Maybe indie cinema has just become the new mainstream, as political documentaries like Fahrenheit 9/11 make box office records and former exploitation-geek Sam Raimi (gore auteur of The Evil Dead) directs Über-Hollywood products like the $200 million Spider-Man 2.
The term "underground" was coined in 1961, according to Midnight Movies authors J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum, to describe experimental filmmakers such as Stan Brakhage, Jonas Mekas and Bruce Conner, who made their celluloid careers on the far fringes, expressing a near total disregard for mainstream notions of success. Today, that concept is almost beyond comprehension when the desire for fame and celebrity seems as innate as the gag reflex.
So as indies become the new establishment, and concert T-shirts the new power suit, the underground goes deeper, tapping new wells of paranoia and vanguard aesthetics.
For Eric Panter, founder of the Atlanta Underground Film Festival and the monthly MJQ WellFair film screenings, underground means "works produced by independent artists who create out of necessity -- with or without a budget." Judging from the festival's lineup, despite attempts to reduce film creativity to a marketable Sundance moment, there are plenty of conspiracy theorists, activists, nuts, artists and film fans thriving in the underground's trenches.
The festival takes place Aug. 25-31 and will feature more than 70 short and feature-length films by both national and local filmmakers, many of whom have been working within the city's thriving film community for years, including Frank Lopez, Oliver Smith and members of the film collective Fake Wood Wallpaper, which will be featured in an Aug. 29 retrospective.
AUFF suggests that today's underground is continuing in the '60s tradition of happily existing below the mainstream's radar. In a consumer-based economy, the underground continues to go against the grain, proving that the desire to make something for love instead of money may be the most radical gesture of all.
Highlights of the festival:
MOVE As good a case as any for how individual rights can be trampled for a questionable common "good," MOVE documents the titular radical 1970s political movement and its increasingly violent altercations with Philadelphia's combative police force. With their 24-7 bullhorn addresses, smelly compost pile and confrontational tactics, MOVE members were not the kind of neighbors most would embrace. But directors Benjamin Garry and Ryan McKenna show the unequal force Philadelphia's status quo brought to bear on MOVE, including institutionally sanctioned murder and questionable legal tactics designed to keep its members behind bars as long as possible. Fri., Aug. 27, 6 p.m., at Art Farm, 835 Wylie St. Also, Sun., Aug. 29, 7 p.m., at Eyedrum, 290 Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, in conjunction with the El Dia de la Revolucion Documentary Film Program: Documentaries of Violence, Oppression, Tyranny and Equality.
Nothing Really Happens (Memories of Aging Strippers) Like a feminist political tract bathed in the honeyed tones of Barry Levinson, this highly theatrical drama from playwright Fred Newman concerns the intersecting lives of three different women: a feisty elderly Jewish writer (Judith Malina), a prim women's studies professor (Mary Round) and a tough-talking Bronx-born stripper (Madelyn Chapman). Though the connection can be a little forced and the action often degenerates into thespian staginess, Nothing is creatively structured and upturns any expectation of what lies ahead. Fri., Aug. 27, 8 p.m., at Art Farm, 835 Wylie St.
Tephrasect If experiments in film form defined the underground cinema of the '60s, it is the mind-bending potential of animation that has captured the imagination of a current crop of filmmakers. Georgia filmmaker Justin Curfman's stop-motion animation suggests the jarring soundtracks of David Lynch's earliest shorts and the work of the Brothers Quay. Curfman's real talent is a surreal, nimble visual imagination that appears virtually limitless, with his blankets made of stitched cockroaches and a meal where diners open their mouths to allow a stream of ants to devour their soup. Fri., Aug. 27, 11:30 p.m., as part of the Animated Shorts Program, and Sat., Aug. 28, 4 p.m., at Art Farm, 835 Wylie St.
Inflated Directors Cathee Wilkins and Steve Hall may at this point be playing catch-up with the mainstream since their mock pornos -- acted out with blowup sex dolls -- bring to mind the lowbrow, gross-out cable comedy of "Crank Yankers" and "South Park." Inflated follows porn convention to the letter with its skits often centered on blowup roommates Candy and Summer, the kind of perpetually in-heat chicks who fuel the porn imagination, and their increasingly degraded, sado-shock encounters with aliens, Hollywood agents and tattoo artists. Fri., Aug. 27, 10 p.m., at Art Farm, 835 Wylie St.
Playground Larry Clark meets "Sesame Street" in this stylish documentary with a propulsive soundtrack that follows three city kids, Rio, Ashley and Alex, as they practice their beloved pursuits of skateboarding, basketball and breakdancing. Alternating film and still photography, filmmaker Lauren Madow lifts these kids above the fray, creating a portrait of three self-actualized, cool superstars. Along the way, Madow captures something wistful and fleeting about the obsessions of youth and all of the pure escapism it offers. A real treasure. Sat., Aug. 28, noon, at SciTrek Museum, 397 Piedmont Ave., as part of the SciTrek Children's Film Festival, and Wed., Aug. 25, 8:30 p.m., at Eyedrum, 290 Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, as part of the Documentary Shorts Program, which repeats Sat., Aug. 28, 5 p.m., at Art Farm, 835 Wylie St.
Kaleidos Brilliantly trippy, Scott Schroeder's short turns a roller coaster ride into an ever-morphing succession of kaleidoscopic images shot in intense color-saturated tones. The limbs and faces of the riders strapped into the bright metal contraption suggest some endless centipede creature or Tibetan mystical art. Sat., Aug. 28, noon, at SciTrek Museum, 397 Piedmont Ave., as part of the SciTrek Children's Film Festival, and Sat., Aug. 28, 11:30 p.m., at Art Farm, 835 Wylie St., as part of the Experimental/Non-Narrative Shorts Program
"Somebody's Watching Me" In this deceptively sunny short, a security company employee uses his closed-circuit access to spy on a sexy customer. The anonymity of masks and inanimate objects are leitmotivs in many of the AUFF films, including this one. A commentary on surveillance culture, in which all of the actors wear blank, puppetlike masks, that cool special effect also suggests -- consciously or not -- a world of similar emotionless detachment. Sat., Aug. 28, 11:30 p.m., at Art Farm, 835 Wylie St., as part of the Experimental/Non-Narrative Shorts Program, and Mon., Aug. 30, 7:30 p.m., at the Earl, 488 Flat Shoals Ave., as part of the short film and video program Machine vs. Man.