Underground Goes Mainstream

By David Sterritt writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, March 8, 2002 | Go to article overview

Underground Goes Mainstream


David Sterritt writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


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. …

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