“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.



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.