The 22nd Chicago Underground Film Festival reflects a positively global mind-set, with selections from or about Argentina, Burma, Cyprus, and other far-flung countries. In fact “the underground” seems to get bigger all the time: Ben Russell, Ben Rivers, and collaborators Lev Kalman and Whitney Horn, all CUFF veterans whose work is included in this year’s edition, have recently gotten exposure at prominent European festivals. That’s not to say that CUFF has abandoned its local or transgressive roots; this year brings not only a program of amateur porn from the 90s, but also the world premiere of Night of the Blood Squatch, a locally produced short about a meeting between a “furry” and a Bigfoot conspiracy theorist. Adding to the neighborhood vibe are several free “bar talks,” informal panel discussions in the Logan Theatre lounge. —Ben Sachs
Burnt in Memory Subtitled My Lover Has Steel Legs and Street Lights for Eyes, this wordless portrait of Chicago upholds the tradition of the “city symphony,” a nonfiction filmmaking genre that reached the height of its popularity during the late silent and early sound eras. It’s densely edited but straightforward in its overall design, with sections devoted to sets of similar images (kitchens, paintings, people at work, et cetera). Some of the shots are lovely, but many feel generic or touristic, and even at 73 minutes, the movie feels too long. Director Robert Stockwell and editor Max Gold just don’t have that many ideas about how to sequence images dynamically, and the moody improvised score operates within only a narrow emotional range. —Ben Sachs 73 min. Sun 5/17, 8:15 PM.
Immune! The Origin of Ryan Scammell, Superhero (Approximately 72% Non-fiction) Using simply drawn rotoscoped animation, Ryan Scammell ponders the contemporary phenomenon of people wanting to be real-life superheroes and, not surprisingly, finds the root causes to be feelings of impotence and mortality. In voice-over Scammell explains how his unusually strong immune system in childhood convinced him that he possessed superpowers, which shaped his experience as an adult; ultimately, he and another delusional amateur crime fighter (who called himself the Black Shield) tried to expel a trio of drug dealers from a public park. The story takes a poignant turn near the end as Scammell recounts his father’s death from cancer, and for the most part his winsome, self-deprecating narration compensates for the obviousness of his theme. —J.R. Jones 71 min. Sat 5/16, 4 PM.
L for Leisure As someone who suffered through more poststructuralist theory in college than he would have liked, I had good fun watching this shaggy-dog comedy, though the arcane subject matter makes it an acquired taste. The episodic plot follows a loose-knit group of twentysomething professors and grad students over the course of 1992 and ’93. Everyone’s drunk on some kind of academic bullshit, and Lev Kalman and Whitney Horn, directing their own script, emphasize how out of touch these people are by showing the characters only when they’re on vacation. Every episode ends in an anticlimax, with each principal character flirting with the idea of debauchery but never following suit. The visual style is a deadpan parody of early-90s indie filmmaking, while the affectless line readings of Kalman and Horn’s heady dialogue evoke certain politically subversive exploitation films of the 1970s. —Ben Sachs 74 min. Thu 5/14, 6:30 PM.
Privilege and Obsession In May 2014, Oberlin College student Stephen Graves spent the nine days between final exams and graduation videotaping commentary from his classmates as they prepared to enter the so-called real world with their extremely expensive ($60,000/year) liberal arts educations. The usual collegiate vices—drugs, alcohol, and intellectual arrogance—are on full display, and Graves takes a few potshots at his rich classmates with such supposedly damning imagery as cafeteria workers scraping leftover food into the garbage. If you want to know what’s wrong with higher education in this country, check out Andrew Rossi’s well-researched documentary Ivory Tower; this anecdotal exercise never rises above the vague observations and liberal posing of its well-lubricated interview subjects. —J.R. Jones 63 min. Sun 5/17, 7 PM.
Sailing a Sinking Sea With original music by the local experimental band Bitchin’ Bajas, this documentary looks at the Moken tribe, coastal fishermen of Burma and Thailand who, believing a vicious mermaid forced them to becomes nomads, hop around the Mergui Archipelago and live almost entirely off the sea. There are no talking-head interviews, though testimonials from the Moken play over impressionistic images of their day-to-day life; the most mesmerizing sequences occur underwater, where the fishermen swim with the same agility and grace as their prey. The way director Olivia Wyatt shoots scenes of domestic life and ceremonial ritual is reminiscent of Jean Rouch and Robert Gardner (who’s cited in the credits), but her mixture of 8mm film, consumer-grade video, and high-end digital formats challenges traditional ethnographic form. In Thai and Moken with subtitles. —Drew Hunt 65 min. Sat 5/16, 6 PM.
Speculation Nation In the experimental documentary I Have Always Been a Dreamer (2012), director Sabine Gruffat attempted a melange of stylistic approaches to offer a fresh perspective on Detroit’s ongoing economic crisis; this follow-up—codirected by her partner, Bill Brown—is just as imaginative in its approach to economic woes in Spain. Focusing on people who purchased homes during Spain’s speculation boom of the mid-2000s, only to get evicted several years later during a period of mass foreclosures, Gruffat and Brown visit communities of squatters living in caves, abandoned housing projects (some of which were never completed), and tents outside some of Spain’s major banks. Many of the subjects have responded to the housing crisis with impressive creative energy, so Gruffat and Brown respond to them with playful experiments in image and sound; this is a surprisingly upbeat film. In English and subtitled Spanish. —Ben Sachs 93 min. Fri 5/15, 8:30 PM.
Shot on Malta, Atlantis (Fri 5/15, 9 PM) is an experimental documentary by Ben Russell (Let Each One Go Where He May), pondering the subject of utopia by observing scenes of everyday life and music-centered rituals. Russell’s 16-millimeter photography is as striking as ever, and the visual juxtapositions are provocative. —BS . . . Joanna Arnow’s discomfiting comedy Bad at Dancing (Sun 5/17, 2 PM) shows the influence of Catherine Breillat in its unsparing look at bad sex and regressive behavior. Arnow plays a self-loathing, self-obsessed writer who constantly interrupts her roommate’s lovemaking to beg for moral support. —BS . . . In Blue Loop, July (Sat 5/16, 7 PM), Mike Gibbiser transforms a familiar ritual into an impressionistic experience: filming fireworks on the Fourth of July, he leaves the camera shutter open for a few seconds at a time, displacing spatial and temporal unity and creating a sort of staccato visual. —DH . . . Gabriel Abrantes, enfante terrible of the Portuguese cinema, directed Ennui Ennui (Sat 5/16, 5 PM), a black comedy that continues his focus on sexual desire and sociopolitical power struggles. Looking at drone warfare in Afghanistan, Abrantes utilizes slapstick and erotica to underline his fervent political commentary and satirical sensibility —DH . . . Hacked Circuit (Thu 5/14, 7 PM) uses clips from The Conversation (1974), Francis Coppola’s prescient thriller about government bugging, to comment on our contemporary surveillance society. Director Deborah Stratman adds a formal wrinkle too, showing a Foley artist in the recording studio as he creates sound effects for the movie. —JJ . . . In Happy Fun Room (Sun 5/17, 2 PM) a TV actress wrestles with her role as hostess of a low-budget, low-rated, oppressively colorful playtime show for preschoolers. Writer-director Greg Pak perches carefully between drama (the protagonist has suffered a horrible personal loss) and satire (the moppets are all heavily medicated). —JJ . . . Shot on the streets of Los Angeles, Alee Peoples’s intriguing guerilla-style documentary Non-Stop Beautiful Ladies (Thu 5/14, 7 PM) offers a cogent commentary on the commodification of female bodies, with shots of motorized female mannequins holding ads for car washes and iPhone repairs. —DH . . . En Plein Air (Thu 5/14, 6:30 PM) is a lowbrow but affectionate Eric Rohmer spoof by local filmmakers Jerzy Rose and Halle Butler (Crimes Against Humanity). An alcoholic art instructor, hoping for his own Claire’s Knee moment, begins fawning over a young couple during a summer retreat. —BS . . . Director Scott Treleaven supplies the conspiratorial—and then confessional—voice-over narration for The Salivation Army (Sat 5/16, 9 PM), about the queer/punk/pagan zine he and two pals published in the late 1990s. A flood of seductive revolutionary rhetoric gives way to a cautionary tale about the malign power of words. —JJ v