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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.

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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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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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.


IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.



IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on and the IFC app.

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