Mix-media mayhem

James Levy

It was a bohemian blitz. The audience at Saturday’s Undershorts Film Festival was literally assaulted with media during the often mind-boggling six-hour event, held at Chicago’s eccentric Congress Theatre.

Described by its producers as the “film festival for everyone else,” the showcase crossbred film and live performance theater to create a corporeal viewing experience. The event featured two sets of films and performances that ranged in subject from an emcee battling tournament to a Tarantino-indebted “Assassin” story, and spanned media from film to performance, often mixing mediums to great effect.

One such segment, a music video/performance by the Pindrops titled “27,” featured a live band and singer Dan Wallace while a prerecorded film showed Wallace glancing in envy at an adulterous scene unfolding on the stage below.

Producer Rory Foster, who worked with founder Trevor Arnholt and others to create the Chicago-based festival, now in its seventh incarnation, believes the Undershorts festival includes some of the most innovative art in the world. “It’s in our interest to be thinking not in terms of ‘film’ or ‘theater,’ but different vehicles that can often be used together for a much more powerful effect,” Foster said.

Performances such as a graceful 10-minute spoken-word set by southern prodigy The Oliver were balanced by spectacular efforts such as “Deliverance: The Musical.” The parody managed to mockingly recreate the John Boorman film’s infamous riverside scene while, as the title implies, adding an air of Broadway grandeur with cheesy but memorable songs such as “Squeal Like a Pig.”

Contrasting its relatively playful tone were several bitingly brusque pieces that targeted shifty mainstream media news coverage, particularly the intense “Pandora’s Box.” The only piece of the night directly attributed to the “Undershorts Gang,” the segment began with a video montage of NBC Nightly News intro footage from February to March of 2004. Flashing graphic headline text such as “Terrorism Alert” and “Are your Kids Safe?” cycled on the screen at a quickly accelerating pace.

At the end of the film, the theater screen lifted to reveal a giant metal “media” robot and a small league of black-clad figures, who proceeded to crawl through the crowd of bewildered audience members with flashlights in hand as sirens buzzed, and what can only be described as a figurative rape of a television viewer took place on stage. The festival program described the piece as a call to “question our notions of the sanctity of a free press and the fragility of personal freedom.”

While “Pandora’s Box” was the most interactive of the film program’s line-up, the producers clearly have put in an effort to make the Undershorts Film Festival a performance “experience” from the moment one walks in the door. Immersed in a small legion of jugglers, fire spinners and costume clad bigwigs, festival-goers could choose to dance or simply watch themselves morph in real-time on a giant surveillance camera feed hanging above the dance floor.

A “Dear George W. Bush” letter on butcher paper also greeted audience members in the lobby. The 20-foot-long missive addressed personal greetings, salacious remarks and serious indictments toward the Bush administration. And while the political art selected for the festival was virtually unanimous in its damning portrayal of political discourse and the mainstream media, Foster denies that the festival itself has taken any particular stand.

“The art that we’ve chosen reflects that of society, and that which is not being represented by corporate interests,” Foster said. “Underground art is simply art that is being suppressed, and that is why we are vehemently supporting it and trying to bring it to a large audience.”

It could be said that the Undershorts festival, which may prepare its next installation as soon as spring, is like a loading screen for a more audience-powered point-and-click theater. What you see may be what you get there, but you might be rubbing your eyes in disbelief.4

Medill freshman James Levy is a PLAY writer. He can be reached at [email protected]