The New York Underground Film Festival (March 5-11, 2003)

The Weather Underground

Trailer Town


For the past 10 years, the New York Underground Film Festival (NYUFF) has taken over Anthology Film Archives (AFA) for a week in March. A crowd of young hipsters, clad in mesh trucker caps, pointy shoes, and Lou Reed-style shag haircuts, descend like vultures onto the 2nd Avenue Cinema and Cinematic Museum. They sip donated Pabst Blue Ribbon, slouch in their seats, and settle down for an evening of “underground” film.

The term “underground” is loose and wild here, affixed to experimental video art, standard documentaries about not-so-standard subjects, skateboarding videos (some sponsored by Stussy), a retrospective of Joe Sarno’s notorious sexploitation films of the ’60s, and short films that range from giddy to punk rock to tranquil to simply incomprehensible. About the only thing the NYUFF’s films have in common is that they are unlikely to be seen anywhere else. That’s reason enough to attend, even if the rewards are not always bountiful.

Opening the Festival on Wednesday, 5 March was the new documentary, The Weather Underground, directed by Sam Green and Bill Siegel. You can’t get much more underground than this revolutionary subject, but the film is structurally formulaic, mostly talking heads and news footage. Still, it offers an effective, thoughtful, and unbiased account of the radical ’60s group who blew up police stations, courthouses, and a section of the Capitol building, to protest the Vietnam War, Richard Nixon, and racism.

The film opens with footage from the War, almost unbearably disturbing: headless bodies dragged along the ground, men and women shot in their heads, and the aftermath of children’s executions. All of these atrocities appear to be committed by U.S. forces.

With such horrifying images, Green and Siegel commandeer an immediate sympathy for members of the Weather Underground. When faced with abuses on this level, abuses that were supported and urged by the U.S. government, one can understand their decision to combat violence with violence (“Bring the War home!” was the slogan emblazoned on Weathermen posters and placards).

And yet, we learn, most of the members were initially pacifists, emerging as an offshoot of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). As the hippie and peace movements began to fade and the Black Panthers saw their leaders systematically destroyed by the police, the Underground became increasingly radical, learning how to make bombs and planning their uses. After a bomb accidentally exploded in a West Village apartment, killing three members of SDS, the Weathermen (who took their name from a Bob Dylan lyric, “You don’t need a weatherman to tell which way the wind blows”) took their cause and their members underground.

Green and Siegel effectively remove themselves from the proceedings and let their subjects talk. These include former Underground members, like Bernadine Dohrn, Mark Rudd, Bill Ayers, and Naomi Jaffe, who speak eloquently and openly about their experiences. The film’s linear chronology makes the Weathermen’s actions look necessary, fated, and understandable; they are not evil, but driven to extremes by an unjust and oppressive system. It’s worth noting too that, besides the accidental deaths of the three SDS members, the Weathermen never killed or attempted to kill anyone.

More often, they worked toward symbolic effect: when they break Timothy Leary, the famed LSD guru, out of jail, for instance, the Underground seems invincible, high on the excitement of the revolution (inevitably, this revolution falls to pieces). The Weather Underground‘s greatest achievement is in making this story so relevant now; is it the ’60s we’re watching on screen, or is that the peace march this past 15 February in New York City? More than ever, the Weathermen’s tale begs to be told in 2003.

Unfortunately, not all films in the NYUFF were as stunning as The Weather Underground. Some were downright painful to sit through. Trailer Town, directed by Giuseppe Andrews and billed as an “experimental comedy,” falls into this category. Andrews lets several drug and alcohol-addicted residents of a California trailer park run wild, creating horrendously offensive and senseless “sketches” and “routines.” The result is an incomprehensible mess of trash talk and desperation, discussions of the filthiest sexual activities imaginable (or maybe they’re only imaginable to Trailer Town‘s residents), and grotesque antics like microwaving a burrito wrapped in dirty underwear.

If this film offered release for the participants, perhaps it would be more tolerable; it feels instead like a display of white trash performing versions of themselves for someone else’s viewing pleasure. You laugh because it’s so outrageous. But Trailer Town is really an “I’m so glad that’s not me” celebration, which is more offensive than anything spewing from the residents’ mouths. Underground? Hmm. Sounds more like bourgeois to me.

The one bright spot is an older woman named Ruth whose monologues sound like surreal and outlandish beat poetry. “This is my life and I’m going through it like a limited edition carpet cleaner,” reads part of her “love letter.” Alan Ginsburg couldn’t have said it better.

Northwest, directed by Rick Charnoski and Coan Nichols (who made the seminal skateboarding documentary, Fruit of the Vine), depicts the filmmakers’ skating treks across the Pacific Northwest in lovely, rich 8mm. They camp out, make friends, smoke pot, and skate like mad, turning loops and whorls around empty pools and skate parks like demented, wheeled ballerinas.

Northwest is filled with stunning landscapes and emotional harmonies, and it makes a good argument that all skateboarding films should be shot on 8mm; most of the other short skating films shown with Northwest were too flashy, too lavish with speed, color, and tricks. It’s a relief that Northwest isn’t; it shows a mature aesthetic that makes skateboarding appeal to a much wider audience than just the typical target of adolescent males.

Another short film showed that night, Asbury, also directed by Charnoski and Nichols. In this four-minute documentary, also shot on 8mm, a couple of skaters whip around an empty swimming pool as construction workers begin tearing it down. Asbury chronicles several days of this interaction: the workers joke and play with the skaters, and by the end one of the skaters is riding a steam shovel, helping to lift away parts of his beloved makeshift skate park. Anarchically sweet and absurdly moving, the short perfectly captures the fleeting nature of pleasure.

My own greatest pleasure at the Festival came with another short film, There There Square, shown in the “Almost Paradise” collection. Directed by Jacqueline Goss, it evokes a child’s computerized geography lesson. A map of the United States, white on a solid blue background, forms the central image of the film; as words onscreen muse about the connections between history, geography, and the personal, the map morphs into a myriad of shapes, like the varied answers supplied by children and adults asked to “draw a map of the United States.”

Completely silent, There There Square allows for reflection and for reading between the histories of mapmakers, presidents, and explorers to find where the actual and imagined borders of the United States lie. Inevitably, they are more defined by personal than collective histories. We love looking from above, Goss suggests, because it makes us feel like we own everything in view, from stories to territories. But, There There Square proposes, we base our presumptions on individual experiences, losing sight of broader concerns and realities. This is a child’s first geography lesson, beautifully articulated by Goss’ subtle direction.

The New York Underground Film Festival drew to a close on 11 March with a second showing of Northwest and its accompanying shorts. In the audience to support their film, two of the night’s directors sat back in their seats as the lights dimmed and lit up a joint. It was a fitting conclusion to a festival that wasn’t quite sure how to define the term “underground,” but would make every possible effort to live up to that hallowed description.