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Two from Raymond Bernard, “Popeye the Sailor”

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By Michael Atkinson

IFC News

[Photo: “Little Swee’ Pea” (1936), from Warner Home Video’s “Popeye the Sailor: 1933-1938, Vol. 1”]

Even the most seasoned filmhead must acknowledge, if only to him or herself, that there are helpless gaps in his or her education, that cinema, being a tumultuous, chaotic, century-long business-culture circus-with-a-million-rings, has encouraged much of what’s sublime to rise to the canonical surface but has left much scattered by the wayside. Historical excavations, performed for the most part by archival restorationers to some degree funded by the cinephiles’ DVD market, is the real entertainment news for our tribe, and thus it has been with Criterion’s release of two films by forgotten man Raymond Bernard. A leading figure in French cinema in the late ’20s and early ’30s, Bernard eventually fell victim to the vagaries of economics and French taste — the epic, big-budget, big-message French film he represented soon fell victim during the ’30s to the far less expensive “poetic realism” trend, exemplified by Renoir, Carné, Pagnol, and Julien Duvivier. Truth be told, there isn’t an enormous difference between Bernard’s achingly lyrical, visually effulgent films and the works that supplanted them; French culture, as always, thrived on divisive perceptions and progressive aesthetics. Bernard’s two films here, “Wooden Crosses” (1932) and “Les Misérables” (1934) seem to form a kind of bridge between the gargantuan expressionism of Abel Gance and the more intimate verities of Renoir, displaying virtues from both camps. Of course, today the categories are more or less meaningless, and Bernard emerges like Lazarus from the cave.

“Wooden Crosses” turns out to be the greatest of the early talkie WWI anti-war sagas, beating out, to my mind, Milestone’s revered “All Quiet on the Western Front” and Gance’s “J’Accuse” (partly because the film is peerlessly cynical about military life and its purpose). The thrust is simple, taken from Roland Dorgelès’ novel: a ramshackle regiment of French trench soldiers are ordered from rueful leave time to front-line hellfire and back again and again, in a seemingly pointless undulation between irreverent downtime camaraderie and combat experiences that are tantamount to running into a plane propeller. Not very dramatic, technically (compared to something like Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory,” which directed its outrage at a single war crime, not war itself), Bernard’s film is all about the accumulated moments of human poetry lost in the mayhem. After one sudden night battle, Bernard cuts back to the sole casualty’s body, lying face down in the dirt, as yet another flare in the sky makes his shadow grow out like a spreading lake of blood. When the soldiers have their flashbacks, they imagine them (and we see them) in silence. A letter comes for a dead man, and another soldier launches out on a trek to shred it over the dead man’s impromptu hand-dug grave. The irony of a climactic siege in a corpse-littered cemetery is lost on no one; when they are sent marching yet again at film’s end, the men end up parroting the same dialogue they had in the beginning. Bernard’s thematic agenda, so soon after that war’s end left the French countryside scorched and littered with bones, is shoot-the-wounded: the war-dead ghosts walk in endless queues, and infinite fields of crosses act as a motif. (Samuel Fuller’s description of war as “body parts everywhere” graphically evokes “Wooden Crosses” more than any Western film of the pre-‘Nam period.) Throughout, Bernard’s camera is on a restless walkabout years ahead of its time — there’re even chaotic battle scenes filmed from a handheld perspective, making this closeted relic feel utterly new. Bernard’s treatment of his character’s depths and breadths doesn’t impinge on Renoir’s ’30s war films, but the spirit and sympathy of its visual ideas definitely does.

“Les Misérables” uses Hugo’s novel to rectify that shortcoming — in no other dramatized version, and that counts the wretched Broadway musical version, do Hugo’s characters establish such weight and presence. It helps that Bernard is faithful to the book — hugely, meticulously so, to the tune of 281 minutes, providing Valjean, Javert, Cosette, et al. the patience and time to inhabit their grand story and make it leave a footprint on your brain, not simply a fleeting, abridged Classics Illustrated impression. Bernard’s visual palette became even nervier, evoking his character’s turmoil with a lurking, rocking, swiveling camera style the likes of which no one saw at large until the ’60s. As Valjean, mountain-faced Harry Baur is 100% downtrodden prison issue and zero slumming movie star; as Javert, a young Charles Vanel is icy and convincing without being villainous. But, as Hugo intended, the two men are just solitary figures lost in the bloody fog of French history, and this is what Bernard painstakingly evokes, with details and potent poetry — an entire pre-industrial culture on the edge of collapse, progress and war. (Bernard was also obviously a fierce advocate for society’s exploited and neglected, which puts him in rare company in that glamour-struck era.) Bernard’s “Les Misérables” is a Gibraltar of a movie, and it’s difficult to believe that it was ever forgotten.

In other archival news, Warner has finally, finally packaged up what remains, next to Warner’s 40s-50s Merrie Melodies/Looney Tunes tsunami, American animation’s most inspired and wildly imagined geyser of film: the Fleischer studio’s “Popeye the Sailor” cartoons, reaching from the forearm-distended barnacle bill’s debut in 1933 until 1938, when the comic’s original artist, Elzie Crisler Segar, died. This was not Disney’s brand of cute, anthropomorphic pratfall: this was animation unfettered by logic or even easily readable humor, an activating volcanic id of Surrealistic connections and bizarre transformations, inappropriate musical numbers and racist ker-splats, hyperbolic dream visions and often startling brutality. Sixty cartoons in all (including the two wannabe-“Snow White” epics redoing the Sinbad and Ali Baba tales), plus a surplus of nostalgic making-of docs, audio commentaries (welcome back, John Kricfalusi), and a brace of extras silent ‘toons, from studios Bray (from whence came Krazy Kat), and Sullivan (including a few with Felix the Cat), and from the “Out of the Inkwell” series.

“Raymond Bernard – Eclipse Series 4” (Criterion) and “Popeye the Sailor: 1933-1938, Vol. 1” (Warner Home Video) are 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.