Underground goes mainstream

Once the term "underground movie" conjured images of glassy-eyed hippies or spiky-haired punks making 8-mm epics without remembering to take the lens cap off the camera.

Today the underground is part of the mainstream, and fringe filmmakers have their own festival to prove it. This month the New York Underground Film Festival launches its ninth annual program at Anthology Film Archives, one of the world's best venues for classic and alternative cinema.

The menu is impressively varied, from hard-hitting documentaries to digital video-poems. Comprising 10 features, 9 full-length documentaries, and more than 100 shorts, it's welcome evidence that ornery young filmmakers remain committed to personal visions without worrying how much money they'll make.

The opening-night attraction, a nonfiction film called "Horns and Halos," is a fine example. It has the poverty-row budget and restless, skeptical mood often sported by underground movies.

But its subject - the tortured career of George W. Bush's first biographer - reaches out to anyone interested in politics, publishing, or the uneasy marriage between big money and mass communication. The main character is J.H. Hatfield, whose Bush biography - "Fortunate Son" - reached No. 8 on the amazon.com bestseller list in 1999 before its respected publisher, St. Martin's Press, withdrew it, evidently nagged by doubts over the book's charge that Bush had once been arrested for drug abuse.

Enter the film's other protagonist: Sander Hicks, a small-time entrepreneur who operated his "punk publishing" imprint, Soft Skull Press, from the basement of a Lower Manhattan tenement. Could he rush in where prestige-conscious St. Martin's hadn't dared to tread? How would pro-Bush forces react during the campaign? Was the book worth peddling in the first place? And who was this J.H. Hatfield, whose own past turned out to be a moral morass?

The film's directors, Suki Hawley and Michael Galinsky, make the most of two assets. One is their own patience as they track the book's uncertain progress without knowing how their quest will end. Another is Hatfield's personality, a blend of eccentricity and suggestions of deep-seated insecurity. Look for "Horns and Halos" to have a successful big-screen and video run in coming months.

A frontrunner in the festival's avant-garde lineup is "Christabel," directed by James Fotopoulos, a Chicago filmmaker with a rising reputation. Based on Samuel Coleridge's classic poem, it removes the elements of story and character, crystallizing key aspects of 19th-century romanticism - a taste for fantasy, keen emotionalism, fascination with distorted mental states - into an impressionistic collage of images and brooding sounds. Made with video and film techniques, it embodies the radical spirit of today's most adventurous cinema.

Back on the documentary side, it's been ages since I've seen a more thoughtful, unpredictable, and gripping movie than "Cul de Sac: A Suburban War Story," directed by Garrett Scott.

Its starting point is a bizarre incident of 1995, when a laid-off plumber stole a military tank from an army base and drove it through his Southern California town, crushing curbside vehicles and terrifying everyone in sight. One reason was his disappointment over the failure of a gold mine - yes, a gold mine - he'd dug in his suburban backyard.

This sounds like material for tabloid headlines, but Scott probes the situation with vastly greater care. Interviewing the plumber's friends and neighbors, he ferrets out a deeply rooted drug culture in their working-class community. He then delves into history, tracing the neighborhood's dysfunction to social ills stemming from World War II, the Vietnam war, and the recent layoffs. It's an engrossing true-life story. More important, it's a brilliant cultural and political essay, packed with insights into grass-roots attitudes about violence and war.

Other attractions range from Lynn Sachs's inventive "Investigation of a Flame," about 1960s war protesters, to a program called "Six Months Later," presenting intimate first-person documentaries about the Sept. 11 attacks.

People may call this "underground," but it's more real and relevant than most movies on Hollywood's current slate.

• 'Christabel' is included in a Fotopoulos retrospective March 13-18 at Anthology Film Archives, and several of his other films will be released on cassette by Facets Video this spring.

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