Georges Méliès, “Khadak”

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03182008_triptothemoon.jpgBy Michael Atkinson

Perhaps, with the cataract of DVD’d Méliès mania besetting us — the new comprehensive Flicker Alley box “George Méliès: First Wizard of Cinema (1896-1913),” the new, more modest and affordable Kino sampler “The Magic of Méliès,” both piling atop Facets’ standard “Méliès the Magician” disc — we can begin to consider the French pioneer as something other than a film history staple and an oddity for scholars. It’d be a brand new tact to take for films that, being over a century old, reach right back to the form’s infancy, movies’ equivalent of cave painting and hieroglyph carving. But there’s something effervescent and seductive there, a spirit of high innocence and ceaseless invention that has made several of Méliès’s elaborate images — most obviously, the man in the moon with the ship-bullet in his eye, from “A Trip to the Moon” (1902) — undying cultural icons, familiar to the masses who aren’t particularly aware of or even interested in the fact that the movies were being made during the McKinley administration.

Film geeks don’t need to be sold; objects like the Flicker Alley box, which bundles (and thoroughly indexes) most of Méliès’s surviving films (over 170 out of more than 540), are a cinephile’s idea of shipwreck treasure, long thought lost. But it’s become clear that Méliès is more than just the stop-motion special effects inventor and fin de siècle fantasist he’s normally defined as having been — or, that those definitions are more resonant cultural ideas than we have usually presumed. Certainly, returning to the artesian source for every manifestation of cinematic mystery and sleight-of-hand has its own aesthetic buzz — the essential élan and spectacle of movies can be found in their prenatal form in Méliès’s short dreams, whether they be mere trickery or elaborate fairy tales, such as “The Impossible Voyage” (1904), a 20-minute epic that uses up more visual imagination and hectic chaos than most features made in the next 40 years.

There are no Méliès masterpieces — he worked in the era before such a concept was even hatched. And it’s true, as per the classic historical argument, that his films occupy a 2-D theatrical space in comparison with the early Edwin S. Porters and D. W. Griffith. (The performances in Méliès are far more expressive, amusing and, ironically, rich in conviction than any contemporaneous film, however.) But that’s like dismissing Bosch because he wasn’t Rembrandt. It could be said that as a pioneer, Méliès expanded the cinematic vocabulary by skipping over the third dimension and extending towards a fourth — a way of seeing that evoked the unseen and the impossible, a use of recorded light that palpably smacked of the metaphysical. He elaborated on a space familiar to everyone at the time (the theater proscenium) and then, as if by magic, transformed it into the saw-it-with-our-own-eyes unreality of the ghostly and the subconscious. Not for nothing was Freud a youthful contemporary — but Méliès never dared to suggest textual insight, making only comedies and always, always striving towards irreverence, another advantage he had and still has over Porter and Griffith.

But more than that, Méliès’s movies are beautiful to look at, the first triumphs of filmic design (and the most thoroughly conceived until German Expressionism.) Watching Méliès is like seeing a secret, a lost and ancient gray universe of pre-technological inventions, nursery rhyme caricature, painted landscapes, cartoon Victorian affluence, trains and ships and cars that are obviously just facades but into which characters climb anyway, moons and stars, many of them with anthropomorphous faces, human butterflies, outrageous cross-section views (Wes Anderson’s debt remains unpaid), deceptive perspectives, movies within movies, faeries and imps, classical paintings come to life, relentless disappearances and reappearances, and so, infinitely, on. It’s an arena of unfettered childlike wonder, a Seine of blissful unreality, as energetic and joyous as a playground, and comparable, as pop art, to the career work of Maxfield Parrish, Chester Gould, Cole Porter, Bing Crosby, Alfred Hitchcock, Jack Kirby, The Beatles and Hayao Miyazaki. Put that in your Cinema 101 DVD deck and smoke it.

(It should be noted that the Kino disc comes with a 1978 American bio-doc about Méliès, while the Flicker Alley set comes supplemented by Georges Franju’s 1953 reenacted biopic/whatzit “Le Grand Méliès.”)

03182008_khadak.jpgOn another faraway planet, Peter Brosens and Jessica Hope Woodworth’s “Khadak” (2006) shows us a Mongolia we haven’t seen before, and does it in the course of a trippy magical realist tale that seems, despite the filmmakers being Belgian and American respectively, authentic to the region. Our hero, Bagi (Batzul Khayankhyarvaa), is the fatherless lad of a small sheep-herding clan living on the “gobi” plains; he suffers occasional seizures, which seem to insert his consciousness into a parallel realm where only the local shamaness can reach him. Their world is upset when a reputed livestock plague forces the Mongolian government to relocate the family to a semi-industrialized mining town, complete with blocks of workers’ housing shooting up abruptly like an aging dystopia against the doggedly blue Central Asian sky. Eventually, Bagi is hospitalized for his seizures and must escape from the system — but “Khadak” hangs on its plot frame like a silk sheet blowing in the wind, making spectral connections and conjuring evocative tableaux and visually mourning the tragic, soulless modernization of an ancient world. (A two-minute tracking shot of the family’s physical removal from the wilderness, with hazmat-suited soldiers and furniture stranded on the steppes in a Magritte-like dislocation, is typical of the film’s virtuoso and expressive yet oblique approach.) Brosens and Woodworth make full use of the Asian dusklight and the steam that rises from everything in the Mongolian cold, and seize on compositions in depth, and try as I might, I saw no evidence of a Western, orientalistic perspective. (In fact, it’s a much more elusive and de-Westernized film than, say, indigenous products like “Mongolian Ping Pong” or “Kekexili: Mountain Patrol.”) If “Khadak” fragments in its last quarter, abandoning bilateral universes and chronology, that’s because that’s what’s happening to the old life, free and independent and intimate with the ground and sky. All that’s left, it would appear, is the magic in our heads.

[Photos: Georges Méliès’ “A Trip to the Moon,” 1902; “Khadak,” Lifesize, 2006]

“Georges Méliès: First Wizard of Cinema” (Flicker Alley), “The Magic of Méliès” (Kino) and “Khadak” (Lifesize Entertainment) are now available on DVD.


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.


Get Physical

DVDs are the new Vinyl

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available On Disc.

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GIFs via Giffy

In this crazy digital age, sometimes all we really want is to reach out and touch something. Maybe that’s why so many of us are still gung-ho about owning stuff on DVD. It’s tangible. It’s real. It’s tech from a bygone era that still feels relevant, yet also kitschy and retro. It’s basically vinyl for people born after 1990.


Inevitably we all have that friend whose love of the disc is so absolutely repellent that he makes the technology less appealing. “The resolution, man. The colors. You can’t get latitude like that on a download.” Go to hell, Tim.

Yes, Tim sucks, and you don’t want to be like Tim, but maybe he’s onto something and DVD is still the future. Here are some benefits that go beyond touch.

It’s Decor and Decorum

With DVDs and a handsome bookshelf you can show off your great taste in film and television without showing off your search history. Good for first dates, dinner parties, family reunions, etc.


Forget Public Wifi

Warm up that optical drive. No more awkwardly streaming episodes on shady free wifi!



Internet service goes down. It happens all the time. It could happen right now. Then what? Without a DVD on hand you’ll be forced to make eye contact with your friends and family. Or worse – conversation.


Self Defense

You can’t throw a download like a ninja star. Think about it.


If you’d like to experience the benefits DVD ownership yourself, Portlandia Season 7 is now available on DVD and Blue-Ray.