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DID YOU READ

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.

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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.

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Wicked Good

See More Evil

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is on Hulu.

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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:

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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SO EXCITED!!!

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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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.”

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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. 

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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.