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“The Burmese Harp” and “Un Chant d’Amour”

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By Michael Atkinson

IFC News

[Photo: “The Burmese Harp,” Criterion Collection]

It’s a cinephile’s burden — to observe the brouhaha about a contemporary film that does nothing at all that wasn’t already executed better in the medium-distant, but still forgotten, film culture past. Clint Eastwood’s “Letters to Iwo Jima” was a perfectly serviceable portrait of WWII warfare made remarkable, in many critics’ eyes and in the purview of the Academy, by the fact that it dared to focus sympathetically on the Japanese during the titular battle. For a Hollywood film, it was a first, and for Eastwood, a kind of antidote to the weepy Greatest Generation ballad that was “Flags of Our Fathers.”

But in a more general sense, it was a strange and largely unnecessary retread — manufactured by an all-American crew as if we hadn’t already seen, since the 1950s, the Japanese war films of Kon Ichikawa. Some of us even remember them. Most Japanese filmmakers — including Akira Kurosawa — were dedicated in the postwar years to avoiding any sort of direct address of the Pacific conflict, for which Japan bore a crushing amount of guilt and responsibility. (What the Emperor’s military machine did to China alone would qualify for a top-five war crimes honor in any century.) Not Ichikawa, whose films have dug unflinchingly into the then-recent history of genocidal massacre, cannibalism, mort-lust and kamikaze destruction — all seen as the pitiful dehumanization of Japanese citizens and Japan itself. (Yasuo Masumura did a good job this way, too, in the long-unseen 1966 combat-zone corker “Red Angel,” lately come to DVD from Fantoma.) Ichikawa’s masterpiece remains 1956’s “The Burmese Harp,” which, when it won the top prize at Cannes, awakened the world to the possibilities of a true Japanese New Wave, beyond the rock star Kurosawa and the aging mandarins Ozu and Mizoguchi.

“The Burmese Harp” harbors something of a mushy, sentimental heart — its portrait of a close-knit Japanese platoon, singing a mournful variation on “There’s No Place Like Home” while scrambling away from combat during the war’s last days and eventually awaiting repatriation as the British attack, borders on the idyllic. But the experience is convincing and genuinely felt, and subject to a dire trajectory: the unit’s beloved lute player Mizushima (Shoji Yasui) is sent into the mountains to persuade a stubborn group of soldiers to surrender, just as the bombs fall. Mizushima’s compatriots fear the guileless private is dead, but Mizushima survives, by masquerading as a Buddhist monk in his return journey through the massive WWII killing fields, changing in the process, surrendering his old life and eventually committing himself to burying the uncountable dead.

A decade after Hiroshima, a Japanese filmmaker makes the most heartbreaking anti-war film of all time. Little about “The Burmese Harp” seems groundbreaking today — it is simply a cudgel on your tear ducts, and arguably the first war film made anywhere that suggests that war finishes nothing, and indeed creates traumas and responsibilities without end. It’s a hard rock of a message to genuinely swallow, for the Japanese in the 50s, or Americans today, the vast majority of whom still claim to “support” illegal Third World carnage as long as it’s “handled” well and we are sure to win. Oh yeah: naturally the Criterion disc comes with a new Ichikawa interview and an essay by Nipponophile Tony Rayns, among other prizes.

Talk about hard to swallow: “Un Chant d’Amour,” the notorious semi-pornographic short made in 1950 by budding novelist/memoirist/playwright Jean Genet a mere year after dodging a ten-strikes-you’re-out life prison sentence thanks to the intervention of Jean Cocteau and Jean-Paul Sartre, emerges onto DVD. And what a heated, potent, hot-and-bothered 25 minutes it is — Genet, who’d spent years in prison for everything from homosexual acts to thievery, had unique things to say about prisoners in love, and “Chant” is one of those films that occupies its own completely unique vision of the universe. Simply put, Genet converts the grim, deprivative lifestyle of the inmate into an achingly romantic passion (as in, a religious passion, or tribulation), in which the walls and bars that separate his lonesome, lovelorn muscle men become the fetishized definition of their desire. (The predatory guard outside the cons’ cells is pathetic because he’s outside.) Simple cock-in-hand lust becomes an almost spiritually rebellious quantity.

In fact, the film resembles Carl Dreyer’s “Passion of Joan of Arc” more than any prison film (or stag reel), despite the semi-erections. Genet made the film as gay porn for rich collectors (much as Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin wrote softcore smut for cash in the 30s), and it comes with a long history of censorship and bannings; if you saw the film at MoMA or wherever decades ago, you didn’t see the masturbatory nudity you can see today. Genet denounced the movie once he got famous, but it’s difficult to see why: it’s totally in keeping with his sensational literary voice, and, as far as movies are concerned, utterly singular. Cult Epics hasn’t just released a famous, controversial short film, but packed it into a two-disc box along with an intro by avant-garde granddad Jonas Mekas, an audio commentary by underground pioneer Kenneth Anger, and two lengthy interviews with an aging and happily self-congratulatory Genet.

“The Burmese Harp” (Criterion) will be released on DVD on March 13th; “Un Chant d’Amour” (Cult Epics) is now available on DVD.

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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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