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DID YOU READ

“Two-Lane Blacktop,” “The Way I Spent the End of the World”

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By Michael Atkinson

IFC News

[Photo: “Two-Lane Blacktop,” Universal Pictures, 1971]

No cultural testimony tracks our national alpha waves as eloquently as road movies — even the most bankrupt examples yowl with the fatally American yen for escape, automotive identity and frontier doom. And no road movie is as in touch with its own road movieness as Monte Hellman’s long-martyred “Two-Lane Blacktop” (1971). Not widely seen or available on video in any form until 1999 as a victim of music rights and studio neglect, “Blacktop” might be a definitive American expression of roadness — uncompromised, Rorschach-inconclusive, mythic, yet as real as highway weeds, and so eloquent in its mumbling way about basic existential identity and destination dilemmas that every frame has the poignant and needy ache of a child fruitlessly asking about God. It has little competition as the great lost and found movie of the much-missed American New Wave.

Virtually everyone who sees the film is seduced by it, but it’s not a charming piece of work: It’s laconic, distancing, de-dramatized, soberly shot, totally devoid of visual showboating and campy counterculture à la “Easy Rider.” Echoes of Beckett and “Godot,” which Hellman had staged in the ’60s, abound; think of emptied-out motorheads James Taylor and Dennis Wilson as the lost ones stuck in a ritual dialogue, petulant hitchhiker Laurie Bird as Pozzo and Warren Oates’ G.T.O.-driving jabbermouth as Lucky. Still, to witness “Blacktop,” for all its metaphoric torque, is to be thrust into the dusty, dirt poor midday of American road culture (most of it “found” by the filmmakers, shooting the movie on a road trip from Needles, CA to the Carolinas), surrounded by overgrown flatlands, vanishing points and the angry chortle of car engines. The movie breathes as only ’70s movies breathe, with whole scenes dedicated to nothing more than capturing a place and moment.

Taylor is the Driver, Wilson is the Mechanic, and their life is a series of impromptu drag races against local drivers, almost always winning with their custom dragster in a primer-gray ’55 Chevy shell. Their encounter with Oates (whose credit reads “G.T.O.”), a slumming dude with a hot car he knows nothing about, leads to a cross country race between the two vehicles that passes for the film’s plot. Along the way, à la “L’Avventura,” the wager is neglected by the drivers (and Hellman) and forgotten. Though scrupulously unfaddish, Hellman’s acidic, calm but desperate vision is far from ignorant of its place and time: Wilson steals local Southern plates to slap on his Chevy because “I get nervous in this part of the country,” while a quiet roadhouse confrontation with a redneck chills even Oates into stymied silence.

Few films display such brilliant visual wisdom about our relationship with the automobile (dare you to triple-bill this with Spielberg’s “Duel” and Cronenberg’s “Crash”); however, Hellman sees the car as an extra-human, quasi-cinematic consciousness, designed both to conform to our bodies’ limitations and powerfully extend them into the world like the manifested projections of a collective ego, complete with the Panavision-shaped screen of the windshield. “Blacktop” even lists its cars as cast members. Roadtripping may have been a drop out, turn on hot rod cliché even in 1971, but nobody told Hellman, whose frustrated odyssey feels sui generis — the first and last of the real road movies. The druggy rhythms, the downtime, the meaningless forward motion — the movie itself is like a long drive to nowhere. And it never ends: like his characters, Hellman never admits the frontier is gone, that the road has an end, and simply lets the film grind down and burn in the projector gate instead. This new Criterion edition, neatly obviating the need for the old Anchor Bay issues, supps the film with loads of new Hellman interviews, an essay by longtime Hellman proselytizer/critic Kent Jones, and a copy of the original Rudy Wurlitzer script, famous for being published in its entirety in Esquire before the film’s release.

Today’s gritty New Wave dead-endness is happening in Romania, which makes sense, globally speaking — one should never underestimate the historical gravitas that comes with generations of brutal Communist dictatorship, the reverb of its violent overthrow, or the deathless ancestral textures of Balkan peninsula peasant culture. The films and their accolades are still arriving: last year’s critical triumph of Cristi Puiu’s “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” (which won Best Film from the nation’s most expansive critics’ poll on indieWIRE ) was followed this year by Corneliu Porumboiu’s “12:08 East of Bucharest” and, opening semi-wide in January, Cristian Mungiu’s “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” all three anointed with Cannes trophies. Suddenly, a poor ex-totalitarian nation that had little visible film culture at all (outside of Lucien Pintille) for decades is now the hotbed of what the world’s film festivals are perceiving as new-millennium cool — fresh, expressive and pertinent. The 1989 coup that ousted Ceauşescu haunts the films in a distinctive way: the primary filmmakers in question are all now 40 or under, and were still teenagers and film school students when Romania became a “new democracy,” presenting them with a nervous, newly mercenary sociopolitical world they’re still trying to figure out.

Catalin Mitulescu’s feature debut, “The Way I Spent the End of the World” (2006), is one of the movement’s key films, and the closest thing young Romania has to a generational anthem movie. Set in 1989, its rebel-without-cause is Eva (Doroteea Petre), a tempestuous, smart, rebellious but never stereotypical high schooler dissatisfied with her smitten boyfriend and more or less completely fed up with the Ceauşescu regime, prompting her to fraternize with a crazed anti-Communist nerd and to contemplate escaping. But to where?

Mitulescu’s movie sings with the Slav-style mordant wit that so much of Eastern Europe does so well, and it also does the neo-naturalism jig with enormous skill (and without the longueurs and middle-aged grumpiness of many other Romanian hits). Mostly, it has Petre, who earned the film’s award from Cannes for her watchful, impetuous performance that knocks out what had become a 20th century cliché — the revolutionary teen, bristling against authority and embracing rock ‘n’ roll — into four lovely dimensions. (However supercool she seems, Eva is always a tangible, lovable person, as opposed to say, the similar but idealized protagonist of the overpraised, overwritten “Juno.”) Inevitably, Mitulescu’s movie climaxes with the revolution is being televised events of December 1989, giving Eva’s story a thoroughly unsentimental happy ending that comes with its own kind of disappointing blowback, keenly felt across the country. Reportedly, “The Way I Spent the End of the World” may still go theatrical in ’08, but for now, Film Movement — a unique video subscription label specializing in overlooked imports — has made it happen on DVD.

“Two-Lane Blacktop” (Criterion) will be available on December 11th; “The Way I Spent the End of the World” (Film Movement) is now available on DVD.

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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…

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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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GIFs via Giphy

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.

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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.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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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 IFC.com and the IFC app.

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G.I. Jeez

Stomach Bugs and Prom Dates

E.Coli High is in your gut and on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Brothers-in-law Kevin Barker and Ben Miller have just made the mother of all Comedy Crib series, in the sense that their Comedy Crib series is a big deal and features a hot mom. Animated, funny, and full of horrible bacteria, the series juxtaposes timeless teen dilemmas and gut-busting GI infections to create a bite-sized narrative that’s both sketchy and captivating. The two sat down, possibly in the same house, to answer some questions for us about the series. Let’s dig in….

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IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

BEN: Hi ummm uhh hi ok well its like umm (gets really nervous and blows it)…

KB: It’s like the Super Bowl meets the Oscars.

IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

BEN: Oh wow, she’s really cute isn’t she? I’d definitely blow that too.

KB: It’s a cartoon that is happening inside your stomach RIGHT NOW, that’s why you feel like you need to throw up.

IFC: What was the genesis of E.Coli High?

KB: I had the idea for years, and when Ben (my brother-in-law, who is a special needs teacher in Philly) began drawing hilarious comics, I recruited him to design characters, animate the series, and do some writing. I’m glad I did, because Ben rules!

BEN: Kevin told me about it in a park and I was like yeah that’s a pretty good idea, but I was just being nice. I thought it was dumb at the time.

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IFC: What makes going to proms and dating moms such timeless and oddly-relatable subject matter?

BEN: Since the dawn of time everyone has had at least one friend with a hot mom. It is physically impossible to not at least make a comment about that hot mom.

KB: Who among us hasn’t dated their friend’s mom and levitated tables at a prom?

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

BEN: There’s a lot of content now. I don’t think anyone will even notice, but it’d be cool if they did.

KB: A show about talking food poisoning bacteria is basically the same as just watching the news these days TBH.

Watch E.Coli High below and discover more NYTVF selections from years past on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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