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“Into Great Silence,” “Adanggaman”

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By Michael Atkinson

IFC News

[Photo: Philip Gröning’s “Into Great Silence,” Zeitgeist Films, 2007]

It might seem like a daunting challenge, for the filmmaker as well as the viewer: a 2 1/2+-hour portrait of a French vow-of-silence monastery that does not mitigate the quiet and the stillness with narration, interviews, gimmickry, etc., but instead embraces the void, and acts more or less like a monk itself, avoiding stimulus and achieving a kind of state of grace by observation and contemplation alone. But German filmmaker Philip Gröning’s “Into Great Silence” is an arthouse hit all over, pulling in many more ticket-buyers than scores of other, more audience-engineered, star-packed “specialty” films, including “Reservation Road,” “Sleuth” and “The Flying Scotsman.” How could this be, for a digitally shot movie that has less “going on” in it than a Warhol movie or a video helicopter travelogue of France? Gröning got into the Grande Chartreuse monastery with only himself and a camera, and stayed for six months, shooting the monks — young and old — praying, doing chores, hymning, never inserting himself into their routine but rather just observing it, as if in a tangible search to find and document the secret of their purified, simplified life.

And surely it has been the promise of that lifestyle that has lured audiences, often for repeat viewings. Gröning’s gorgeous film, without trying very hard, makes a seductive case for the monk’s ascetism, nestled as it is in the French Alps (holy smokes, does Gröning know how to shoot with available light; the countryside is vacation porn, while the interiors, far from being dark and grim, are always saturated with golden morning rays). Imagine: a life virtually without noise, rushing, time constraints, busyness, electronics (though one monk is glimpsed doing the books on a laptop), distraction, upheaval, media, advertising, hipness, competition, crassness, irrelevancies. Instead, you have close contact with the earth, genuine attention paid to constructive tasks, and the time to do nothing at all but concentrate on your God, your soul, your clear intentions. It looks a lot like bliss, though the monks do not seem to be a particularly joyful lot — they are, for the most part, serious and searching, undeterred by the camera’s daze from focusing their energies inward.

For all of Gröning’s patience, and ours, the film remains fatally on the outside (of course), and the director compensates, as if in frustration, by capturing the dust in the sunlight, the trees in the wind, the countryside’s animals on the roam. There’s a fascinating tension in the film between what Gröning wants to show us and exactly how little he can — that is the point, after all, of the monastic life, that what happens in the material world is irrelevant. Yet it’s all you can film. The technology of cinema is, therefore, standing in for spiritual struggle itself, the desire for the atheists and agnostics and wannabe devotees among us to genuinely commune with the heavens, and our straining failure to accomplish the task. (The reviews for the film have been wildly prone to raw-nerve hyperbole.) Do the monks of Grande Chartreuse know God? Or are they in effect refining their minds toward enlightenment, like good Buddhists? Or are they pitiable, self-deceiving outcasts? They’re not talking, and we’re free to impose what we wish upon their silence. The DVD includes hours of additional footage, and how much you’ll be up for (even the segment on the making of Chartreuse liqueur) is probably contingent on your need for spiritual pathfinding.

In another, more worldly territory: only a handful of African films, so far, are worth the high shelf, including several of Ousmane Sembène’s, Souleymane Cissé’s “Yeelen,” Djibril Diop Mambéty’s “Hyenas,” Faouzi Bensaïdi’s “A Thousand Months,” Nadir Moknèche “Viva Laldjérie.” And Roger Gnoan M’Bala’s “Adanggaman” (2000), an Ivory Coast historical micro-epic that claims to have been the continent’s first movie about the slave trade, as it was experienced on African soil, where the victims and enslavers were both native peoples. Gnoan M’Bala doesn’t have to mention contemporary Congo, Sudan, Angola, Sierra Leone or any number of other self-immolating nations to make his movie’s point; the spectacle of tribesmen hunting and slaughtering each other for Western profit says enough. So much for our historical sense of mythic dualities, good and evil, white and black — it’s significantly unsatisfying to be instructed that for centuries Africans were captured and sold by gold-lusting, bloodline-righteous Africans. Still, the film’s characters don’t talk race, they just run, beginning with Ossei (Ziable Honoré Goore Bi), a young warrior in love with a slave girl his father won’t allow to muddy the family’s lineage. After a raid by painted, spear-wielding “amazons” wipes out the village, the survivors are marched to the village of King Adanggaman (Rasmane Ouedraogo), an archetypal African plundercrat happily shilling off humans for English rum and rifles. The filmmaker paints the pig-pile politics of hierarchies vividly — “Stinking beasts!” is a common slur across the board, between more than four distinct social levels, each trying to exploit the one beneath. (The movie uses up to five distinct languages, plus French.) But since it is color-blind, the movie dismisses race and even tribal grudgery, leaving only the Moloch of capitalism.

“Into Great Silence” (Zeitgeist Films) and “Adanggaman” (New Yorker Video) are now available on DVD.


Hacked In

Funny or Die Is Taking Over

FOD TV comes to IFC every Saturday night.

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We’ve been fans of Funny or Die since we first met The Landlord. That enduring love makes it more than logical, then, that IFC is totally cool with FOD hijacking the airwaves every Saturday night. Yes, that’s happening.

The appropriately titled FOD TV looks like something pulled from public access television in the nineties. Like lo-fi broken-antenna reception and warped VHS tapes. Equal parts WTF and UHF.

Get ready for characters including The Shirtless Painter, Long-Haired Businessmen, and Pigeon Man. They’re aptly named, but for a better sense of what’s in store, here’s a taste of ASMR with Kelly Whispers:

Watch FOD TV every Saturday night during IFC’s regularly scheduled movies.


Wicked Good

See More Evil

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is on Hulu.

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GIFs via Giphy

Okay, so you missed the entire first season of Stan Against Evil. There’s no shame in that, per se. But here’s the thing: Season 2 is just around the corner and you don’t want to lag behind. After all, Season 1 had some critical character development, not to mention countless plot twists, and a breathless finale cliffhanger that’s been begging for resolution since last fall. It also had this:


The good news is that you can catch up right now on Hulu. Phew. But if you aren’t streaming yet, here’s a basic primer…

Willards Mill Is Evil

Stan spent his whole career as sheriff oblivious to the fact that his town has a nasty curse. Mostly because his recently-deceased wife was secretly killing demons and keeping Stan alive.

Demons Really Want To Kill Stan

The curse on Willards Mill stipulates that damned souls must hunt and kill each and every town sheriff, or “constable.” Oh, and these demons are shockingly creative.


They Also Want To Kill Evie

Why? Because Evie’s a sheriff too, and the curse on Willard’s Mill doesn’t have a “one at a time” clause. Bummer, Evie.

Stan and Evie Must Work Together

Beating the curse will take two, baby, but that’s easier said than done because Stan doesn’t always seem to give a damn. Damn!


Beware of Goats

It goes without saying for anyone who’s seen the show: If you know that ancient evil wants to kill you, be wary of anything that has cloven feet.


Season 2 Is Lurking

Scary new things are slouching towards Willards Mill. An impending darkness descending on Stan, Evie and their cohort – eviler evil, more demony demons, and whatnot. And if Stan wants to survive, he’ll have to get even Stanlier.

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is now streaming right now on Hulu.



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.