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Chicago Underground Film Festival 2013

Guitar heroes dominate this year’s relocated CUFF.

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Winter just got a little weirder—at least for adventurous cinephiles.

Traditionally held in June at the Siskel, the 20th annual Chicago Underground Film Festival happens this week at the recently renovated Logan Theatre. The fest runs through Sunday 10 with a roster of offbeat, off-color and simply off-the-radar fare.

Though it might seem dubious to ascribe an overarching theme, guitar heroes dominate this year’s lineup. Too brief to fully grapple with the questions it raises, the Sundance-selected “Black Metal” (Thursday 7) finds the frontman of a Mayhem-like group mired in controversy after one of his fans commits a heinous crime. Showing earlier that evening, “The Fabulous Stains: Behind the Movie” unearths an almost-forgotten girl-punk musical, while a Dutch visual artist sings Led Zeppelin backward in “The Stairway at St. Paul’s.” (Both are included in the How to Stop Being a Mason shorts program.)

Speaking of the Zep, Jimmy Page is one of the all-star interviewees of Taken by Storm: The Art of Storm Thorgerson and Hipgnosis (Saturday 9). Described by one admirer as “the last great living surrealist,” Thorgerson designed the album cover of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, among other iconic sleeves. His matter-of-fact musings, along with a vast gallery of famous and unused prints, make this portrait of the artist worth a look—even if it’s much more conventional than the work it’s celebrating. The same could be said of A Band Called Death (Saturday 9), which profiles not the seminal ’80s metal outfit but three black teens playing punk rock in the early ’70s, years before the genre was supposedly invented.

Though not as brain-bending as Exit Through the Gift Shop, Vigilante Vigilante: The Battle for Expression (Sunday 10) offers an entertaining primer on the art-versus-vandalism debate surrounding graffiti culture. The film’s subject is “buffers”: obsessed civilians who paint over tags, blotting out colorful designs with their own monochromatic marks. Director Max Good takes a Michael Moore–ish glee in hunting down and harassing anti-graffiti activists, but he also makes a convincing case for illegal street art as an essential reaction to ubiquitous advertising.

There are no standouts like the stellar Putty Hill or The Color Wheel among this year’s narrative features. The shorts shine brightest—literally, in the case of the domesticity-in-flames stunner “Burn” (Thursday 7, also in the How to Stop Being a Mason program). Filmmaker Mike Rollo mourns the death of drive-ins—and perhaps cinema itself—with his haunting survey of abandoned open-air venues, “The Broken Altar” (Sunday 10). Its mixture of nonfiction footage and sci-fi atmosphere suggests the work of CUFF alum Ben Rivers, who returns this year with the gorgeously filmed “The Creation as We Saw It” (Saturday 9). Elsewhere, “Miss Candace Hilligoss’ flickering halo” (Saturday 9, in the Elizabethan Pornography Smugglers program) nightmarishly remixes a clip from Carnival of Souls, while “The Twin” (Friday 8, in It’s the Arts) tells a macabre revenge story inspired by EC Comics through striking still images.

The strongest selection may be “dinosaurs” (Sunday 10, in Hitting on the Head Lessons), in which an unseen narrator pairs drawings he made as a kid with candid anecdotes about his abusive father. The term underground film takes an additional meaning in a work that probes the subterranean secrets of its subject's life. Such confessional artwork plays well in any season.

The Chicago Underground Film Festival continues through Sunday 10 at the Logan Theatre.

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