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Chicago Underground Film Festival’s Sonic Sampler

These days the Billboard music charts measure the status of not only Top 40, country, and R & B, but also categories like “contemporary Christian,” “classical crossover,” and “kid audio”–and although such increasingly specific terms are invented by the music industry to help it target consumers, they have a way of perpetuating themselves among music fans. The music-related films showing at this year’s Chicago Underground Film Festival almost all explore some specific subculture: There’s N.Y.H.C., a documentary about the emergence of the New York hardcore scene from the punk scene that preceded it. There are several films about raves. There’s even local video artist Jennifer Reeder’s Nevermind, which according to its description in the program is a 17-minute portrayal of a woman listening to a single Nirvana song. Most of these films strive to illuminate their subject for a broader audience; some succeed but some fail pretty miserably.

The most ambitious music film on the program, and one of the more successful, is Radiation, the second feature by the husband-and-wife team of Suki Stetson Hawley and Michael Galinsky. A keen set of observations on indie-rock culture worked into a relatively accessible fictional narrative, it’s the story of a cynical, broke fellow named Unai, who’s been booking and managing Spanish tours for American indie bands for more than a decade. As the film begins, Unai realizes that he’s lost his passion for the job, and when a tour he’s set up for the band Come falls apart he decides to take an overemoting New York performance poet on the road instead, hoping desperately to feed off her enthusiasm.

Galinsky, 30, knows a little something about indie-rock burnout. For nearly a decade he played bass in Sleepyhead, a scrappy New York trio whose music was fairly typical of early- and mid-90s indie rock. Long interested in photography, during that time he began taking pictures of the countless bands Sleepyhead played with at home and on tour–acts like Rodan, Yo La Tengo, Beat Happening, and Bikini Kill. He quit the band last summer to make time for the movie, but as Radiation was wrapping up, he was also assembling a book of his band photos called Scraps–published this past spring by the local Sugar Free label. While the book seems to sum up indie rock’s moment in the sun, the movie addresses the moment after that, when the old indie rocker realizes it’s time to move on.

Radiation was financed by Galinsky and Hawley’s friends and family, and believe it or not the exotic setting was dictated by their limited budget: the couple were going to be in Spain anyway, to show their first feature film, Half-Cocked (1994), on a traveling bill with Come and some other underground flicks. “We were going to have all these locations and all of these people around who could help us, so we took advantage of the situation,” Galinsky says. They incorporated the band into the script, and Unai was played by Unai Fresnedo, who does in real life what he does in the film, only successfully: in fact, he arranged the tour they were on. While in the film Come’s shows are canceled for lack of ticket sales, Galinsky says, “the truth is that a lot of these bands do great over there–better, in fact, than they do in the U.S.”

While in town for the film festival, Galinsky will also put up about 50 of his photos (in frames by frighteningly prolific New York painter Steve Keene, whose work can also be seen in the packaging for Pavement’s Wowee Zowee and Jim O’Rourke’s Bad Timing) at Lounge Ax; the club is hosting an opening Monday night between 7 and 8:30 PM.

For a witty, audacious, and fascinating look at a far less romantic arena of the music industry, see The Target Shoots First, Christopher Wilcha’s documentary about the marketing department of Columbia House, the mail-order record club. Wilcha, fresh out of college, lucks into a job there and starts bringing his video camera to work–which for some reason nobody seems to mind. Initially he regards the whole enterprise from a smug distance, but he becomes more engaged when charged with producing the company’s alternative-rock catalog: Nirvana has just released In Utero and alternative rock is starting to blow up big. Wilcha and his cohorts inject attitude into their publication, making it stand out from the rest of the Columbia House genre catalogs, and to their surprise response from customers is great. But throughout the whole work Wilcha wonders whether he’s really opening minds or just selling “cool.”

There’s no question that filmmaker Bradley Beesley thinks the subject of his Hill Stomp Hollar–the independent Delta blues label Fat Possum–is cool. In fact, at times the documentary seems like a raunchy infomercial. Label owner Matthew Johnson, who’s white and about 30, likes to romanticize the hard lives some of his artists have led, and Beesley apparently shares his juvenile views on violence and poverty. The footage of T-Model Ford, for example, focuses more on his various scrapes with the law–including a murder he committed as a teenager–than on his music. But the movie does provide some little known info, via university types, about how northern Mississippi is musically distinct from the rest of the Delta, and the performances by Ford, R.L. Burnside, Cedell Davis, and others are inspired and inspiring.

A similar infatuation with the subject matter infects Better Living Through Circuitry, an overlong documentary on rave culture that rarely steps far enough outside that realm to provide any perspective. Director Jon Reiss interviewed loads of people–from DJs like Frankie Bones, Carl Cox, and Moby to poster designers to lighting artists to the ravers themselves–but the movie never really makes any connections between the things they say. On the one hand you’ve got Psychic TV’s Genesis P. Orridge–who could really use a makeover, by the way–explaining how raves bring out our primal instincts, and on the other you’ve got a teenager rambling on about how great raves are because people are so nice to one another. This won’t win over anyone who’s suspicious of or confused by rave culture, but it’ll probably make those already in the know feel pretty good about themselves.

Admission to the Chicago Underground Film Festival, which runs Friday, August 13, through Thursday, August 19, at the Village Theatre at 1548 N. Clark, costs $6 per show, $25 for five shows, or $75 for all shows; see Section Two for specific screening times or call 773-866-8660 for more info.