Boston Underground Film Festival 2023

    (above: Kristine Kujath Thorp in “Sick of Myself”)

    Boston’s Underground Film Festival continues until March 26 and I’ve been able to catch four excellent features being showcased at Harvard Square’s Brattle Theatre. Go here for more information and ticket sales.

    If you liked last year’s “The Worst Person in the World” or “Triangle of Sadness,” you’ll love Kristoffer Borgli’s Scandinavian dark comedy “Sick of Myself.” (One Twitter commenter called it the Ruben Ostlund film Ruben Ostlund had nothing to do with!) Signe (Kristine Kujath Thorp) and her artist boyfriend Thomas (Eirik Sæther) are both narcissists who delight in pranks like stealing a $2300 bottle of wine from a restaurant. When Thomas begins getting a lot of press about his art (silly displays of stolen furniture) Signe is so jealous she will do anything to steal the spotlight: fake a food allergy, try to get a dog to bite her throat… She takes huge doses of an illegal Russian drug to monstrously disfigure her skin, first to get pity and attention then turning it into a famous modeling campaign. Thorp delivers a bravura (and physically challenging) comic performance in this hilarious and biting satire of celebrity and social media.

    David Farrier & Michael Organ in “Mister Organ.”

    During the first twenty or so minutes of “Mister Organ” I suspected it might be a pseudo- or stunt documentary or at least a meta-documentary (think “F for Fake”). The subject of it is so minor yet fascinating it didn’t seem like this all could be on the level but indeed it is. Had I known that the filmmaker’s earlier project (“Tickled”) was a study of competitive tickling I may not have been so suspicious! New Zealand journalist David Farrier first learned about Michael Organ after catching a news story about the Ponsonby, Auckland resident clamping tires and blocking cars illegally parked in front of his friend’s antique shop after hours. He would charge them as much as $760 to get their cars back! Farrier eventually gained access to the shady prankster and suffered through five years of the same psychological warfare Mr. Organ had been practicing for years on roommates and others. One of his unfortunate roomies even committed suicide!

    Organ was once convicted of stealing his landlord’s boat, claims to be a lawyer (but has no law degree), says he is related to royalty (no proof of that), and according to the owner of the antique store (who once claimed she didn’t know him) is a “genius.” He definitely has a keen knack for obfuscation, alternately bewitching Farrier with a marathon of lies and linguistic dodges and then threats of lawsuits.

    You may want to strangle Michael Organ before the end of this fascinating, one-of-a-kind investigation but it’s worth the risk. Question: if we could get Organ and Trump locked in a room for a weekend I wonder which one would survive?

    David Wills in “Stand By For Failure: A Documentary About Negativland.”

    Most young music fans today are probably not familiar with the band (or music collective) Negativland but their pioneering practices and work are ripe for rediscovery and the new documentary “Stand By For Failure: A Documentary About Negativland” is the perfect place to start. Wired magazine once described them as “longtime advocates of fair use allowances for pop media collage, [they] are perhaps America’s most skilled plunderers from the detritus of 20th century commercial culture.”

    The experimental collective began in the San Francisco Bay area in 1979 and over their long career the core members were Mark Hosler, David Wills, Peter Conheim and Jon Leidecker. They invented the term “culture jamming” to describe their form of anti-consumerist protest methods. They also employed “plunderphonics,” a form of sound collage that differs from the use of sampling in hip hop because it often consists only of samples.

    Their 1986 album “Escape from Noise” was their first one to gain a large audience but also created controversy when the media claimed that the album track “Christianity is Stupid” inspired 16-year-old David Brom to murder his family. (The allegation was never proved.)

    Their next release incited a lawsuit for putting “U2” on the cover. Though it was a music parody of U2, many fans bought it thinking it was the next U2 record. They cemented their fan base over the years with unorthodox live shows and a weekly free form radio show.

    Like many recent docs about bands, Ryan Worsley’s is both a history of Negativland and a tribute to the members of the band who have died: Ian Allen, Richard Lyons and Don Joyce. In 2016 they shocked many by releasing an album with a bag containing two grams of Joyce’s cremated remains. This is a must-see for all fans of alternative and experimental music.

    I’m not a fan of superhero films but I liked “Smoking Causes Coughing” because it’s about a group of superheroes called “Tobacco Force” who kill monsters by giving them cancer but who don’t recommend that humans smoke cigarettes. (It also helps that I’ve never been a smoker and I grew up in a tobacco town–Winston-Salem!) Their boss, Mr. Didier, looks like the TV puppet character Alf with some green gross stuff dripping from his mouth. So we’re definitely not in either the Marvel or DC Comics universes here!

    Concerned about “group cohesion” the Tobacco Force is ordered to go on a week-long retreat that devolves into a contest to tell the scariest story. Quentin Dupieux’s absurdist French comedy revels in the kind of anarchic events and aesthetics we associate with South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone or the 1960s puppet animation TV show “Thunderbirds.” Even if you don’t laugh as much as I did, it’s only 77 minutes long, the cast features top French actors (Adèle Exarchopoulos!) and the art direction is inventive and gorgeous. (A ‘fridge in their dorm opens up to reveal a grocery store with a clerk!) Magnolia Pictures is distributing this in the U.S. and I’ll be surprised if it doesn’t become a cult comedy classic.

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