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“The District!”, “Chameleon Street”

“The District!”, “Chameleon Street” (photo)

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A filthy, confrontational, sophomoric animated feature from Hungary, Áron Gauder’s “The District!” (I prefer the less prosaic, more punctuative Hungarian title, “Nyócker!”) has a surplus of borrowed hip-hop attitude and proudly lowbrow ghetto texture. But it’s Gauder’s absolutely distinctive visual docket that is ceaselessly arresting. Call it a smash-up between faux 3-D digital fluidity and cutout cartooning and rotoscoped realism and Ralph Steadman-esque satiric caricature — the upshot is hypnotizing, even when the film’s wigger material tends toward the idiotic. Gauder captures his actors in a broad variety of facial poses and then animates the characters using these images (much as each character found expression via the interchange of dozens of different heads in the stop-motion “The Nightmare Before Christmas”). But he also embellishes them graphically, distorts them digitally, and then folds them into hectic, multilayered urban tableaux, all of it seething and brawling and swarming like a real city neighborhood as seen through the scrim of very strong microdots.

Which would all make only a scintillating short, not a feature, if Gauder’s timing and deftness with multiple action weren’t precise and hilarious; watching the background characters’ expressions change on the offbeat, from deadpan to rageful to joyous, is often more fascinating than the foreground business, which often devolves into Magyar hip-hop music videos (and accomplished farces of the form, at that). Seeing these 2-D digi-puppets meet gazes is alone funnier than the last five CGI penguin movies. The plot, which moves like a driverless car, involves a gang of Budapest street kids, many of them Rom, deciding to get rich by traveling back to the Stone Age, killing and burying mammoths where their city block will later be, returning and digging for oil. Which they do (they’re even inadvertently responsible for continental drift), and the consequences naturally spiral out into an international debacle that ropes in Osama bin Laden, the Pope and Bush II, all of them given a rightful satiric flogging in the process. “The District!” began as an Adult Swim-style series-within-a-series and might represent the most inventive use of digital animation anywhere, and certainly rules the hard drive work being done elsewhere in Europe.

One of the key films of the indie “new wave” that roiled through the 1980s and resulted in, among a great many other things, Quentin Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh, Kevin Smith and IFC itself, Wendell B. Harris Jr.’s “Chameleon Street” (1989) fetched a Grand Jury Prize at Sundance before Sundance was Sundance (the soirée’s maiden name was the Utah/US Film Festival). It remains a troubling and pioneering piece of work, if somewhat less forgivable today for its grandstanding, its clumsy amateurish filmmaking and its fuzzy thematic hustle. Harris did all but hold his own boom for this micro-budgeted interrogation of American race relations, which in a desultory way biopics the story of one William Douglas Street Jr., a Detroit-born inveterate con man whose compulsion it was to pass himself off in professional identities he wasn’t qualified for: a surgeon, a corporate lawyer, a French-speaking exchange student at Yale (without actually knowing how to speak French), etc. (In fact, several players in Street’s real life play themselves, including Detroit mayor Coleman Young.) In Harris’ purview, Street was a hopeless self-aggrandizer as well as a low-rent autodidact, and his purple, rhyming, R & B narration belittles everyone he meets as relentlessly as it puffs up his own plumage as the smartest man for miles.

But taking the Harris/Street persona at face value — as an empathetic protagonist — is a mistake. Harris turns Street’s odyssey into a kind of arch, bohemian vaudeville as the rich-talking dude foolishly begins to consider himself a pretentious “artist” of identity and manipulation. Of course, the real subject is the black man’s need and desire, in late-century America, to adopt and swap out identities so he might fit within the white hierarchy; the sense of genuine self is a casualty of latent racism, while at the same time, Street can “pass” for anything as long as he occupies largely white environments where he is essentially as “invisible” as Ralph Ellison. The film’s crude, cheap visuals also wield a sharp double edge — take them either as botch work or as the opportunistic parody of blaxploitation filmmaking and those films’ disturbed sense of empowerment and social dynamics. Burdened by tons of Street’s seriously witless summary judgments and smooth romantic seduction-chat, “Chameleon Street” remains probing and singular, and perhaps, an opportunity for a less indulgent, more thoroughly conceived remake.

“The District!” (Atopia) will be available on January 15th; “Chameleon Street” (Home Vision) is 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.

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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…

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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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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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