The advent of cheap video technologies brought with it the hope that average Joe 'n' Jane filmmakers could trump the mainstream by producing honest-to-god feature films at a fraction of the usual cost. There were drawbacks, of course, not the least being the lack of venues and the pesky problem of having to blow up videos into 35mm to get distribution -- an expensive strategy and anathema to the whole aesthetic of the indie.
But things are changing, judging by the Digital Underground Festival. This breezy, three-day event solves one major problem of the genre: All films -- make that videos -- will be presented on digital projectors. With plenty of documentaries and features and a slew of shorts, this fest portends the unthinkable: video's pre-emption of the obscene budgets, cumbersome cameras, and, dare we say it, soporific superstars of commercial film.
Inevitably, there's a local component to the fest, notably The Eye of Rudra (2000), directed by San Franciscan Dean Mermell. His film meticulously details the creation of an ambitious "insect opera" at that notorious naked desert hippie gala, Burning Man. Mermell's admiration for the opera's creators, who assemble only for this event and torch their sets after a single performance, shines through the digital frame, capturing the group's "chaos culture" with split screens, color filters, and all manner of distortions.
A more prosaic version of chaos can be found in Patrick Hasson's Waiting (2000). Here it's the comic chaos of conniving busboys, one-night stands, and "piss pastas" at a Mafia-run South Philly Italian bistro. Indie fixture Sean McNutt is endearing as the drunken Everyslacker whose romantic travails (including being treated literally like a dog by a dominatrix) threaten his status as "ambassador of the service industry." This divertissementisn't mere diversion; it's filled with practical tidbits about what really goes on in a restaurant's kitchen, including the eternal question of how long food should sit on the floor before it's scraped back onto a plate for serving.
Fucked in the Face, by Shawn Dunn, also takes place on mean modern streets, this time Chicago. But even natives of that city won't recognize it in this candy-colored cruise through the sex 'n' drug excesses of Henry Normal, a mindless little hunk who follows his coke-riddled nose and aching dick from one anonymous lay to another. On a darker note, Clifton Holmes' In the Dark noirishly tracks the spiral of a bored librarian increasingly trapped in a series of games directed by a malevolent, unseen "Game Master." This masterful exercise in paranoia, shot in effectively dreary black-and-white video, shows that an ingenious script and solid acting are still de rigueurfor moviemaking, regardless of the technology.