Hiroshi Teshigahara, “Missing Victor Pellerin”

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By Michael Atkinson

IFC News

[Photo: “Woman in the Dunes,” part of the Criterion Collection’s Three Films From Hiroshi Teshigahara]

Call it art film nostalgia, but every newly forgotten, newly resurrected “classic” from the post-Truman era of international cinema still looks as bold, brave and original as the next, and is often more telling and pertinent than the frequently lugubrious art films of today. The new Criterion box of films by Japanese modernist Hiroshi Teshigahara proves the point, and not just with the justly hallowed, yet today mostly forgotten “Woman in the Dunes” (1964). Exactly the sort of confrontationally metaphoric movie that got heads buzzing in the day, “Woman” is both fearsomely tactile and abstract, with an ideogram for a plot: an unsuspecting entomologist (Eiji Okada) becomes trapped in an enormous dune pit and is kept there by a pack of mysterious villagers. In the pit with him, dumbly going about the Sisyphean task of shoveling away the sand that perpetually threatens to engulf them both, is a servile woman living in a driftwood shack; she is essentially the perpetual-motion device that prevents the villagers’ home from being buried, and he is her designated helpmate.

The harrowing dead-end existentialism belonged to avant-garde novelist/scripter Kobo Abe, who played Emeric Pressburger to Teshigahara’s Michael Powell with three more outlandish concepts/storylines, two included here. “Pitfall” (1962), never released in this country, was Teshigahara’s feature debut after a decade of short documentaries, and it’s just as startling in its concept and its priorities as the film that famously followed. A miner and his son, escaping from slave-like employment, wander into the remains of a deunionized coal-mining town, followed by a company assassin and soon faced with the town’s population of company-murdered ghosts. The melodrama that plays out is strictly pro-labor and anti-corporate in ways with which any nation’s history — including ours — can sympathize, but with the extra added frisson provided by angry, meddling ghosts and more than a few puzzling doppelgangers. By itself, the ghost town and the surrounding mountainsides offer existentialist fuel aplenty, all of it restlessly, inventively shot by Teshigahara as if this were his first film and last — it is by a substantial nose the most impressive film debut of 1962, beating out, I dare say, even Tarkovsky’s “Ivan’s Childhood.”

The third film is the intensely futurist “The Face of Another” (1966), in which Japanese New Wave icon Tatsuya Nakadai plays a burned man with psychotic issues who, once he’s given a temporary prosthetic face, constructs a new identity and suspiciously sets about seducing his own wife. Gimmickry and gadgetry are all but subsumed by Teshigahara and Abe’s philosophical concerns about identity, individualism and perception, as well as by a monstrous cataract of modernist design (authored by architect Arata Isozaki and Masao Yamazaki). The film is a gender-protagonist spin-around from Georges Franju’s “Eyes Without a Face” two years earlier — Teshigahara views obsession from the inside out, and the results are discomfiting and, as always, masterfully photographed by DP Hiroshi Segawa. The DVD box set comes with a thick battery of critical readings (mostly from Canadian crit James Quandt, in essay form and in a video piece), interviews, analytical docs and four of Teshigahara’s gorgeous early shorts, starting with 1953’s “Hokusai.”

Critics and artists are the merest puppets in the new Canadian meta-feature “Missing Victor Pellerin,” manufactured by (and featuring) a luscious rookie named Sophie Deraspe, though given the film itself we can’t be faulted for being suspicious of her identity and of whom the filmmaker(s) really is/are. First, the film appears to be a documentary about a 1990s Quebec art world phenomenon: a mysterious painter self-named Victor Pellerin appeared on the scene, got famous and wealthy, and then suddenly recalled all of his pictures, burned them and disappeared. Alright, but the film follows Pellerin’s fading circle — theater director/nicotine glutton Eudore Belzile, Pellerin’s sister and ex-girlfriend, various gallery owners, writers and naysaying painter compatriots — with such intimacy and sometimes shocking frankness that soon you suspect what Deraspe (or whomever) admits in the end credits: that although Pellerin is real, the entire film was scripted.

Maybe: you can’t find any mention of Pellerin on the Net that doesn’t involve the film, and even the dope escapade in which his circle of ex-friends, and Deraspe, indulge on camera — a “submarine” syringe application of belladonna to the back of the neck — has been wholly unheard of elsewhere. (And of course we never see any of Pellerin’s art — ostensibly, it’s all gone.) As the narrative progresses and Pellerin is revealed to be wanted for forgery by the Canadian authorities (the supercilious art detective makes ridiculous goo-goo eyes at Deraspe during his interview), the entire cast undergoes a kind of psychological striptease, and we end up in Colombia, no closer to knowing Pellerin’s whereabouts than when we began. What the hell happened? The film is apparently fiction, but it’s part of the point that we’ll never know how much, or what kind, or whether any of our categories matter — all questions that control the house of cards that is the international art sphere. “Missing Victor Pellerin” isn’t a hoax, or a documentary, or a mockumentary — it’s something for which we have no proper name, a kind of speculative tale told in non-fiction form, like a Borges story. Maybe.

Three Films From Hiroshi Teshigahara (Criterion) will be available on DVD on July 10th; “Missing Victor Pellerin” (Atopia) 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.