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“I Am Cuba,” “Manufactured Landscapes”

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By Michael Atkinson
IFC News

[Photo: “I Am Cuba,” Milestone Films]

Though only recently exhumed from the neverworld abyss of forgotten cinema — it was 1992, in fact — it does seem as if Mikhail Kalatozov’s “I Am Cuba” (1964) has always been with us, always staking out its small, idiosyncratic turf as Communist agitprop’s most unrestrained diva hymn, and one of the most visually titanic works in the century of movies. If you’ve managed to avoid it up to now, Milestone’s new bells-&-whistles DVD release is your present to yourself this Christmas — newly struck from the original Russian master, and coming gift-wrapped in an almost absurdly lavish cigar-box case, accompanied by two supplementary documentary discs and a thorough booklet of explicative material. Still, in my experience, the movie bedazzles regardless of its condition or format — there’s just no acclimating to, or being blasé about, the famously superhuman cinematographic stunt work and the unearthly white-wheat-dark-sky exposures (achieved with infra-red stock), all of it mated to an unfettered revolutionary outrage that abstractly details life before and during Castro’s rebel war, from decadent tourist pool parties to police brigade atrocities to guerrilla righteousness in the mountains.

The resulting assault seems at this remove to be less about Cuba per se than about the fusillade of movement, shadow, light and landscape on the viewer’s tender optic nerves. Indeed, this rare co-production between Mosfilm and Castro’s new state-run ICIAC tanked with its intended Communist audiences, proving too languid and impressionistic for the Cubans and too tropical-exotic for the Russians. No one else saw it. I’ve had suburban college students, otherwise prone to dozy dismissiveness at the very notion of a black-&-white, subtitled movie, weep openly at “I Am Cuba.” Once you’re confronted with the famous, two-and-a-half-minute one-shot funeral march sequence, in which seemingly the entirety of the city of Havana is participating, and in which the camera climbs buildings, passes over rooftops and through windows and finally flies out over the crowd in mid-air, without a single cut, you’ve begun to understand how the film certainly represented a kind of cinematic frontier for filmmakers like Miklós Jancsó, Andrei Tarkovsky, Alexander Sokurov and Theo Angelopoulos, and still does, in many ways, today.

It’s propaganda, of course, and fascinating for that — but still, naïve as it seems, the film (co-written by poet Yevgeni Yevtushenko) makes a feverish case you can’t argue with, for the people and against state power. Kalatozov, a veteran from the silent days, made his global mark in 1957 with “The Cranes Are Flying” (an award-winner at Cannes), and along with “I Am Cuba” and 1959’s “The Letter Never Sent” (imagine a film that looks like Cuba butthat was shot entirely in the Siberian wilderness), his work with levitating cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky had a still-unacknowledged impact on international art cinema. (Note that before “The Cranes Are Flying” hit the festival circuit, Antonioni and Bergman were still making visually orthodox films.) Each Kalatozov/Urusevsky take is a trapeze stunt, an athletic exercise in seeing how much life can be crammed into a single, breath-holding camera take, and “I Am Cuba” may be their premier achievement (there’s at least one other we haven’t seen, 1955’s “The First Echelon”; Urusevsky also shot with Pudovkin, Donskoi and Grigori Chukrai). Once you’ve steeped yourself in the film’s magical waters, go to Vicente Ferraz’s “I Am Cuba — The Siberian Mammoth” (2005), a new and addictive chronicle included in the cigar box, which returns to the places and personnel from the production, and tells us perhaps too much about how the film achieved its transcendent grandeur, amid the lingering vapors of the 1962 missile crisis — the imported cranes, suspended cameras, chemical infusions, camera-operator relay races and a shooting period that lasted almost two years, lengthened by days spent waiting for “interesting” clouds. Kino, kino, kino!, as Guy Maddin has said.

Hunting little-publicized mammoths in its own way, Jennifer Baichwal’s “Manufactured Landscapes” is the year’s most chilling horror film, a cold-stare portrait of planetary waste that makes “An Inconvenient Truth” look like, well, an Al Gore lecture. Baichwal simply follows photographer Edward Burtynsky, documenting his process, showing his work and often dollying through the locations he’s studying — which are all unimaginably huge, unfathomably grotesque and morally nauseating arenas of human industrial destruction, from dumping sites to decommissioned mines to dehumanized manufacturing operations to poisoned landscapes glowing with radioactive colors. Properly, Baichwal uses Burtynsky only as a guide into these circumstances; his art stands for itself, and so does Baichwal’s unnarrated footage, leaving it less a movie about an artist — fine and good — than about the world he struggles to depict. Numbers can bounce off of us, but these images don’t, resonating with guilt and culpability, and breathtaking in scale. It’s a new, freshly-sharpened effort to jostle us from our it’s-a-shame middle-class complacency, but that becomes part of the film’s subject, too, questioning without a word why some areas of the world sit under a billion tons of our industries’ toxic refuse and some don’t.

“I Am Cuba” (Milestone) and “Manufactured Landscapes” (Zeitgeist) will be available on DVD November 20th.

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Give Back

Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.

Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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GIFs via Giphy

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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