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Early Hitchcock, “Quiet Flows the Don”

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By Michael Atkinson

IFC News

[Photo: “Murder!,” British International Pictures Inc., 1931]

Anyone that loves cinema loves Alfred Hitchcock — he virtually personifies the art form, and defined its visceral potential for at least four generations of filmgoers. No one — not one movielover — can dislike Hitchcock; his career has the length, breadth and distinctive voice to make him the Jupiter of the American pantheon. What critically beloved master has had such a firm tap on the pulse of his mass audience, and what crowd-pleaser has generated as much scholarly cross-examination? Hitch’s seamless engagement with both pulp buoyancy and subtextual meta-ness makes him unique and ubiquitous in our modern pop culture: decades after his death, his name is still a common adjective, and his best films — “Vertigo,” “Psycho,” “The Birds,” “Rebecca,” “Notorious,” “Rear Window,” “Suspicion,” “Lifeboat,” “The 39 Steps,” “The Wrong Man” — still grab your eyeballs and stoke your amygdala into a hapless state of unease.

Hitchcock is certainly no longer merely “the master of suspense,” but is in fact a cottage industry of film theory, tenure security, cultural trope and remake business. Which is good, because many of his films are far from suspenseful, and in any case what is best considered to be Hitchcockian has more to do with visual eloquence and cinematic innovation than suspense. The new, beautifully designed Lionsgate box of five restored early films — all of which have been roaming around as untouchables in the public-domain circle of home video hell for decades — is what we’re talking about: each film, from the 1928 revenge drama “The Ring” to 1931’s outrageous satire-farce “Rich and Strange,” is virtually a glimpse into the young Brit filmmaker’s skull as he attacks the limitations of silent film narrative, as well as the technical encumbrances of early sound, with a Da Vinci-esque lust for invention. The most ordinary scenes — the melodramatic face-off that makes up most of 1929’s “The Manxman,” say, or “The Ring”‘s various pre-noir portraits of social doom — are converted by Hitchcock into explosions of stylistic expression, using double exposures, composition-in-depth, unpredictable camera movement and Soviet-style associative montage to make his emotional points. From the very beginning, it wasn’t about the actors, it was about the space between the action and the audience.

“The Skin Game” (1931) is a perfect example — a stodgy John Galsworthy play about farmland class war that Hitchcock electrifies with savvy camera placement, empathic confidence (holding on an image or face when another director would’ve moved on) and rousing montage chaos. “Murder!” (1930), England’s first sound film, is famous for the retrospectively extraordinary scene in which Herbert Marshall susses out an integral matter about a misconvicted murder trial while shaving and listening to the radio — a simple early talkie moment Hitchcock managed by having an entire unseen orchestra play an aria from “Tristan and Isolde” from behind the bathroom set where Marshall stood. But with moments of frisson in the courtroom and in the circus tent, you can see Hitchcock’s idiosyncratic fascination with sensationalistic set-pieces was already in place and turning gears. All of the films are in newly pristine shape, and are supp’d by a mini-doc featuring interviews of Hitchcock pal Peter Bogdanovich, as well as the filmmaker’s daughter and granddaughter.

Opening a window on another, altogether different cross-section of cinema history is the freaky DVDing of Sergei Gerasimov’s five-and-a-half-hour “Quiet Flows the Don” (1957), famously regarded as the “Gone With the Wind” of Soviet cinema. (Maybe — I always thought Sergei Bondarchuk’s six-hour “War and Peace” was the “Gone With the Wind” of Soviet cinema.) In the digital archiving-&-distribution video epoch, no detour from the mainstream autobahn of movie culture remains a secret for long, it seems, and we’ve been inundated lately with the effluvia left behind by the Communist dream machines of both Soviet Russia and East Germany. Like advertising, most Socialist agitprop acquires a yellowed-snapshot quaintness and naïveté with time, envisioning as it does a mythical utopia of red-cheeked laborers and thriving equity. Today, we can take its measurements as kitsch, as totalitarian heebie-jeebies, as pure formal craziness, or as some bobble-headed conglomeration of all three. (And we do: Futurist/Socialist Realist poster art from the Soviet Union fetches big bucks as cultural art nowadays.)

“Quiet Flows the Don” is a little different — a rambling, episodic, muscular peasant melodrama (based on a novel by Nobel-winner Mikhail Sholokhov) that follows two extremely unlucky lovers as they face untold tragedy before, during and after the October Revolution. Hardly propaganda (even considering the John Fordian love of Cossacks, a military clan to which Sholokhov belonged), Gerasimov’s epic is all about sex — a seemingly endless march through the struggle between traditional agrarian-social values and the messy reality of sex desired, refused, consummated, forcibly taken and child-productive. Shot on and around the titular river so starkly it often looks as if it was photographed in black-&-white when it wasn’t, the movie is a go-for-broke tragic swoon that Douglas Sirk could’ve made — given a taste of state repression and a love for the rolling valleys of south-central Rossiya.

The Alfred Hitchcock Box Set (Lionsgate) is now available on DVD; “Quiet Flows the Don” (Kino) will be available on DVD on March 6.



Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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GIFs via Giphy

Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”


IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?

Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!

Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.

Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 


IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.


New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…


IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.


IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.


The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”


Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).



Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.


And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.