DID YOU READ

“Five,” “Avant-Garde 2: Experimental Cinema 1928-1954”

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By Michael Atkinson

IFC News

[Photo: Abbas Kiarostami’s “Five Dedicated to Ozu,” Kino, 2003]

You can’t judge the state of 21st-century “avant-garde” or “underground” or “experimental” cinema (you pick the label, they’re all ill-fitting) by looking at Abbas Kiarostami’s “Five Dedicated to Ozu” — the actual subterranean, non-mainstream filmmaking going on in this nation alone is such a chaotic culture, undergoing such massive sea changes (aesthetic and technological), that you’d have a better chance at nailing down a blob of mercury. But make no mistake, “Five” is out of the mainstream, far out — and a radical departure for even the ever-reductive Kiarostami, turning out to be the first film of his in 12 years that didn’t get a stateside theatrical release. Still, it may be the only completely non-narrative experiment-on-film the average American cinephile might be likely to see now that it’s properly DVD’d and, thanks to Kiarostami’s celebrity, might be likely to rent.

Perhaps it’s best to define “Five” by its essential surface contradictions — on one hand, it is the antithesis of everything we take movies to be: momentum, speed, energy, character, story, glamour, visual saturation. On the other, “Five” is so winnowed down, so pure in its affect, that it comes close to being distilled cinema — the bare-bones relationship between celluloid images, your eyeballs, time and your cerebral cortex acting and reacting, observing the film and itself in the process. What it is in essence is five individual sequences — each one long shot, or in one case an amalgamation of shorts devised to look like one — digitally videoed on the banks of the Caspian Sea. Nothing much, in the absolutely conventional sense, happens: we see a piece of driftwood jockeyed by waves, we see boardwalk strollers, we watch a herd of ducks pass before the camera, we see a pack of wild dogs frolicking by the shoreline, we observe a pond reflecting the moon.

Potentially useful as a mediation video, “Five” is hardly just ultra-minimalism for its own sake. As always with Kiarostami, the film is a result of life-vs.-cinema interaction, and an integral factor in the “life” side of the equation is us; how we react, how our expectations are defied, how our minds may roam, in the viewing. But also, there’s Kiarostami’s life and the influence of reality around the film. This consideration is something we ordinarily avoid as spectators, which is why Kiarostami’s accompanying making-of doc, “Around Five,” is essential. We learn that whereas the ducks were orchestrated in a huge flock (though the way we see it, Kiarostami’s chief intention was to see what would happen if he brought several hundred ducks to the shores of the Caspian), the dogs appeared magically in front of the running camera after the filmmaker had gone to sleep. Will the wave break the driftwood, and when? Is the night pond a complete illusion? Kiarostami tells a fabulous tale about how an Indian royal proudly sent a Persian prince the newly invented game of chess, and the Persian in reply sent back the new game of backgammon — a wiser game, it is said, because it accepts the role of fate and chance in life where chess purports to control its outcome through human will and logic alone. Which is more real? Which would make better (or more truthful) movies?
Watching “Five” is a lulling, sleepy experience even for those schooled in the derisive irony of Warhol and the structuralist minimalism of Michael Snow. But the aboriginal cinematic action of it — the images, the passage of time, the questions about fact and invention, Kiarostami’s ultimate generosity — are impossible to get out of your head.

Avant-gardes are not audience-friendly — which is why you never hear anything about the scores of new experimental films released every year on DVD. This is true except in retrospect; the underground films of yesteryear are helplessly seductive, naive but lovely — inspiring a ripe nostalgia for the life of the fringe aesthetes, who in the 20s through to the 50s always seemed to be having more fun than ordinary, job-holding people. Kino’s new “Avant-Garde 2” is their second DVD of multi-decade, multinational avant-garde classics reaped from the private collection of late L.A. programmer Raymond Rohauer, and can be thus attacked from a number of postures: as more hard-to-find landmark works by seminal artists, as an infinitely ponderable showcase of extinct cultural history (artists can’t afford sets, so real homes and neighborhoods are captured in amber), or as a time capsule of charming aesthetic innocence. You get no less than four out of Stan Brakhage’s first five shorts, complete with narratives, music and comedy (!); two early films by Sidney Peterson, an ignored giant in the American avant-garde; James Watson and Melville Webber’s must-have “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1928), made the same year as Jean Epstein’s); Joseph Vogel’s conspicuously Derenesque “House of Cards” (1947), indulgent hooey from James Broughton and Marie Menken, and scads more.

Something like the collection’s centerpiece, Jean Isidore Isou’s “Venom and Eternity” (1951) finally emerges into the video-age daylight — a notorious, feature-length anti-film made by the founder of the quasi-anarchic Lettrist International, a short-lived, postwar rebel art movement made famous in Greil Marcus’s “Lipstick Traces.” (It’s indicative of the movie’s rarity that Marcus apparently never saw it and even misreported its running time by over two hours.) Isou’s self-advertising, self-exploiting mess is primarily random footage of Isou’s coterie roaming around Paris, framed by a furiously egomaniacal narration (by Isou) that never stops telling us, while the movie unfurls, what grand act of defiance it is and how it will change the world. That’s when the soundtrack isn’t subsumed by fellow Lettrist poets reciting their poems, which consist of abstracted, rhythmic syllables and sounds rather than words. Try as they did, none of the original Dadaists managed to make an unwatchable, self-destructive film, but a few decades later Isou did, laying down a pre-punk gauntlet nine years before Godard’s first feature and a full year before Guy Debord finished his first juvenile short. Truly, it makes today’s indie rebels and anti-establishment garage banders look like market-obedient sheep by comparison. Part of the movie’s myth status is the unverifiable riot it supposedly caused at the Cannes Film Festival in 1951. Even if that’s an urban legend, those were the days.

“Five Dedicated to Ozu” (Kino) and “Avant-Garde 2: Experimental Cinema From 1928-1954” (Kino) will be available on DVD on July 24th.

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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…

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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. 

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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-Craft

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?”

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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).

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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.

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

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Get Physical

DVDs are the new Vinyl

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available On Disc.

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In this crazy digital age, sometimes all we really want is to reach out and touch something. Maybe that’s why so many of us are still gung-ho about owning stuff on DVD. It’s tangible. It’s real. It’s tech from a bygone era that still feels relevant, yet also kitschy and retro. It’s basically vinyl for people born after 1990.

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Inevitably we all have that friend whose love of the disc is so absolutely repellent that he makes the technology less appealing. “The resolution, man. The colors. You can’t get latitude like that on a download.” Go to hell, Tim.

Yes, Tim sucks, and you don’t want to be like Tim, but maybe he’s onto something and DVD is still the future. Here are some benefits that go beyond touch.

It’s Decor and Decorum

With DVDs and a handsome bookshelf you can show off your great taste in film and television without showing off your search history. Good for first dates, dinner parties, family reunions, etc.

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Forget Public Wifi

Warm up that optical drive. No more awkwardly streaming episodes on shady free wifi!

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Inter-not

Internet service goes down. It happens all the time. It could happen right now. Then what? Without a DVD on hand you’ll be forced to make eye contact with your friends and family. Or worse – conversation.

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Self Defense

You can’t throw a download like a ninja star. Think about it.

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If you’d like to experience the benefits DVD ownership yourself, Portlandia Season 7 is now available on DVD and Blue-Ray.