The press release for this year’s edition of the Portland Underground Film Festival takes a combative tone. It reads, in part: “Looking over selections at other underground film festivals I’ve been seeing stuff like Hatchet 3. Hatchet is not underground. It is a franchise. Underground film is a cinematic revisionism—a non-profit mode of movie making. People who make these films make them because they need to be made… even if nobody wants to see them. They expand and, some times, test the art form. They’re not making these things for commercial purposes.”
The stance is understandable, as there’s a strong case to be made that with new modes of digital distribution and even the rarest and strangest of art films showing up on YouTube, there’s not really a bona fide underground anymore.
Yet that’s what makes events like this so wonderful; six days of celebrating these sometimes twisted, sometimes awkward, always artful cinematic expressions with likeminded movie lovers.
While PUFF does do a good job of distinguishing itself from other franchise-friendly happenings, the films chosen for this year’s fest do skew towards what can be seen as typical moods, themes, and styles. The majority of the works scheduled for these programs revel in discomforting situations or non-fiction ideas that are meant to incense and inspire action. Or they are just straight up wacky.
No film scheduled for PUFF exemplifies this more than punk icon Jon Moritsugu‘s latest magnum opus Pig Death Machine, a terrifying and fitfully hilarious feature that takes the little gross-out moments of Jan Svankmajer’s work and blows them up into feature-length form.
Elsewhere directors use horror film tropes, distorted and denatured film effects, and creepy voiceover to elicit a likely physical response from viewers. Or, as with Wayne Horse’s surreal The Ill-Mannered Milkman, which features a pair of men—including one with a white mask on who sweats milk—retreating into the woods together, the film puts together all these elements into one weird and wonderful visual stew.
Most of the uneasiness expressed in these films, even in Pig Death Machine, come from interpersonal situations, from skin-crawling misunderstandings between the parties involved in a potential one-night stand (Rory Uphold’s perfectly conceived Safety) to what looks like a long particularly revealing therapy session edited to only include the uncomfortable pauses and tense body language of its subject (Promo).
PUFF 2013 is not without a sense of history, too. The Portland-made Kakoon, a shaky and devilishly yucky feature pays homage to exploitation filmmaker Andy Milligan and B-movie icon William Castle by offering up a barf bag for each attendee. The festival organizers are also offering up Al Pereira vs. the Alligator Ladies, directed by Jess Franco, one of the world’s most prolific underground directors who sadly passed away earlier this year at the age of eighty-two.
With all this off-the-beaten-path fare, maybe the organizers of PUFF have a right to be a little contentious about the state of underground film and their place within it. Unlike almost every other festival in Portland, this is one that dares to push the envelope secure in the knowledge that even if they fall and play stuff that might frustrate or annoy audiences, that might encourage these viewers to make some art of their own.