Underground Explosion

By Linda Lofstrom

At first glance Jay Bliznick looks more like a bouncer than the head of a film festival, even an underground film festival. But he’s quick to dispel any preconceived notions about underground films.

“A lot of people make the mistake of identifying underground films as strictly films that were made in the 60s,” says Bliznick, who founded the Chicago Underground Film Festival, which enters its fourth year this Wednesday. “They’re confusing avant-garde and experimental film with underground. Underground changes from generation to generation and encompasses many different styles. It includes those films from the 60s, but it’s not limited to them. Underground is outside the mainstream; when enough of a film will repulse or confuse the mainstream, then it’s underground. It’s do-it-yourself filmmaking.”

That DIY aesthetic first captured the imagination of Bliznick as a kid in Michigan. He frequented a video store where the clerk, Chris Gore, recommended weird movies by low-budget auteur John Waters and such oddball filmmakers as Richard Kern and Nick Zedd. Gore had just started publishing the cult-movie fanzine Film Threat. Many of the movies he recommended were shot on 16 mm, still considered professional scale but obviously a reduced version of Hollywood’s 35 mm spectacles. Some were even shot on Super-8 and video. “Suddenly, I decided this is what I want to do.”

Unfortunately such ambitions couldn’t pay the rent. After losing a film production job in Detroit, Bliznick moved to Chicago, where his prospects didn’t improve much. “I was feeling useless,” he recalls. “I had been living in a very, very dirty three-bedroom apartment with a drug dealer, sleeping on the floor in this tiny, closet-sized room when I decided to try to sell bootleg videos at the Famous Monsters of Filmland Convention in Arlington, Virginia. I ended up meeting Hugh Gallagher, the publisher of the Draculina Magazine. We kicked around a couple of ideas, one of which was to put together a film festival of sorts.”

In the early 90s, there weren’t many outlets for screening underground films in Chicago. “Colleges and bars were the few places you could go to see these kinds of films,” says Bliznick. “Chicago is essentially surrounded by film schools: the School of the Art Institute, Columbia, Northwestern. I saw that even with all these places, these movies still weren’t really finding markets. I’ve been to some college film fests, and–don’t get me wrong–there’s some good stuff…but the presentation! It’s really lame. You just sit in the theater and watch the movies. There’s more to festivals than that.

“My original idea for the festival was to set it up like a fan convention. I figured I’m a fan of these films and I think there are others like me. Let’s do it in fan convention style but get rid of all that love-in fan-boy bullshit…like those science fiction conventions where people wearing rubber Vulcan ears discuss the moral implications of using the mind meld in Federation interrogations. You won’t find any unicorns at our fest!”

Fan convention style meant finding one central location at which to hold screenings, seminars, and informal schmooze sessions, while hosting after-screening parties and live music events at area clubs. Gallagher agreed to help sponsor the event and came to Chicago to assist Bliznick in scouting potential fest sites. “The next thing I knew the festival was a massive boulder rolling down a hill. There was no way to stop it,” he says. “I figured the only way to stop a huge boulder from rolling down a hill was to throw as many people in front of it as you possibly can, and that’s what I did.” He enlisted like-minded friends, among them Bryan Wendorf, currently the Chicago Underground Film Festival’s programming director.

Wendorf helped with planning and execution, as well as keeping Bliznick in line. “I’ve always been the type of person that’s had good ideas, but I always feel better if I have other people around me to keep me in check,” Bliznick admits. “That way they can tell me if it’s a good idea or a bad idea or if it’s just plain wrong.”

“Our first year was surprisingly successful,” says Wendorf, “surprising mostly to me and Jay, who could never quite believe it when, as it was happening, filmmakers and festivalgoers kept coming up to us and telling us what a great time they were having. There was so much going on and so much to do that we really had no expectations–we were just doing it and hoped it came off OK.”

The festival’s second year, however, proved to be a painful growing experience for both Bliznick and Wendorf and a major turning point for the festival. “Jay and I learned a lot the hard way about how to work together and communicate with each other that year,” explains Wendorf. “Things weren’t as organized as they should have been. There were a lot of ‘I told you sos’ being thrown about in hindsight and a lot of needless running around.” Yet after the dust settled, the pair came up with a clearer vision of the fest’s future.

“We began to get a better sense of what we really wanted the festival to be,” says Wendorf. “In our first year, due to our association with Draculina, we received and screened a lot of horror and exploitation features. We wanted to focus more on the film festival aspect and less on the convention aspect, so we decided to drop the dealer merchandising room and stuff like that.”

Gallagher was more interested in the convention and merchandising angles of the festival, and Bliznick and Wendorf have since split amicably with Draculina as a sponsor. “Sponsorship money is harder for us to get than, say, Sundance,” says Wendorf. “But we still have a lot of great sponsors who stick with us, like the Independent Film Channel.

“We wanted to maintain that community feel of a fan convention that we established during the first year and fine tune the rest,” says Wendorf. “We found out from filmmakers and others that they really liked the sense of community and that it made us really different from other festivals.”

San Francisco filmmaker Sarah Jacobson chose to premiere her feature Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore at last year’s Chicago Underground Film Festival–before it was screened at Sundance. “What I really like about CUFF is that it has the same spirit that inspired me to make films in the first place,” she says. “The art house circuit, as it used to exist, has virtually disappeared. It’s festivals like CUFF that keep underground films out there.”

“The really cool thing about underground film is that it can be the most mainstream story in the world and right in the middle of it you can have a hard-core sex scene,” Bliznick exclaims. “The serious point is that there are no restrictions. You don’t have to appeal to any censor board, you don’t have to worry about the MPAA. There aren’t any studio suits dictating how you can spend their money or bitching about how much money your film will or won’t make. Usually there just isn’t much money. The only restrictions underground filmmakers end up facing are financial. As a result there’s a certain kind of freedom.”

Underground films have always influenced mainstream movies. The established “independent” festivals such as Sundance have essentially morphed into mainstream film markets; they function as a shopping mall for Hollywood producers looking for their next maverick director. But Bliznick and Wendorf are interested in running a feeder festival. Theirs is open to all formats–35 mm, 16 mm, Super 8, 8 mm, and video (a complete schedule of each week’s screenings is included in Section Two).

“As the festival found a life of its own, the films submitted became more varied,” says Wendorf. “Each year brings a new crop of filmmakers, as well as the return of friends from past years. We now have filmmakers coming to the festival who don’t even have work being shown. We’ve also started to see new filmmakers who’ve attended as audience members in the past who were inspired by CUFF to create their own film or video projects.

“I’m just waiting for the first CUFF filmmaker to find mainstream success. Then all the Hollywood types will swarm in and try to do to us what they did to Sundance…but not if I can help it!” o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Jay Bliznick, Byron Windorf photo by J.B. Spector.