Out of the Gutter: Fabrizio Federico’s New Underground Cinema

Visionary filmmaker Fabrizio Federico makes movies about people on the margins.

I’m quite attracted to people who follow their own singular vision and pursue it vigorously despite the naysayers and the doubters. For all I know, Fabrizio Federico might be a complete madman. He’s certainly an artist, and that’s good enough for me.

So this was a nice surprise. Federico got in touch with me on Facebook and asked me to review his newest film, Anarchy in the UK – the New Underground Cinema. His name sounded vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t figure out why. Then I realized that I see him all the time in various Facebook film groups. So I Googled him and the first page showed an interview with Cultured Vultures in 2015. Ah! Small world!

I watched Anarchy in the UK, and it was a fine doc, but it mostly made me want to check out some of the filmmakers featured in the movie. So that’s what I did. I started with Fabrizio Federico’s major filmography. And here we are.

Anarchy in the UK (2016) begins on July 26, 2010, the day the UK Film Council closed. The organization was a major source of funding for independent film, and now it was gone. This was something that upset a lot of people. Film junkies can get quite rowdy about this stuff, of course. Even Liam Neeson was upset with the decision. And you know what happens when you upset Liam Neeson. Actually, a lot of the filmmakers interviewed for the doc seemed to think this closing was a blessing in disguise. It really gave the film community something to rally around.

The filmmakers are quite a diverse lot. What unites them, of course, is their outsider / visionary spirit. Often, as in the work of Federico, their films eschew traditional narrative. In that sense, Anarchy is both a report on and an example of the movement.

There’s a point in the movie where a filmmaker makes the inevitable comparison to rock-n-roll. The comparison to early rock music is always true enough, but rock-n-roll was able to break into the mainstream because, in addition to manic energy, it had predictability and a familiar pop music structure. The one predictable feature of this kind of filmmaking is its unpredictability. This is not something that mass audiences find entertaining. But entertainment isn’t always the main thing when it comes to art, right?

I mean, Stan Brakhage and Jonas Mekas will never be household names, and that’s fine. Hell, maybe they shouldn’t be. And what of Jim Morrison, one of Federico’s great influences as a filmmaker? Sure, almost everyone’s heard of his music, which sometimes slightly broke the rules of pop music structure, but his two films, the documentary Feast of Friends and the experimental HwY: An American Pastoral, will never attract even a fraction of the audience his music commands. I have a feeling that some of these filmmakers, not nearly the majority, but some, are waiting for a mainstream breakthrough that just isn’t going to happen. But that certainly doesn’t mean that their work isn’t important.

Also kind of inevitable were the occasional complaints about mainstream reboot / remake culture. I never really understand these complaints. Underground and independent filmmakers are one of the main reasons that mainstream film makes up just a tiny fraction of the films that are released every year. Sure, they get the majority of the distribution, but so what? There’s never been a better time to be a filmmaker or a movie fan. Everything’s out there, and most of it is on the Internet, making it easy enough to find. Experimental films are, of course, never going to replace mainstream filmmaking simply because they require too much thought.

Anarchy in the UK is the second documentary film directed by Federico’s Ziggy Stardust-esque alter ego, Jett Hollywood. It was Jett’s intention to direct two films and then “commit suicide.” This caused quite a stir with the British authorities, who took the suicide threat literally and actually opened up an investigation. Because it’s Hollywood that’s directing the movie, Federico can appear as a subject in his own documentary. And he does, a few times. Probably the most amusing appearance came in the form of a radio interview in which Federico calls out the interviewers for admitting they only got through twenty minutes of his film before they turned it off. He calls them lazy, and he’s right.
Above all, Anarchy in the UK is a wonderful introduction to a bunch of cool filmmakers and projects, and the viewer will inevitably want to check out at least a few. The Pink 8 Manifesto, the Gutter Cinema movement, the Underground Film Studio and the Horse Hospital (a venue that screens these films), are among some of the things that I, personally, want to check out. So you might see some articles on these things in the future.

But for now, let’s go back to the beginning of Federico’s filmmaking journey. His debut feature, Black Biscuit (2011), establishes the low-fi, free-flowing aesthetic that will eventually become his signature. As is the case in all of his features, Federico himself “plays” the main character, a nameless guy who is doing some life modeling to pay his bills (something that Federico did to finance this film, and in fact some footage of him doing exactly that appears in Black Biscuit). His character more-or-less consists of a streetwise hipster who’s looking for a little, but definitely not much, direction in his life. He’s also on the lookout for a new way to make some cash. So he hooks up with a Greek pimp and becomes a male prostitute. Of sorts. It’s mostly vanilla stuff. Couples, a bit of kink, that kind of thing. This is the narrative that the movie returns to every now and then, but it also meanders in and out of various other stories, mostly slice-of-life portraits of street types such as anarchists and a guy who takes his ping-pong more than a bit too seriously.

At one point the Federico character visits a woman who’s obsessed with Johnny Depp and he messes with her a bit, feigning ignorance about the object of her desire. But, good, bad, or indifferent, almost everyone in the world has heard of Johnny Depp. It’s the Johnny Depps of the world who are in charge now, a situation made tragic-comic here in the U.S., where we now have a reality-star president. And so, though celebrity culture is omnipresent in Black Biscuit (there’s also several vignettes which feature characters reacting to the death of Michael Jackson), the film argues that the stories of the abandoned, the depressed, the hopeless, the invisibles of the world are important, worthy subjects.
While it never quite makes stars out of the people it follows, the movie has a vast, almost spiritual curiosity about the lives of these wonderful misfits.

You get the feeling that Black Biscuit could go on forever. The movie doesn’t have a proper ending. It just sort of stops at one point. How could you “end” a movie about the free-flowing lives of gutter saints?

Federico’s follow-up feature, Pregnant (2015), is even less structured and has even less plot than Black Biscuit. Again, Federico plays the “main character” that kinda-sorta ties the whole thing together. He wanders the Spanish desert, meandering, discovering himself, sometimes looking bored with the whole experience. There’s no “arc” or “character development” to his story. Just images. Just wandering. Just a man looking.

The movie is very much about technology addiction. Quite an interesting topic for a filmmaker, a type of artist that inherently relies on technology. But of course Federico isn’t suggesting we abandon technology altogether, instead suggesting that a sense of balance might be in order.

Pregnant begins with the image of a man staring at the black and white TV snow you used to get when there was no station to pick up on the ‘ol antenna, which is something that must not happen too much anymore with HD TVs and all. After that, we get a vignette created with one of those easy animation programs you can find on the web where you put a couple simple characters in a simple location and have them interact with each other using a text-to-speech function. Federico turns the cutesy nature of this program on its head by having one of the characters, an office worker, casually tell a co-worker a story from his childhood where he and his friends violently killed a bunch of geese in a park.

The film is part documentary, part fiction, but these distinctions don’t really matter much, if at all. Pregnant is unified by its theme and symbolism. How and why the images got there isn’t really relevant.

The scenes of the Federico character getting lost in the woods are juxtaposed by scenes like the one in which an angry man is trying to record an off-the-cuff rant for YouTube, but his camera keeps falling down, which causes the guy to have to get back into character, so to speak, after he sets it up again. But the camera always falls. So it goes. Sometimes the message gets a little too obvious, like the scene where a guy jerks off to a furious climax as he scrolls through his Facebook feed, but most of the symbolism works on a more subtle level.

So, yeah, we have a movie about the dangers of technology, but because he’s quite interested in opposites, Federico includes a very beautiful montage of a wedding and a bungee jumper as some string music plays in the background. For just a moment, we gaze at moving images at their most pure.

After Pregnant, Jett Hollywood directed his first film. A break from his previous efforts, Evolution of the Earth Angel (2015), a documentary, follows only one person, who appears in nearly every scene. New-Ager Earth Angel is on a journey to spread happiness to the people of England and beyond.

He wears homemade wings that look as though they’re constructed from bath towels. He tells the audience that the wings were gifted to him by the gods. In his mission to spread joy, he denies even the slightest whiff of negativity. He doesn’t even linger on a friend’s suicide for very long before moving on to yoga-esque exercises and meditations that will supposedly bring the joy back into his life. In reality, of course, he’s burying his pain, not allowing it to surface, repressing it. And yet, he’s not a comic character. Indeed, Hollywood is clearly sympathetic in his portrait of Earth Angel.

Fabrizio Federico clearly doesn’t look to be slowing down anytime soon. He has two projects in the works, both with intriguing titles: Loon, a drama that he’s currently editing, and Crayon Angels, which is currently in production.

Federico explained his basic philosophy as a filmmaker in I am an Alien, a short documentary in which he was the subject, directed by Nicholas Adamson: “I can’t stick to one concept, and I can’t stick to one group of people.” Indeed. So the freewheeling nature of his films mirror the freewheeling nature of the filmmaker himself. Another choice quote comes from a 2011 interview with the BBC: “Life doesn’t have a plot, does it?” True enough, but it certainly has symbolism and meaning, two things that Fabrizio Federico brings to his films with a very singular kind of vision.

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