In the early 2000s, former Clinton Street Theater owner Seth Sonstein founded the Portland Underground Film Festival. His mission—as it appeared from the programming, at least—was to screen the craziest shit he could find. Earlier this year, Sonstein sold the theater and turned PUFF over to Portland filmmaker Bob Moricz. While Moricz's own movies do not shy away from provocation, starting this year, he says, the festival is going to be different, getting away from "the Troma-type gross-outs and the incendiary elements" and showcasing movies which "peel the onion of the human psyche in exciting and original ways."
Sounds good. But take heed: PUFF is just a letter away from PIFF, the Portland International Film Festival. As we display below, it would only take a few tweaks for the festival, held this year at the Clinton Street Theater, to lose its subversive identity completely.
PUFF Shorts Program
Critic's Grade: C
PUFF's shorts program did not deliver the chilling or at least aggravating fillips I expect from underground art, but there ain't nothing wrong with a bit of conventional aesthetic pleasure. Jim Haverkamp's idyllic When Walt Whitman Was a Little Girl is especially comely, its leisurely mythopoeia rendered in silvery black-and-white tones a perfume ad would envy. I See a Darkness, directed by Dina Fiasconaro, is spoiled by an overwrought climax, but the quiet study in symmetry and matching movements that precede the ridiculous final moments fascinate for a spell.
If PUFF were PIFF: Walt Whitman would be a cute dog instead of a girl. CHRIS STAMM. 7 pm Saturday, June 30. $8.
Critic's Grade: B
Experimentalist Damon Packard's Space Disco-One is like watching three no-budget sci-fi movies at once through a broken kaleidoscope. There's a thread of plot in there somewhere, but Packard yanks on it until the whole thing unravels into a blatantly incoherent jumble of unsettling YouTube videos, references to Logan's Run and Battlestar Galactica, and farcical fourth-wall breaching, all overlaid by cheap special effects and the nonstop pulse of '70s disco rhythms.
If PUFF were PIFF: A whimsical grandmother would appear at the climax, hovering above the Earth like Kubrick's Star Child as a symbol of universal love. MATTHEW SINGER. 9 pm Saturday, June 30. $8.
Critic's Grade: B
Stop me if you've heard this one before: A musician couple (Quinn Allan and Heather Harlan) move from Boise to Portland, with no job prospects and a vaguely defined living situation. They quickly fall into a sexless rut. She moves out; he mopes around town on a bicycle built for two, then writes a song about it. If that story sounds familiar, it's probably because it is your own. But songwriter-turned-director Jon Garcia navigates the thin line separating cliché and universal experience, articulating a truth every Portland transplant figures out eventually: It's all fun and cock-shaped doughnuts until your girlfriend goes down on a guy who works at Doug Fir.
If PUFF were PIFF: Allan's brokenhearted troubadour would overdose on sleeping pills before composing his magnum opus on a zither. (MS) 7 pm Sunday, July 1. $8.
Critic's Grade: B
Bob Moricz, Portland's one-man sleaze factory, returns to PUFF with Bumps, a raw, careening feature about a group of teen girls who enter into a pregnancy pact that goes all sorts of wrong. As with much of Moricz's work, the film hums with an unnerving vibe of psychotic possibility, but Bumps is a sneakily subtle film, exploiting its subject for a deranged kind of sociology instead of boggling shock. It is raunch that rings true.
If PUFF were PIFF: There would be at least one sex scene that renders gentle fucking as something both profound and miserable. (CS) 9 pm Sunday, July 1. $8.
SEE IT: The Portland Underground Film Festival is at the Clinton Street Theater Friday-Sunday, June 29-July 1. See clintonsttheater.com for a complete schedule.