Film Reviews: A Not-So Short Dispatch on Short Films at the Boston Underground Film Festival
By Nicole Veneto
I’m happy to report that the local scene has lost none of its eccentricity thanks to a deluge of talented filmmakers and animators with a taste for the offbeat. Stay weird Boston!
Boston’s local film industry is in good (and unapologetically weird) hands. March 23 through 27 marked the grand return of the Boston Underground Film Festival (BUFF), the first time the festival has been held in-person in two years, no thanks to COVID-19. For BUFF’s big comeback, a robust lineup of programming including a Gaspar Noé double-feature (the psychological drama Vortex and his experimental short Lux Æterna), Sundance-hit Watcher (winner of this year’s Best Feature award), and a new restoration of 1987’s killer cockroach B-movie The Nest screened for weirdo cinephiles at Brattle Theater, among the oldest running art-house theaters in the United States.
Due to prior obligations (i.e., work), I missed out on the aforementioned screenings, although I’m planning to catch both Noé joints and Watcher the soonest they’re available to watch again. Hopefully next year I’ll plan ahead and buy myself a festival pass for the weekend, barring the emergence of a new and deadlier variant of the coronavirus that forces all in-person film festivals into another indefinite hiatus. Worst case scenario is that everything goes virtual again, in which case I can’t really complain because the convenience of being able to watch new movies on my own time benefits me as a critic (trying to take notes in a dark theater is next to impossible).
Instead of attending any feature-length screenings or premieres, I opted to go to a couple of shorts programs during the last two days of the festival. On Saturday afternoon, BUFF hosted Teenage Waterpolo, an oddball showcase of comedy shorts featuring liv- action sketch comedy and animated weirdness. A “dive straight into the deep end of self-aware nostalgia,” the program tapped into an Adult Swim-style approach to bizarro comedy, low-budget filmmaking interlacing “childlike whimsy” with “existential dread” á la Strawberry Mansion and Greener Grass. The overall vibe was like waking up on your couch at 4 a.m. with your television on the local access channel airing a kid’s show possibly made by deranged occultists.
Speaking of children’s programming made by sickos, Joe Badon’s The Blood of the Dinosaurs, the longest short in the lineup, resembles an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood if everyone involved were exposed to dangerous amounts of nitrous oxide. Or if Guy Maddin rebooted Wonder Showzen. A man named Uncle Bobbo (Vincent Stalba) hosts a demented kids’ show full of horrific non sequiturs with the help of his child assistant Purity (Stella Creel), short for “The Purity of Youth,” according to the credits. On this very special Christmas episode, Uncle Bobbo’s lesson about oil fracking and fossil fuels devolves into a demonic fever dream where a woman gives birth to the Antichrist. It’s a vision of lo-fi lunacy in the vein of Miguel Llansó but tailored for people like me who grew up watching too much Pee-Wee’s Playhouse.
Turns out Blood is the prologue for Badon’s upcoming short The Wheel of Heaven (which he cryptically described to me as being about a woman reading a “Determine Your Own Destiny” book where Purity’s car breaks down outside a stranger’s house). His first feature, The God Inside My Ear, is streaming for free on Tubi. Citing David Lynch, Ken Russell, and the Unarius Cult videos as major stylistic influences, Badon began making movies on the cusp of his 40th birthday to fulfill his childhood dream of being a film director. Things really started to take off when he met cinematographer Daniel Waghorne (also a producer for Blood), a “godsend” to Badon for his ability to elevate his “goofy ideas” and “genre collage” style into “gorgeous … moving paintings.” Although Badon was unable to attend the in-person festival, he says his experience with BUFF this year has been incredibly positive: “The people steering that ship are professional but are also very down to earth.… Honestly, I love those guys. They program the exact same kind of shit that I want to watch.” Clearly Badon and I share a natural affinity towards the transgressive, the surreal, and the downright unusual when it comes to our viewing habits.
Additional highlights in the Teenage Waterpolo program operated on a similarly absurdist wavelength as The Blood of the Dinosaurs. Bliss, directed by Sarah Gold stars an all-grown-up Jared Gilman (Moonrise Kingdom) and tells the tale of a young college student raised by sock puppets in a felt-covered world whose growing suspicion that he’s not like everyone else spirals into a glitched-out existential crisis. It’s both incredibly quirky and surprisingly heartfelt with its central gimmick and the production design is eclectically inventive for a student thesis film. Puppets were an ongoing theme tying much of the program together (clearly someone at BUFF really digs puppets). Michael Reich and Mike Pinkney’s hysterical short A Puff Before Dying is a Reefer Madness-esque anti-marijuana PSA entirely performed by marionettes. What’s funnier than marionettes smoking weed? Marionettes smoking weed and then getting dismembered in a horrific car accident while under the influence! Toshie the Nihilist, a short by Matthew Chozick about a Japanese cryptocurrency secretary who swims her way to Hawaii following a series of misadventures, ended up winning Best Short at BUFF; well earned, but not nearly enough puppets for me (none actually).
My return to Brattle for the final day of the festival presented a lineup that was just as indulgently eccentric. Organized by BUFF’s “unofficial Monopoly Jr. version,” the Weird Local Film Festival (WLFF), the local shorts program screened on Sunday featured 12 little nuggets of peculiarity made by New England-based filmmakers and animators. One of the selections just so happens to be made by a friend of mine, MassArt graduate and all around swell guy Austin Kimmell. I’d gotten to see Put a Stick in It a couple months ago via a screener shared with our mutual friend group. It’s a four-minute mixed-media animation of Austin’s grandfather James recalling the time a boyhood game of BB gun tag ended with him accidentally shooting one of his friends in the leg. To avoid getting in trouble for playing with live rounds, young grandpa Kimmell devised a brilliant cover-up story: make it look as if their injured playmate fell into a pile of sticks by shoving a stick in the bullet wound. Needless to say things didn’t work out according to this ingenious plan.
Stick was Austin’s thesis project at MassArt, from which he graduated with a BFA in animation in 2020. The idea for the short stemmed from his father Todd recounting PopPop Kimmell’s version of the “stick incident,” an anecdote so bizarre that Austin just had to immortalize it as an animation project. The making of Stick was very much a family effort as well: in addition to James providing his own nonchalant narration, dad Todd built the miniature live-action set where the mishap is recreated in 2D character animation. The whole short has a discernibly vintage feel to it that harkens back to animation’s Golden Age; Austin’s primary influences for Stick include the Rauch Brothers’ Storycorp cartoons and Fleischer Studios’ rotographing technique. There’s also a fair bit of Chuck Jones and Tex Avery to be found in Austin’s craft.
I got the chance to say a quick “hi” and give a congratulatory hug to my pal on my way to my seat, but I followed up with Austin a couple days later for his BUFF experience. Though his time at the festival this year was brief, Austin had a sizable turnout of supportive family and friends eager to watch his work on the big screen. Stick has had a successful festival run with screenings around the world, but Austin holds a special place in his heart for the Weird Local Film Festival: “[It’s] the very first festival I got into, the first one I attended as a filmmaker, and one I love returning to time and time again.”
Other noteworthy shorts screened during the WLFF included Suspicious Baby by MassArt alumnus John F. Quirk, ostensibly a phony videotape meant to accompany a board game where players must move their army guy pieces (the “Wet Wet Squad”) to different room cards until either the Suspicious baby “tear[s] you to pieces” or you escape with a bottle of Pepsi cola. It sounds completely nonsensical because it’s exactly that; it is like one of the many fake Cinco products advertised on Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! Similarly, Paint Master: Relearning to Paint After Painting College by Alexandra Derderian and Niklas Kelliher of Triple Yeah Productions, captured the sort of faux public access cringe comedy that John C. Reilly’s buffoonish Dr. Steve Brule character so perfectly embodies. It’s a short tutorial about how to paint that quickly goes off the rails into complete and utter nonsense, albeit it was never exactly on the rails to begin with. Triple Yeah also produced the prescreening bumper that played before each program cautioning audience members not to talk, text, or do any “Pee-Wee Hermaning” in the theater.
And so ended my sojourn to the Boston Underground Film Festival to assess the state of local filmmaking after weathering two years of the coronavirus pandemic. I’m happy to report that the scene has lost none of its eccentricity, thanks to a deluge of talented filmmakers and animators with a taste for the offbeat. Stay weird Boston!
Nicole Veneto graduated from Brandeis University with an MA in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, concentrating on feminist media studies. Her writing has been featured in MAI Feminism & Visual Culture, Film Matters Magazine, and Boston University’s Hoochie Reader. She’s the co-host of the new podcast Marvelous! Or, the Death of Cinema. You can follow her on Letterboxd and Twitter @kuntsuragi for weird and niche movie recommendations.