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“Hannah Takes the Stairs,” “The World According to Shorts”

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04222008_hannahtakesthestairs.jpgBy Michael Atkinson

Though it may seem unfair at first, let’s pick up Joe Swanberg’s “Hannah Takes the Stairs,” heft it in our grips for a moment, and then use it to beat this thing called “mumblecore” to a pulp. Implicitly a kind of low-budge, ultra-spontaneous, all-HDV answer to the glossy fatuousness of current American film, mumblecore has a number of inherent problems (the least of which is its inherited moniker; using “-core” as a suffix in this way has no meaning). The fad’s general strategy — naturally lit shaky-cam coverage of semi-inarticulate twentysomethings with bedhead speaking entirely in casual small talk and having or ruining relationships — is easy to peg as narcissistic and lazy, if you’re not finely attuned to the genre’s nonchalant sense of cool. But more than that, mumblecore movies strive for an interpersonal intimacy they never achieve, because intimacy requires skill, real acting and visual wisdom, not merely amateurishness. In the pursuit of realism, mumblecore characters spend enormous amounts of time amusing themselves in variously immature ways, the upshot of which is less realistic than, well, immature. No one is actually witty, sex isn’t on anyone’s mind, and everyone, even when they’re being goofy, is tediously earnest.

Is it even a movement? Is anyone outside of the ticket buyers at a handful of smallish American film festivals passionate about these movies, and if not, why are they getting so much press? Still, any cost-benefit analysis of the genre must admit that flowers do arise out of the sludge, and in “Hannah Takes the Stairs,” it’s the title character, as conceived by Swanberg’s ensemble and defined by Greta Gerwig’s performance. Hannah is a lovely-but-not-too-lovely production assistant at some kind of small-time production company, sharing an office with two geeky writers (Kent Osborne and Andrew Bujalski). Swanberg’s story merely follows her as she bounces from an unemployed boyfriend through relationships with her officemates, but Hannah herself is a fascinating concoction: she’s sweet and thoughtful, but at a loss in her own life, a little dull (and painfully aware of it), never the smartest person in the room and hardly at grips with what she wants out of a man. Gerwig has a dazzlingly guileless smile and big startled eyes (she’s more than a little DeGeneres-esque), and she imbues Hannah with an essential insecurity that remains mostly hidden — as in real life, you detect the weakness and uncertainty by way of the defenses propped up to cover them. Watch Gerwig’s hands — Hannah never knows where to put them. Organically, a clear sense of Hannah’s situation dawns: she can’t articulate her frustration, but she’s condemned to play second fiddle to every man she knows, because though she’s beautiful, she’s not creative or dynamic enough to dominate them. You don’t go to Swanberg’s movie because the cast is a veritable who’s who of mumblecore filmmakers (all of whom get screenplay credit as improvisers), or because it’s the genre entry the industry [including’s sister company IFC First Take] thought would break through to the mainstream. You go for Hannah.

04222008_unitedwestand.jpgAnother sort of ultra-indie phenom, the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s annual program “The World According to Shorts” (eight years and running) simply makes the world’s festivals’ commercially unviable short films available on the big screen for New Yorkers, and now a sampling has been packaged on DVD. Appropriately, it’s a mixed bag: I thought Daniel Askill’s digital trickery “We Have Decided Not to Die” (2004) was crashingly pretentious, but Hans Petter Moland’s “United We Stand” (2002), a deadpan Norwegian comedy about old men and quicksand, was refreshing and sharp. Hugo Maza’s “La Perra” (2002) — a Chilean bourgeois farce — may be obvious, but Adam Guzinski’s “Antichrist” (2002) fiercely and mysteriously limns a landscape of feral children self-destructing in a post-industrial wilderness, and it’s mesmerizing. Best of all is Andreas Hykade’s “Ring of Fire” (2000), a German-made gout of black and white vaginal psychedelia that riffs on the Western’s clichés and the aura of Johnny Cash just as it suggests the impact of a new mind-altering substance you didn’t know you took.

[Photos: “Hannah Takes the Stairs,” IFC First Take, 2007; “United We Stand,” New Yorker, 2008]

“Hannah Takes the Stairs” (Genius Products) and “The World According to Shorts” (New Yorker Video) are 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.


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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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.


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.



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 and the IFC app.

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