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“Inland Empire,” “Puzzlehead”

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By Michael Atkinson

IFC News

[Photo: “Inland Empire,” Absurda / Rhino, 2006]

How lucky are we to have David Lynch? Virtually no other notable filmmaker in these United States can so be designated as a self-directed, independent artist with his/her own unique aesthetic and a happy willingness to eschew trad careerism, and even salary, in pursuit of the eccentric sublime. Set aside the consideration of things “Lynchian” — an art-culture realm that will doubtless survive us all — and you’re still faced with perhaps the most defiant and uncompromised voice in modern American cinema. He’s so revered and hallowed, if not broadly consumed, that he could at this stage in his game easily round up global funding for a “Mulholland Dr. 2” — but instead, Lynch hunkered down and began making short digital films for his subscription website, and then began shooting disconnected scenes with his already-obsolete digital camera, and then asked Canal+ if they’d mind funding a feature cobbled out of it all, and they said sure. When the result proved to be a three-hour semi-narrative filled with uncorked mayhem from pre-civilized Lynchistan, the man simply distributed it himself. Now, he’s releasing “Inland Empire” on DVD, alone again, naturally.

The arguments are still raging among critics on whether or not Lynch’s torrential and demanding act of movie-movie provocation was in fact the best American film of 2006. (It had, in any case, little significant competition; if your local critic dished it, you know where you stand in the future in regards to that featherhead.) Trapped in its own bell jar, “Inland Empire” — named after the Southern California region not because it’s set there, but because Lynch simply liked the name — summons the likes of Bergman’s “Persona” and Fellini’s “Juliet of the Spirits” in its allusive structure and suggestions of a fracturing female psyche, but only because the movie behaves like a narrative deprivation tank, forcing you to scramble for corollaries. There are no visible marks of influence, homage or even traditional psychology. It’s one of the rare films that teaches you — obliquely — how to watch it. Summary is predictably impossible. Often the sense of “Inland Empire,” as it jaggedly leaps from absurdist non sequitur to psychodramatic set-up to lurching creep-out, is that there’s no orthodox there there, just dreams within dreams within movies within nightmares. Laura Dern, stretched on the rack of being a crazy auteur’s favorite go-to girl (a scouringly fearless performance, or performances), shows up in a variety of personas; it’s symptomatic of Lynch’s sensibility that we’re never sure how many. (There’s a Hollywood actress, a working-class wife, a battered Southern hooker and scores of other glimpses.) Several of these could be contained within the movies-within-the-movie, or not, or both — as a roomful of prostitutes dance to “The Loco Motion,” other figures float stories and notions of murder, the rabbit-human family from Lynch’s 2002 “Rabbits” shorts endure obscurely menacing domestic moments in their living room, movie sets open onto real homes and mysterious neighborhoods, melodramatic interviews are held with no clear purpose, and so spectacularly on.

Lynch’s newfound devotion to primitive digital video reflects his disregard for diegetic cohesion — the uglier and more fractured the film is, the more Lynch regards it as peculiarly beautiful and, vitally, exuding its own logic. It’s difficult to deny, after seeing it, that he has a point. Think of “Inland Empire” as an epic version of the radiator scenes from “Eraserhead,” or the Tower Theatre scene in “Mulholland Dr.,” without those films’ already semi-conscious contexts.

It’s more of an epic-sized underground montage film than a “movie” as we commonly know it, and endurance of the film’s length is pivotal: the free-associative chaos becomes its own context, and as a viewer you’re living in a rule-free cinematic space, where film is merely another form of consciousness, not an alternate reality you can forget as you occupy it. Lynch likes to characterize the film as an “experience,” not an entertainment product you consume, and though he would never dream of being programmatic, “Inland Empire” is a close cousin to Artaud’s concept of a Theater of Cruelty, intended to unravel complacent expectations and create a cathartic crisis in the very fact of spectatorship.

Or Lynch was just playing with the inexpensive technology, unhampered by Hollywood overhead. Either way, the surest way to find disappointment in Lynch’s Byzantine, exhaustive howl is to hunt for codes and readings, while ignoring the sensual textures of life in the underlit corridors of his imaginary space. The familiar distance and omniscience of ordinary filmgoing are simply not factors in this hectic equation. If you’re “open,” as Lynch has said many times in his TM-inflected publicity interviews, it’s something like a new frontier. Don’t miss the extra disc of superego-less supps, including outtakes (some spectacularly spooky, and none so different from “IE” that the film couldn’t’ve been an hour longer), a behind-the-scenes survey of Lynch’s unique methodology on the set, production tale-telling, the man’s recipe for cooking quinoa with broccoli, and more.

Occupying other outskirts: James Bai’s microcinema genre-riff “Puzzlehead” is so cheap, it has only its ideas and speculative frisson to sell it. It’s a post-apocalyptic, A.I. melodrama because the low-budge narration says it is, using, à la “Alphaville,” the more barren and anonymous stretches of Brooklyn as a lawless wasteland and focusing on an eccentric scientist (Stephen Galaida) who uses illegal technology and his own “synaptic map” to build an android that looks just like him. Bai’s smartest conceptual flourish was giving the retrospective narration over wholly to the robot (Galaida, without a beard & glasses), whose poetic ruminations about human life as he’ll never know it neatly support the film’s threadbare frame. Like Greg Pak’s “Robot Stories” (both of them disarming advances on robo-emotionalism over Spielberg’s “A.I.”), “Puzzlehead” is actually about love — the crisis between creator and creation begins when the latter takes a bullet for a local shopgirl during a hold-up, inspiring the lonely, meth-spaced doctor to disable the doppelganger, shave and pass himself off as the ‘droid. Shot on 16mm and hampered by stiff post-dubbing, Bai’s movie deserved a real budget, but the heart and head are working overtime.

“Inland Empire” (Absurda/Rhino) and “Puzzlehead” (Lifesize Ent.) are 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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