Seattle Underground Film Festival
Oct 5-14 at the Little Theatre and Grand Illusion.
See Movie Times for complete listings. Call 206-675-2055 for ticket info.

To supporters of independent film, there's often a knee-jerk reaction to back anyone courageous enough to pick up a camera. Thou shalt not be unkind to the starving artist! says the voice of some greater collective DIY aesthetic. Thou shalt support the indie auteur or be cast out of alterna-Paradise! Well-intentioned as it may be, this pose serves no one, undermines real accomplishment, misapplies notions of community to art, and creates a condescending, paternalistic attitude toward the experimental and offbeat. Yet encouragement is vital, acting as a friendly lighthouse in the dark sea of blockbuster cinema, where excellent work goes unnoticed and gets cast away in the big-money waves. The Seattle Underground Film Festival, which opens Friday and runs through October 14, encapsulates this dilemma.

Now in its third year, the festival sports over 200 movies from all over the world, ranging in duration from a couple of minutes to a couple of hours, and features almost no stars or filmmakers of note. It's the sort of event that's easy to root for. However, the movies we watched at the press screening, um, weren't, uh, very good. They weren't bad, mind you, but I was pretty underwhelmed.

The best of the bunch was called Family Values, directed by Eva Saks. It's the story of Becky and Donna, a lesbian couple who live in Philadelphia, and is also the story of Becky's business, which happens to be called Trauma Scene Restoration. When someone dies, they take care of cleaning up the death scene. The first 10 minutes, in which we drive around with Becky while she matter-of-factly cleans up the carnage, is pretty amazing. Her demeanor is the same as that of, say, a plumber, and her no-nonsense, can-do attitude is fascinating and funny and a little creepy. Then, halfway to brilliance, Saks loses her narrative track, going into the not particularly interesting relationship between the two women, while goofy I--Like-Ike-era Susie Homemaker music plays in the background. Even if this weren't a narrative dead end, well, the "happy loving straight couple that happens to be gay" theme has been done to death.

So the screening was a bust. But that doesn't mean you should skip SUFF, because judging from the festival program, there are plenty of films that are worth the chance. Plaster Caster is a documentary about Cynthia Plaster Caster, the legendary '60s groupie who made plaster casts out of rock stars, most famously, Jimi Hendrix (he was huge). This Is What Democracy Looks Like, also a documentary, concerns the anti-WTO protests in Seattle, and is composed of over 100 different videotapes, providing a skittish patchwork of impressions of the five days that shook the world. The American Classroom is a series of short, goofy, creepy films from the '50s that were shown in schools across the country. Each film, done in a stark, clinical black and white, documents a different threat to the nuclear family in the age of anxiety, such as the neighborhood pervert (he lurks in the shadows of schoolyards), the false God of flowering sexuality, and the threats of materialism (prom dresses can ruin families). I've seen some of these before, and they're fantastic, a kind of suburban mental-hygiene noir where danger is as close as a skirt cut above the knee. Made just after the arms race began, there is the suggestion of complete annihilation in every raised, small-town eyebrow.

Films such as these should, in the end, provide enough quality to keep your pro-indie stance free of excessive hypocrisy, or at least satisfy your curiosity. But if there's one truly great reason you should go to the festival, it's the unexpected appearance of Kenneth Anger's Lucifer Rising. Anger is one of the fathers of experimental cinema, and Lucifer, which was released in various forms between 1966 and 1980, is his masterpiece. Through a series of abstract scenes, over an unsettling, droney soundtrack, Anger portrays the fallen angel as a saintly, exalted, wronged figure, a proto-modern primitive, a bringer of murky, ambiguous light. Almost completely free of plot, and dealing in harmonic layers of atmosphere, Lucifer captures a dream-state feeling that's scary and joyful at once. Anger's genius is willful, not natural, and so you feel put upon, like you've been misled by a friend about the strength of a drug you just took. And then the drug kicks in, and you just go with it.

Sticking Lucifer Rising into the mix is like sneaking "Penny Lane" on a CMJ promo CD. It's not fair, but it's also not wrong. In the end, it serves an important dual role, giving the other filmmakers in the festival something to aspire to, and keeping the supporter of the struggling artist honest about the qualitative level of films that we would otherwise rubber-stamp. Which, for all our good intentions, is something we need more of.