FILM FESTIVAL REVEALS UNDERBELLY OF AMERICAN CINEMA 

 
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Photo by Mark Greenberg
When aspiring filmmakers come to cult-movie godfather John Waters for advice, he generally tells them not to start out by making an earnest, angst-filled film about their own lives. Make a movie about sex and violence, Waters argues, because those are the things that people really want to see.

Sure, it's a calculated approach, but Waters came out of an underground school which dictated that any cheap gimmick you could employ to hustle chumps into the movie theater was justified. As a fan of Russ Meyers and Vincent Price, he understood that if B-movie trash is sufficiently vulgar, it actually starts to look artsy.

The 9th annual San Antonio Underground Film Festival, held at the Alameda Theater from June 20-22, suggested that there is an underbelly of new-model American cinema geeks who have taken Waters' message to heart. Personal expression was in short supply, overshadowed by campy depictions of doofus drug dealers using a bowling ball to kidnap their boss' wife, machine-gun toting, thong-clad babes draped over hot rods, and note-perfect Star Trek recreations. Among the most noteworthy entries was Bikini Bandits, a feature-length expansion of director Steve Grasse's Internet series, this was Russ Meyers with a self-conscious, post-modern tongue-in-cheek. A wild mishmash of rude skits, home-shopping parodies, fragments of animation, and even snatches of inside-baseball conversations between the makers of the film, it's frequently obnoxious and only intermittently funny, but rarely dull.

It's typical of this film's sensibility that Corey Feldman periodically appears, simultaneously mocked, and self-mocking. When he tries to save the bikini bandits from an unsavory porn director (played by punk legend Jello Biafra), he launches a Ninja fight scene by snarling at his adversary, "Bitch, I was in Goonies."

The humor has unmistakable Howard Stern overtones, and it's no coincidence that the skits prominently feature Stern regulars Hank the Angry Dwarf and Gary the Retard.

Grasse delights in putting his scantily clad hellraisers in incongruous situations, such as Pennsylvania Amish country and 1776 Philadelphia (where Benjamin Franklin tells his drinking buddy George Washington: "I'm the father of this country, you fucking homo").

Bikini Bandits works best in small doses, and tends to wear thin over an hour, but it gets extra points for including the late Dee Dee Ramone as the Pope, and Tool singer Maynard James Keenan as a highly kinky Satan.

"Never Trust A Serial Killer" is a fairly conventional film in structure and style,a L.A. comedy from Juan Carlos Garza that feels fresh because it captures the humor of the Latino experience with a cultural specificity rarely seen in mainstream films.

The story of a deadbeat pothead who unexpectedly drops in on his uptight old college friend, "Serial Killer" starts out as Chuck and Buck crossed with Cheech & Chong, then turns into a semi-serious search for a serial killer who goes by the name of Satan's Hand.

The most common weakness of low-budget features is poor acting, which makes the expert comic timing of Del Zamora as visiting friend, Leroy, all the more impressive. Zamora has the power and command of a Latino John Belushi, and he dominates every scene he is in.

This film occasionally veered into hokey sitcom territory, but it was cohesive in a way that most of this film festival's entries were not. It also included a winning madcap conclusion in which the serial killer is discovered at a paleta stand, and - after terrorizing most of the city - finds himself in over his head in East L.A., where even an old man chases him out of his yard with a rake.

On the odd side was "Video Calibration," a minute-and-a-half blip that zoomed out from a tight shot of a hairy vagina - all in flashing rainbow colors. The program claimed that the short "recovers the repressed vaginal figure evoked by the visual structure of mirrored videos," but to the uninitiated, it looked like a kid playing with the buttons of an expensive camera.

"Come Lovely" opened with the strains of Radiohead's "Exit Music," pairing fragmented images of a couple making love in the most ridiculously perfect fields with disturbing images of violence: the woman smashed in a car accident, pushed off a bridge, laying in a hospital bed, her lover coiled around the machinery that keeps her alive. Is this a metaphor for the repressed violence hidden within even the most loving relationship? Maybe not, but it was beautiful to watch all the same.

Female nudity seemed to be the theme of the day, and for "Koan," the brief flashes of a reclining female nude were the only highlights of interest. Veering from the artistic was "Fast Food," a quirky walk-through of the nation's product-mobiles (you know, the Oscar

 
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Elisabeth Sikes, director of education and artistic services for the Austin Film Society shares thoughts and advice to aspriring filmmakers. Sikes was one of four filmmakers leading a panel discussion at the 2003 San Antonio Underground Film Festival. Photo by Mark Greenberg
Meyer Weinermobile). Echoing the format of the Food Network's hit show Unwrapped - even down to the cheery intonation of the narrator - "Fast Food" was marketing disguised as entertainment. Even so, the tour of the Spammobile created a small, unmentionable interest in consuming a Spamburger ... just a little Spample, please.

In contrast, "My Narmada Travels" was a digital documentary of a young journalist's trip to a region of India populated by small farmers that is slowly being drowned by rising waters from the building of a nearby dam. Pendharkar attempts to tackle hefty issues, such as the value of progress versus the value of preserving indigenous cultures, but she does so academically, hinging together the film on a self-referential narrative. Viewers are treated to lengthy examinations of Pendjarkar's feelings, and a rash of well-duh! moments such as the following, loosely paraphrased: "I tried to ask the village children how they felt about the loss of their culture, and the death of indigenous ways, but they seemed more interested in touching my hair." Local filmmaker Cristina Ordonez weighed in with her own documentary, "A Tribute to La Gloria," which focused on the destruction of the famous West Side landmark. Working on a shoestring budget, Ordonez provided a short history of La Gloria's heyday, and demise. The roughly seven-minute short piqued interest in the history of the building, but failed to explain why the building was destroyed. Here's hoping Ordonez receives some funding to supplement her work-the subject deserves more scrutiny.

Rounding out the documentary bill was Ken Wyatt's "Nigger or Not?" a thoughtful examination of the contemporary uses and meanings of the hated word. Wyatt juxtaposes the term's current cultural meaning of the term with its historical context, exposing the "blacks can say it, but whites can't" status quo that has left nearly everyone with a vibrant opinion on the issue. With interviews from professors, Q-Tip, and everyday folks on the streets of New York, Wyatt ends his provacative analysis with wisdom from the rapper, who reminds us that the day black people stop using the term, it'll be gone - because everyone else is too afraid to use it.

"Starship Exeter: The Savage Empire" highlighted the day. Shot over seven years by two Trekkie brothers, Savage Empire is a painstakingly accurate pilot intended to capture the glory of the original series. From the gold rank braid on the Starfleet Officer Duty Tunic, to the details on the Klingon Commander's Insignia, this earnest tribute had the audience in stitches with its faithful reproductions of some of the series' sillier moments. Shots of the Kirk-esque character boldly going where no man has gone before - without his shirt, of course - the red light emanating from phasers, and even the requisite shot of crewman stumbling in the halls of the Enterprise after Klingon fire - all these paled in comparision to the single funniest moment in the movie: a shot of the blue-faced Andorian, replete with blond bob wig, antennae, and tights, opening his mouth, cupping his hand around it, and letting out a loud ... dinosaur roar.

Rumor has it that Gene Roddenberry's son loved the webpage. Check it out for yourself at starshipexeter.com. •


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