"In other words, I am three." So began Beneath the Underdog, the autobiographic composition in words of the life of Charles Mingus. The three that Mingus was referring to were the three distinct personas he felt stirring within him -- the constant watcher, the frightened attacker and the trusting soul. The freewheeling Jazz giant transcended the restraints of the music industry and simplistic genre labels by somehow unifying the three and their weird nightmares into an exceptional musical vision.
The annual Best of Underneath Cincinnati at the Contemporary Arts Center showcases a host of local film artists who in their own ways have undertaken the epic struggle to express their visions through the short film format. The audience is large -- indeed the audience is us, but are we willing to venture beyond the multiplex to discover these feverish dreams that attack feature film's narrative conventions with oblique visual poetry and closed perspectives that afford no escapist thrills?
In 1999, the Happy, Catchy, Flashy Named Motion Picture Festival -- under the direction of Phil Morehart, David Enright and Dave Waddell -- held its first screening of shorts (10 minutes or less) by local filmmakers at Sudsy Malone's. The event then settled at the Southgate House for the next two years but struggled to define itself; the original creative team dissolved just as the buzz began to attract more members of the underground filmmaking community.
The newly christened Underneath Cincinnati program launched its first series at SSNOVA Gallery in August 2001. Comprised of the best of the Happy, Catchy, Flashy Named Motion Picture Festival, that exhibition found an audience and a new director, Sara Mahle, who initiated a quarterly screening format that's proven to be ambitious.
In 2003, with John Hendricks on board as creative director, Underneath Cincinnati entered a new era with a competitive edge signaling an annual "Best of" presentation that would push local filmmakers to reach even father.
Taking a few minutes away from preparations for this year's Best of, Mahle shares her desire "to make Underneath a traveling festival, have it tour around regionally and nationally spreading the work around the globe."
The Ann Arbor (Mich.) Film Festival stands as possibly the signature example of the touring format. The event, established in 1963, is also recognized as the oldest festival of its kind. It's been able to attract worldwide entrants and screens more than 100 films during a six-day run.
A four-hour program of shorts is selected from each festival and compiled for a tour of colleges, art theaters and museums from March through December. The media attention and exposure to wider audiences encourages filmmakers whose work generally struggles to find an outlet in our mainstream feature film-dominated viewing culture.
Mahle is quick to point out that, despite such aspirations, "the main goal with Underneath has always been to promote filmmaking and filmmakers in the Cincinnati area, not just to promote Cincinnati as another place that can hold a cool film festival."
Cincinnati can take pride in fostering filmmakers who emerge from the sea of watchers. They're creative souls inspired by the passions and fears they recognize before them and, in turn, serve as models for others.
Ryan Lewis, whose Infamous: The Pelagrino Brothers will be featured at this year's Best of Underneath, says he seized a camera after watching films like "Clerks and El Mariachi and a world of indie filmmakers (who) at the time were making films by any means necessary." He did so without any experience behind the camera.
"I grabbed every filmmaking book or magazine I could get my hands on and pretty much taught myself how to make a film," he says.
The DIY approach has been greatly facilitated by DVD special features and commentary tracks that provide access inside a process that was once reserved to those who could afford film-school educations.
Infamous was created during the local version of the 48 Hour Film Project and reached the finals within several categories, including best film, director, screenplay and cinematography. Working in conjunction with Michael Maney through Cider Mill Productions, Lewis has a feature-film script he's shopping around to producers, which he wants to shoot in Cincinnati.
Terrance Huff, another local autodidact, moved to Los Angeles to explore his fascination with motion pictures and what he calls "the marriage of film and computer technologies." He found other amateur filmmakers and entered a contest to create a commercial for Kentucky Fried Chicken.
"I taught myself how to edit using Digital Non Linear Editing systems through trial and error," he says.
Although Huff and his team didn't win the competition, he wound up working more in the business and enjoying a hands-on education on a variety of television and independent film sets. Upon his return to Ohio, a turn of fate spurred production of The HPD Stories, a documentary on Hamilton's police department that's his Best of entry. (See "Street Talk," issue of Jan. 11-17.)
Huff plans to extend his roots in the Cincinnati region beyond filmmaking and into local politics. A seat on the Butler County Democratic Party's Central Committee is a goal, which is fitting for a filmmaker inspired by Michael Moore, Stacey Peralta and Craig Stecyk (Dogtown and Z-Boyz) and "any film involving Hunter S. Thompson."
Saint Maria director John Parker might be this year's Best of Underneath entrant whose spirit mingles best with that of Mingus. Besides being a filmmaker, Parker is an avant-garde musician, producer and writer. He also runs Subversive Records Limited, a local record label.
Parker's film background includes New Mexico College of Santa Fe, where he met filmmaker Stan Brakhage while working on his thesis film, and Dead On, a feature documentary on Cincinnati musicians. Through his band Blinge 9, Parker has produced live scores for his silent films.
"Today, I don't think it is as important where you live, at least not when it comes to producing (film)," Parker says.
He's made films in New York, Philadelphia, Santa Fe and Los Angeles prior to his time in the Queen City. His concern is for the craft of filmmaking, which can suffer in the wrong hands. He offers praise to Mahle, among others, "who have done more to keep the independent spirit of cinema and music alive in this town."
For Mahle, Underneath Cincinnati seeks to logically unite the terms "Cincinnati" and "filmmaking."
"My hope for Underneath is to help elevate filmmaking as a means of artistic expression that is alive and well in Cincinnati," she says.
The Best of Underneath Cincinnati screens at 7 p.m. Friday at the Contemporary Arts Center downtown.