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“Tribulation 99,” the Superman serials

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By Michael Atkinson

IFC News

[Photo: “Tribulation 99,” Other Cinema/Facets]

A subterranean poet of paranoia, bricolage wizard Craig Baldwin makes movies out of yesteryear’s garbage celluloid that are half radical firestorm and half psychotic poppycock. The mixture is virtually self-defining: cheap cultural flotsam emerging from Frankenstein surgery with a boggled head of Freudian free-associations and an insurrectionary temper. Each time he redefines a chunk of educational film or government agitprop or Mexican horror flick, he is questioning what the images mean, how absurd their original intentions were, and how their political power can be used not for oppressive evil but for good — or, at least, sardonic hijinks.

A radical anti-establishmentarian, Baldwin is less pedantic than he is pulp-satiric, and the movies are endlessly unpackable. His most famous film, “Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies Under America,” is also his masterpiece: a breathless, fevered screed in 99 chapters that details the tapestry of 20th century history as it has been influenced and manipulated by the inner-earth-dwelling Quetzals. The story, illustrated by pirated sci-fi movies, military PSAs, TV commercials and school-science reels, intersects with the CIA, Howard Hughes, Fidel Castro (seen as a skid-row Bible-class Jesus), Manuel Noriega, Ronald Reagan, Atlantis, Pinochet, Kissinger, E. Howard Hunt, the Mayan empire, United Fruit, the Bush family, Oliver North and many more.

Only 48 minutes, Baldwin’s film packs in enough loony ideas and sly comedy for four features; every cut and snippet is a layered joke, about American paranoia as well as the very real conspiratorial establishment that has dominated politics in the postwar era. For purists, just the harried repurposing of orthodox film footage (always without permission) is enough of a rebel yell, and with this film Baldwin had raised the bar on an entire school of experimental filmmaking: the kind that doesn’t use cameras. “Tribulation 99” is sci-fi avant-garde intellectualism as action film, and perhaps unique among “underground” films, it can be and should be seen several times, with each viewing paying off like a broken slot machine.

Or you can return to the image bank itself — with the old matinee sweetmeats “Superman” (1948) and “Atom Man vs. Superman” (1950), 15-chapter theatrical serials released as a sweet DVD box in order to multi-promote the dreary “Superman Returns” disc. In a pre-television world, film series like these were the weekly gasoline poured on the imaginative flames of Cold War kids, one of which was the apparently impressionable George Lucas. Punctuated with mushroom clouds, charmingly set-bound, and unscrupulous in their use of archive footage (by way of freeze-frame, Superman actually halts the whip-wobbling of the famous Tacoma Narrows Bridge in mid-collapse, in order to evacuate a bystander), these vintage mini-movies (or four plus-hour marathons, depending on how you take them) are blissful gray heavens, child-like yet haunted by nuclear dread.

They’re also faster-moving than the later George Reeves TV show or Christopher Reeve movies, not wasting a frame and breathlessly comfortable with replacing star Kirk Allyn in mid shot with a zooming cartoon figure, shooting out of office windows like a cannonball. This is rentable ur-cinema, an entrancing place to retreat to, perfectly suited for a rainy or hungover winter Sunday afternoon. The supplements — new making-of interviews with cast and historians, a doc about the S-man’s trajectory through the 20th century — push the box total to well over nine hours.

“Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies Under America” (Other Cinema/Facets) and “Superman – The 1948 & 1950 Theatrical Serials Collection” (Warner Home Video) will be available on DVD on November 28th.

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Give Back

Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.

Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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GIFs via Giphy

Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.


Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…


IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.


IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).


IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.


IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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