Film Reviews: A Not-So-Short Dispatch on Short Films at the Boston Underground Film Festival

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By Nicole Venetia

I am happy to see 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. From March 23 to 27 marked the great return of Boston Underground Film Festival (BUFF), the first time the festival has been held in person in two years, not thanks to COVID-19. For the big comeback of BUFF, a solid line-up including a double by Gaspar Noé (the psychological drama Vortex and his experimental short film Lux Aeterna), Sundance success Observer (winner of this year’s best feature film award), and a new restoration of the 1987 B-movie about the killer cockroach The nest screened for weird moviegoers at the Brattle Theater, one of the oldest running arthouse theaters in the United States.

Due to prior obligations (e.g. work), I missed the aforementioned screenings, although I plan to catch both Noah’s joints and Observer the sooner they are available to watch again. I hope next year I will plan ahead and buy myself a festival pass for the weekend barring the emergence of a new deadlier variant of coronavirus which forces all festivals of films in person to another indefinite hiatus. Worst case scenario, everything goes virtual again, in which case I can’t really complain because the convenience of being able to watch new movies in my spare time benefits me as a reviewer (trying to take notes in a darkened theater is at next to impossible).

A scene from the psychological drama of Gaspar Noé Vortex.

Instead of attending feature film screenings or premieres, I chose to attend a few short film programs during the last two days of the festival. On Saturday afternoon, BUFF hosted Water polo for teenagers, an eccentric showcase of comedy shorts featuring live comedy sketches and animated oddities. A “straight dive into the depths of self-aware nostalgia,” the program tapped into a Swimming style for adults approach to bizarre comedy, making low-budget films intertwining “childish fantasy” and “existential dread” à la strawberry mansion and greener grass. The overall vibe was like waking up on your couch at 4am with your TV on the local access channel playing a children’s show possibly made by deranged occultists.

Speaking of kid shows made by sick people, Joe Badon dinosaur bloodthe longest short in the lineup, looks like an episode of Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood whether everyone involved was exposed to dangerous amounts of nitrous oxide. Or if Guy Maddin restarted Marvel Showzen. A man named Uncle Bobbo (Vincent Stalba) hosts a demented children’s show full of horrific non-sequences with the help of his child assistant Purity (Stella Creel), short for “The Purity of Youth,” according to the credits. In this very special Christmas episode, Uncle Bobbo’s lesson on oil fracking and fossil fuels turns into a demonic fever dream where a woman gives birth to the Antichrist. It’s a take on lo-fi madness in the vein of Miguel Llansó but tailored for people like me who grew up watching too much Pee-Wee Playhouse.

It turns out that Blood is the prologue of Badon’s next short film 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 filmThe God in my ear, is streaming for free on Tubi. Quoting David Lynch, Ken Russell and the Cult of Unarius videos as major stylistic influences, Badon began making films on the eve of his 40th birthday to fulfill his childhood dream of being a 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 “beautiful… moving paintings.” Although Badon was unable to attend the festival in person, he says his experience with BUFF this year has been incredibly positive: “The people who run this ship are professional but also very down to earth…Honestly, I love these guys. They program the exact same kind of shit I want to watch. It’s clear that Badon and I share a natural affinity for the transgressive, the surreal, and downright unusual when it comes to our viewing habits.

A scene from Joe Badon dinosaur blood — programs for children created by patients.

Other highlights of the Teenage Waterpolo program operated on a wavelength just as absurd as dinosaur blood. Happinessdirected by Sarah Gold features an adult Jared Gilman (Moonrise Kingdom) and tells the story of a young college student raised by sock puppets in a felt-covered world whose growing suspicion that he’s not like everyone else turns into a glitch-out existential crisis. It’s both incredibly original and surprisingly heartfelt with its central gimmick, and the production design is eclecticly inventive for a student thesis film. Puppets were a recurring theme tying together much of the program (clearly someone at BUFF really likes puppets). The hysterical short film by Michael Reich and Mike Pinkney One puff before you die is a Chill Madness-esque anti-marijuana PSA made entirely by puppets. What’s funnier than puppets smoking weed? Puppets smoking weed then getting dismembered in a horrific car accident while under the influence! Toshie the nihilista short by Matthew Chozick about a Japanese cryptocurrency secretary who swims to Hawaii after a series of misadventures, ended up winning Best Short Film at BUFF; well deserved, but not enough puppets for me (none actually).

My return to Brattle for the final day of the festival presented an equally eccentric lineup with indulgence. Hosted by the “Unofficial Monopoly Jr. Version.” From BUFF, the Weird Local Film Festival (WLFF), the program of local shorts screened on Sunday featured 12 little nuggets of specialness made by New England-based filmmakers and animators. One of the selections happens to be made by a friend of mine, a MassArt graduate and all around Austin Kimmel. I could see Put a stick in it a few months ago via a screener shared with our group of mutual friends. This is a four-minute multimedia animation of Austin’s grandfather, James, recalling when a childhood BB gun tag match ended with him accidentally shooting one of his friends in the leg. To avoid getting in trouble for playing with live ammunition, young Grandpa Kimmell dreamed up a brilliant cover-up story: making it look like their injured playmate had fallen into a pile of sticks while pushing a stick in the bullet wound. Needless to say, things didn’t work out according to this ingenious plan.

To stick on was Austin’s thesis project at MassArt, from which he earned a BFA in animation in 2020. The idea for the short came from his father Todd narrating PopPop Kimmell’s version of “the stick incident,” a anecdote so bizarre that Austin comes had to immortalize it as an animation project. Behind the scenes of To stick on was also a family effort: in addition to James providing his own nonchalant narration, dad Todd built the miniature live-action game where the accident is recreated in 2D character animation. The entire short has a noticeably vintage feel reminiscent of the golden age of animation; Austin’s main influences for To stick on include the Storycorp cartoons of the Rauch brothers and the rotography technique of Fleischer Studios. There are also quite a few Chuck Jones and Tex Avery in the Austin business.

I had the chance to say a quick “hi” and give my pal a congratulatory hug on my way to my seat, but I followed Austin a few days later for his BUFF experience. Although his time at the festival this year was brief, Austin had a strong turnout from family and friends eager to watch his work on the big screen. To stick on had a successful festival with screenings all over the world, but Austin holds a special place in his heart for the Weird Local Film Festival:[It’s] the very first festival I attended, the first I attended as a filmmaker, and the one I love to come back to again and again.

A scene from Sarah Gold Happiness — the story of a young student raised by puppets.

Other notable short films screened during the WLFF included suspicious baby by MassArt alumnus John F. Quirk, apparently a fake videotape intended to accompany a board game where players must move their army guy pieces (the “Wet Wet Squad”) to different piece cards until the suspect baby ‘tear[s] you in pieces” or escape with a bottle of Pepsi cola. It seems completely absurd because it is exactly that; it’s like one of the many fake Cinco products advertised on Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! In the same way, Paint Master: Learn to paint again after Painting College by Alexandra Derderian and Niklas Kelliher of Triple Yeah Productionscaptured the kind of fake public-access comedy that John C. Reilly’s jester Dr Steve Brule character embodies so perfectly. It’s a short tutorial on how to paint that quickly goes off the rails into complete and utter nonsense, though it was never exactly on track to begin with. Triple Yeah also produced the screening bumper that played before each program warning audience members not to talk, text or do “Pee-Wee Hermaning” in the theater.

And so ended my time at the Boston Underground Film Festival to assess the state of local cinema after weathering two years of the coronavirus pandemic. I’m happy to see that the scene has lost none of its eccentricity, thanks to a deluge of talented filmmakers and animators with a taste for the quirky. Stay Weird Boston!


Nicole Veneto graduated from Brandeis University with a master’s degree in women’s, gender, and sexuality studies, focusing on feminist media studies. His writings have been featured in MAY Feminism & Visual Culture, Film Matters Magazineand Boston University hoochie reader. She is the co-host of the new Marvelous podcast! Or, the death of cinema. You can follow her on Letterboxd and Twitter @kuntsuragi for weird and niche movie recommendations.

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