URBANA sets off Freaky flashback

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Greetings! I hope that you can still take up my call to empathic arms from last week, dearest readers, where I asked you to help support our friend Leslie in battling a financial pitfall as she fights a cancer scare for her life. Please go now to her GoFundMe campaign as this can wait. However, if you’re still here on C-U Blogfidential, then we might as well get down to freakin’ business by recalling the former Champaign-Urbana cultural event that she and I gave many volunteer hours, the Freaky Film Festival. We’ve talked about this cornucopia of left-field cinema once or twice or maybe even thrice in the past but, for today, I want to load you up with colorful weirdness because I’m simply in that kind of mood.

But, why this time? “Left field” is the closest point of origin any of us could come up with for the YouTube Premium series CHAMPAIGN ILL when it was first announced last summer. I still haven’t watched the non-free episodes of the set, which follows rap star entourage members played by Adam Pally and Sam Richardson as they attempt to find a footing back in Midwest society, and the Atlanta-as-Champaign-IL location shooting did not dampen my mild enjoyment of the first three. While many Facebook and Twitter voices who apparently know the C-U and its hip-hop quotient cried foul over inaccuracies, I decided to care less about it. The story wasn’t very dependent on geography. Since then, YouTube has nixed ILL as the service retools its original programming slate. Everyone can chillax.

Yet, my movie brain is not wired like other movie brains so I considered a more extreme comparison. “If people feel that CHAMPAIGN ILL is aesthetically ‘off,’” I had thought at one point, “their minds would melt down at the sight of URBANA.” Thanks to the miraculous algorithms of Google, I was able to quickly pull up the experimental short film URBANA made by San Francisco artist Brien Burroughs in 1994, a depiction of that city’s architecture as an alien landscape in reverse color photography. Its title is a derivation of “urban” and not a direct reference to Urbana, IL, yet it was chosen anyway for the first Freaky Film in 1997 and played back-to-back with another Burroughs venture into unusual technique, AQUAMORPHEUS (1996). You can replicate the sensation by pressing “play” below.

AQUAMORPHEUS (1996) from brien burroughs on Vimeo.

URBANA (1994) from brien burroughs on Vimeo.

I can’t speak for everyone who attended some or all of the four Freaky Film Festivals, but, I’d be curious to know where the lives and careers of those filmmakers have led the past 20 years. Maybe that could be an investigation for someone to take up in the future. For now, we’d rather present you with a few more freakin’ chestnuts to view. From Freaky ’98 is LILY AND JIM (1997), a droll misadventure in dating that is a student project made by the animator Don Hertzfeldt while attending the University of California, Santa Barbara. With tone-perfect voice work by Karin Anger and Robert May, LILY AND JIM made inroads on the festival circuit for Hertzfeldt before his irreverent line-art duo of BILLY’S BALLOON and REJECTED would bulldoze their way into our hearts. Thank you forever for the laughter, Bitter Films.

From Freaky ’99 is I, SOCKY (1998), a lo-fi escapade featuring a sock monkey who escapes from its domesticated environs for one night to soak up all the human hedonism it can. Created by the great San Francisco film personality Danny Plotnick and his equally talented wife Alison Faith Levy, SOCKY is a solid example of how Super 8 stock and an amusing idea could easily carry a film back then.

I, SOCKY from danny plotnick on Vimeo.

And, from Freaky ’00 is THE PENNY MARSHALL PROJECT (1999), a spoof on you-know-which-film that imagines what happens when famous movie-makers Penny Marshall (Lisa Jolley), Francis Ford Coppola (Todd Stashwick), and Akira Kurosawa (Bobby Nakanishi) head into the woods to make a feature just like the young guns in the industry. Comics industry veteran Greg Pak directed from a concept by Jolley.

It’s wonderful to watch these films again after so long, even if they’re past their prime and not paired up with numerous other pieces on the big screen. (The venues for Freaky Film were the Channing-Murray Foundation in 1997, the Canopy Club in 1998, and the (New) Art Theater in 1999 and 2000.) Sadly, Champaign-Urbana has hosted nothing as audacious in terms of cinema variety and discovery as Freaky Film since their era, based on my long-term observation of our film culture. I will begrudgingly include our own New Art Film Festival in that assessment and predict we will not see anything like Freaky Film again in our public sphere. It would require an opportunistic group to start small and underground as did Grace Giorgio, Eric Fisher, and their loyal collaborators. Whomever that is needs to accrue a deep knowledge of today’s “alternative cinema” while committing a lot of drive, foresight, and screening hours to bring the “left field” back to the forefront. A Freaky Film Festival redux is not so necessary. A new take on the freakin’ formula is always worthwhile and welcome.

~ Jason Pankoke

p.s. Well, okay, the first Freaky Film wasn’t that underground. The opening night took place at Noyes Lab on the University of Illinois where cult actor Bruce Campbell and genre filmmaker Josh Becker made an appearance in support of their novel crime drama, RUNNING TIME. (Fisher and Giorgio did their best with limited means and much leg work to push Freaky Film into the spotlight every year, bless ‘em.) Lots of folks from campus filled those lecture hall seats and yours truly has the analog video to prove it. Campbell just so happens to be returning to the small screen this Sunday, June 9, as host of yet another revival of RIPLEY’S BELIEVE IT OR NOT, this time on the Travel Channel. Groovy!

p.s.2 On the flip side of the Urbana fidelity coin is URBANA, a completely different short from 2007 that was actually filmed and set in Urbana. We made mention of it back in 2011 and it can only be found today as a credit on the varied resume of its writer-director, Joshua Aaron Weinstein, who provides marketing and video production services to Chicago businesses and continues a long relationship with the theater.

p.s.3 “You know how I work. I must have a script!” blurts Akira Kurosawa in THE PENNY MARSHALL PROJECT when Francis Coppola admits he didn’t bring one into the woods. As it turns out, that line of dialogue is absolutely on point as proved by the vintage Kurosawa interview embedded here.

p.s.4 Did you know the Freaky Film Festival was the subject of an academic publication? Sure enough, Media Audiences and Identity: Self-Construction in the Fan Experience (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005) examines the culture surrounding Freaky Film, the rock ‘n roll band Kiss, and Matt Groening’s FUTURAMA in terms of how the individual can relate to media creations they care about. The book is an expansion of a dissertation by Dr. Steven Bailey of York University in Toronto; he interacted with all things Freaky Film during “the middle years” while a Ph.D. candidate at UIUC. The textual references are dated at this point although Bailey’s extrapolations do provoke thought. I’m currently reading it for future reference…

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