term was first used doesn’t apply today. I’ve always kept it vague. We program a wider variety of films than a lot of more traditional experimental film festivals do and an odder selection than most festivals that call themselves “independent.” I’m a lot less concerned with shocking people and transgressing boundaries than I was in the nineties, but I still want to find and present work that is both challenging and innovative, as well as entertaining and accessible. Things go through cycles in the “underground” and fixating on any one definition or approach is a sure way to stagnate and die. I want to be surprised and to discover new things, and I believe that our audience wants that, too. I think the work still fits under that intentionally vague descriptor.
Does anyone watch experimental films anymore? I’m joking, since “experimental” is everywhere, pretty much all the media we see every day, the good stuff, is some kind of “experimental film.” That seems to be the moment we live in.
I think experimental techniques and ideas have worked their way into mainstream media, and more and more people are open to different approaches, as audiences have gained more understanding of the language of film and video. There are experimental techniques all over YouTube and the internet and in commercials and Instagram, Snapchat, and so on, but people seem open to still experiencing things in theaters. I attended a good amount of the Onion City Film Festival this year, and the screenings were all well attended. There are new microcinemas in town and gallery screenings and other events every week. I have a hard time keeping up with all the activity around town. It’s a good time for experimental/alternative/underground film and video.
Give me a couple of features, and tell me how they represent a larger picture of CUFF 2016. What’s the trend? Last couple years, I saw a lot of shaggy-dog storytelling and formal beauty and dreamy essaying.
I’m not sure that I saw a unifying trend among features this year the way there was the past few years. If there is one, I might be too close to the program to see it clearly. From my point of view, the features are a diverse collection of different approaches. Anna Biller’s “The Love Witch” is a feminist updating of classic exploitation cinema that has an incredible mise en scène, shot on 35mm, gorgeous, bright colors and detailed retro designs, with style and substance fused into one inseparable whole. A very different film is “Booger Red,” a documentary-narrative hybrid, sort of like an Austin, Texas true-crime-tale version of Abbas Kiarostami’s “Close-Up.” I can’t really see much connecting “The Love Witch” and “Booger Red” to any overarching theme but both films are clearly the work of makers who have spent considerable time thinking about what makes cinema unique as an art form.
The shorts programs might have more of a recognizable theme, with a focus on depictions of the exotic or at least some exotic ways of looking at the mundane. We named the shorts programs this year after cards from the Tarot, and program number nine is “The Hierophant.” The Hierophant card represents tradition and structures, but since this is CUFF, traditions aren’t ever quite what they seem. Swiss filmmaker Aurèle Ferrier’s “Infrastructures” depicts a very familiar landscape of suburban shopping malls but this landscape is made alien and uncertain due to a complete absence of human beings. Sasha Litvintseva’s “Exile Exotic” has the director and her exiled Russian mother visiting a hotel that is designed as a replica of the Kremlin, which allows mother and daughter to revisit a simulacrum of their estranged homeland.
Jack Sargeant is joining this year’s festival from Australia for the first time since 2013. Tell me about Jack’s history with the festival, as well as his new book that’s partly about the festival.
Jack’s relationship to CUFF began back in 1995 when he was promoting his first book, “Deathtripping,” the definitive study of the films of Richard Kern and Nick Zedd and the “Cinema of Transgression.” Kern had been a festival guest our inaugural year and had put us in touch with Sargeant, who we brought to Chicago to do a screening and talk with Nick Zedd. Jack shared our interest in post-punk, post-transgressive filmmaking and he came back to the festival many times over the years. In 2010, he began writing his Ph.D. dissertation on underground film in the nineties, one chapter of which focused heavily on the origins of CUFF and how we kept the idea of an “underground” film scene alive after the New York transgressives had mostly moved on. The dissertation is now a book called “Flesh and Excess: On Underground Film,” and in addition to the chapter on CUFF as an event, features lengthy discussion of filmmakers Jack first encountered through us like Usama Alshaibi and Mark Hejnar. The festival has lasted long enough to have a history that has distinct periods! Jack’s book is an excellent look at the aesthetics that dominated the festival during our first decade. Jack will be around this year to talk about the book and the period covered in it, including in the annual “Bar Talks,” but I hope he’ll also be exposed to new artists and will continue his project of documenting the history of contemporary underground cinema and seeing how it has developed since we began.
Twenty-three years is a long time.
I had unexpected awareness of just how long the festival has existed and how established it has become just last night while talking to Ben Marcus, the artist who designed this year’s poster. It turns out that Ben’s father Paul Marcus is a filmmaker who had a short experimental video in the festival back in 1999. It was a strange feeling to realize that the generation who was participating in the festival in the late nineties now have children old enough to be involved with it today. And some of the current festival staff are only slightly older than the festival itself.
What about the filmmaker and sound artist Tony Conrad? He’s the life achievement award winner, the first one in how many years? And how have things shifted with CUFF’s events with his recent passing?
Tony’s passing in April, while not entirely unexpected—his health had been in decline in recent years as he had been fighting prostate cancer—was still a shock to all of us. Tyler Hubby, the director of our opening film “Tony Conrad: Completely In The Present” is a longtime festival alumnus. Tyler was part of the same generation of San Francisco Art Institute students (products of George Kuchar’s “Electro-graphic Sinema” course) as Sarah Jacobson, Sam Green and others who were regular fixtures at CUFF in those earliest years. He developed a relationship with Tony back then and has been working on this film for nearly two decades. I’d been checking with him on his progress and had wanted Conrad as a guest for years. The film’s completion seemed like the perfect time to honor Tony but with his death that had to take a different form than we would have liked. All the Conrad-related programming, from the selection of the documentary for opening night, to the program of Tony’s own film and video work, and the performance of his Amplified Drone Strings at the opening party were in the works long before we got word he had passed on. We’re sad he won’t be able to be here and be part of things but everyone at the festival is happy to be able to bring more attention to his incredible body of work and his inspiring approach to art making. I just wish I had been able to tell him in person how much his work has meant to me.
Will you do more lifetime achievement awards? Past honorees include John Waters and Kenneth Anger and Alejandro Jodorowsky (and all still alive).
We haven’t been having guests of honor or bestowing the lifetime achievement award in recent years, but I think we’ll do more of that in the future. The last time we attempted a guest of honor was 2010, when I invited Jonas Mekas. Mekas’ age and health issues caused him to decline our invitation at the last minute but we did screen some of his lesser-seen films. Keeping this history alive and connecting it to whatever “underground” means in 2016 is a very important part of our mission. A lot of those important early figures of the underground aren’t with us anymore, so we need to think about giving those that are still with us the attention they deserve while we can.
And younger filmmakers?
We’re also looking at filmmakers who are younger but established or influential. This year, we’re presenting Luther Price‘s early Super-8 films that were recently digitally preserved by Anthology Film Archives. I’ve long admired Luther’s work, but this is the first time he’s been a part of the festival. We partnered with Mana Contemporary to present a gallery exhibition of some of his incredible 35mm slide images. CUFF and Mana are planning to work together on a much larger show of Luther’s complete artistic output in the next few years. I’m excited to expand the scope of the festival to include presentations of film and video installations and other artwork created by filmmakers. I think there is a lot we can do in this area in the future.
Chicago Underground runs June 1-5 at the Logan, with parties and other events each and every evening. Full schedule at cuff.org
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.