Cinematic messages from the underground

The New England Underground Film Festival reaches back in time Sunday when it screens the 1914 silent film, ‘His Majesty, the Scarecrow of Oz,’ which was written by L. Frank Baum, the author of the ‘Wizard of Oz’ books.

By MIKE CHAIKEN
EDITIONS EDITOR
The world of underground cinema is coming back to Connecticut this weekend.
The New England Underground Film Festival will have its second annual installment on Sunday, Oct. 7 at La Paloma Sabanera in Hartford.
Phil Hall, the programmer for the festival, said the event received 60 films from all over the globe including Canada, Ireland, Germany, Italy, Poland, Finland, South Korea, New Zealand and Australia. From that collection of entries, Hall whittled the number of films to be showcased down to 10 “based solely on film quality and the festival’s six-hour running time.”
Hall said, “If you’re looking for great movies, you came to the right festival.”
This is the second go-around for Hall with the festival. Asked what kind of feedback he received for the first year of the festival, he said it was “ecstatic…. that’s why I’m back for the second go-round.”
Among the films picked for 2012 were “Rudyard Kipling’s Mark of the Beast” from directors Southington’s Jonathan Gorman and Plainville’s Thomas Edward Seymour and “Spirit First” by Southington filmmaker Ryan Ondriezek.
“The common ground that connects all of the films in the festival is a sense of upheaval,” said Hall, when explaining why the chosen films made the final cut for the festival. “The degree of upheaval ranges from the seemingly benign – Lucy Gray’s ‘Genevieve Goes Boating,’ which involves a child overcoming her fear of inclement lakeside weather – to the seemingly unfathomable – Christopher Husta’s ‘World Without End,’ which deals with surviving in an apocalyptic environment. Each film in the festival confronted upheaval in a uniquely intelligent manner, and audiences will find these works both entertaining and provocative.”
“Mark of the Beast” and “Spirit First” were among the four Connecticut-connected films that made the cut. But Hall said, “(T)hat was not by design. The four Connecticut films just happened to be among the best entries we received.”
What exactly is an underground film, at least by Hall’s definition? “An underground film is an independent endeavor that represents a triumph of imagination and personality over budget. Underground filmmaking consists of creative artists who are based on the fringes of popular cinematic culture, yet they communicate with a degree of vibrancy and passion that is distinctively different from the cookie-cutter output that the Hollywood film industry is providing audiences.”
Hall said it’s important to promote underground films with events such as this festival because “underground film is a revolt against the cultural status quo. Underground filmmaking gives people who lack entertainment industry connections the opportunity to share their artistic vision with audiences that may have grown tired with the lack of passion and originality in mainstream movies. I mean, seriously, how many times can you pay $10 to see Kevin James fall on his rump? Maybe it is time for something new, different and perhaps a bit dangerous – and that’s where underground film comes in.”
The festival not only looks at the future of film but takes a look at the past as well. The festival will screen a treat, a long lost gem, the 1914 silent fantasy “His Majesty, the Scarecrow of Oz” – the only Oz story written exclusively for the screen by L. Frank Baum, who also produced this once-lost film
Hall explained the origin of the film. “L. Frank Baum, who created the Oz series of books, also created the concept of the film franchise. Baum co-founded the Oz Film Manufacturing Company in 1914, with the plan to create a series of motion pictures based on the Oz books and characters. ‘His Majesty, the Scarecrow of Oz’ was the only story that Baum wrote specifically for the screen – it was not based on an earlier book. It is also one of the few Baum-produced films that survive extant, albeit with some wear and tear in the first reel.”
Hall already was familiar with the film because he “screened (it) several times in my previous work as a film programmer at the Light+Screen Film Festival and the Two Boots Den of Cin, both in New York City.”
Hall said, “(A)udiences have always been amazed to discover that the Scarecrow, Tin Woodsman, Dorothy and company were in films long before Judy Garland looked ruefully at an MGM rainbow.”
Hall said he likes to screen “films such as ‘His Majesty, the Scarecrow of Oz’ – and the 1910 ‘Frankenstein,’ which was presented at last year’s festival – (to) help to provide a sense of cinematic foundation. After all, it makes no sense to move forward in filmmaking or film appreciation if you don’t know the medium’s source of evolution.”
The New England Underground Film Festival will be held Sunday, Oct. 7 at La Paloma Sabanera, 405 Capitol Ave., Hartford from noon to 6 p.m. General admission is $10 and students with school ID can pay $5.
The schedule for the festival is:

12 p.m. Introduction of the program
12:05 p.m. “World Without End” (directed by Christopher Husta, Connecticut). A college student adjusts to a new isolation after surviving a plague that decimated the human population.
12:20 p.m. “Spirit First” (directed by Ryan Ondriezek, Connecticut). A documentary on the under-the-radar career of folk rock singer/songwriter Levi Weaver.
12:35 p.m. “Checkmate” (directed by Daniel Kuriakose, Connecticut). This short drama, directed by a 13-year-old filmmaker, details a young pickpocket’s road to redemption via a chessboard.
1 p.m. “Genevieve Goes Boating” (directed by Lucy Gray, California). Oscar-winner Tilda Swinton narrates this fable of a girl who overcomes her inner fears during a solo boat ride on a stormy lake.
1:20 p.m. “Hit and Run” (directed by Luke McKay, Australia). A pregnant woman’s frantic taxi ride to a hospital takes an unexpected detour.
1:30 p.m. “His Majesty, the Scarecrow of Oz” (directed by J. Farrell McDonald, California). A rare screening of the 1914 silent classic, produced and written by L. Frank Baum – the only Oz story that Baum created exclusively for the screen.
2:30 p.m. Intermission
2:40 p.m. “Working Stiffs” (directed by Michael Legge, Massachusetts). A newly restored presentation of the 1991 underground comedy classic – shot in glorious Super 8 on a $1,000 budget – about a personnel agency that offers zombies as office help.
3:40 p.m. “Anecdote” (directed by Ahmed Ziari, New York). A gay young man turns to prostitution to support himself, only to encounter a client with a devastating secret.
4 p.m. “Parrot” (directed by Craig Foster, Australia). A family is torn apart when a young adult son rejects his parents’ Catholic faith.
4:25 p.m. “Off Season” (directed by Eugene Ioannou, New York). An emotionally needy real estate agent finds herself in a shaky relation with an ex-cop who is trying to start a bodybuilding career.
4:50 p.m. “Rudyard Kipling’s Mark of the Beast” (directed by Thomas Edward Seymour and Jonathan Gorman, Connecticut). Debbie Rochon and Ellen Muth star in a horror film about the guests of a New Year’s party who disastrously encounter members of a mysterious religious cult.