“The Guatemalan Handshake,” “Hypocrites”

Posted by on

04292008_guatemalanhandshake.jpgBy Michael Atkinson

Todd Rohal’s “The Guatemalan Handshake” is one of the most inventive, most poetic, most disarmingly authentic indies of the last few years — so, of course, you’ve never had a chance to see it. It’s a movie that seems to have dropped out of the sky, inexplicably, like a satellite fragment landing on Main Street. Naturally, it’s not a project constructed around a traditional idea of storytelling propulsion — Rohal has whipped his world from the weedy ground up into a fiery, relentless storm of quirk, but he’s original enough in his cataract of details to keep us in a constant state of enchanted disorientation. Why was “Napoleon Dynamite,” with its relatively stereotypical uber-misfit, a hit, while this 2006 daydream foundered out of sight?

Set in some Forgottentown, Pennsylvania, “The Guatemalan Handshake” encounters characters undramatically, and its narrative gradually coalesces around them: Donald the triangular-electric-car-driving nebbish (Will Oldham); his pregnant girlfriend and one of “dozens of sisters, each with a different mother” (Sheila Sculin); Turkeylegs, the willowy, surreal-minded 11-year-old free spirit (Katy Haywood) who narrates the film; Donald’s elderly and obsessive father Mr. Turnupseed (Ken Byrnes); a manic Guatemalan bus driver; a lactose-intolerant skating rink worker who may be the most socially inappropriate man ever devised for an American film; a woman in search of her lost poodle (who we find out got electrocuted by a power station mishap early on, but who reconstitutes magically anyway), and so on. Early on, Donald disappears (literally, he just walks off-frame), and Turkeylegs endeavors to understand why and how, as her already dipsy community reaches several sorts of ridiculous yet dead serious crisis points at once.

Shot in deep, humid colors, the film is fairly unpredictable, and the wealth of mysterious touches (endless phone cords, unexplained band-aids, glimpses of a man running from bees, mundane miracles) suggest a fully realized magical realism just out of view, hidden by American poverty. Rohal is a subtle fiend as well with his largely amateur cast — several geysers of drooling, stilted overacting begins to make sense when you realize it’s the damaged, inarticulate characters that are overacting, not the actors. Obviously, this flyaway quilt needed glue, and it has it with Turkeylegs, whose point of view Rohal lovingly attends to, lending “The Guatemalan Handshake” the periodic glow of a secretive, innocent child’s natural happiness.

04292008_hypocrites.jpgAnother revelation, Lois Weber’s “Hypocrites” is a deeply eccentric, troublingly lyrical vision, for its day — 1915! — and ours. Whatever its daring and innovation, it’s a film that needs to be seen through the scrim of pioneering feminist filmmaking, which is the political hook upon which the four-feature Kino set it’s part of hangs (work by Alice Guy-Blaché, Ruth Ann Baldwin, Cleo Madison and “Mrs. Wallace Reid” is included). Talk about a secret history within a history; bizarrely, women directors were common in the day of reactionary-bigot bigwig D.W. Griffith, and within what quickly became just a few years later an almost completely male industry. The scholarship exploring these newly recognized careers is far from done, and you’d stump your average film school prof by asking them to name a single title from these filmographies. But in the teens audiences were well aware — the title sequence of “Hypocrites” begins with a statement and signed portrait of the filmmaker.

Weber herself was an acute visualizer, with a moral sense that easily outgrades Griffith’s neo-Victorian ethos, and “Hypocrites” is infused with a quite feminine sympathy even as it excoriates entire chunks of society for their amoral selfishness and fake piety. For a 50-minute movie, it has a dazzling complex structure, layering (but not paralleling, exactly) the story of an old-time monk persecuted for a nude statue, and a modern minister troubled by his congregation of middle class four-flushers and gossipers. The same actors serve both tales, but then Weber falls into a third mode, mixing the first two in guided tour (our hostess is Naked Truth, played by an anonymous nude woman) of the modern American’s iniquity hidden within his and her public lives. Weber could shoot, too; the exposure of the ascetic’s statue to a medieval community of fair-goers is performed in a breathtaking series of long dollies, encompassing vast amounts of human activity and emotion at a point in the history of cinema when Griffith’s cramped-room-tableaux were supposed to be the height of eloquence.

[Photos: Will Oldham in “The Guatemalan Handshake,” Benten, 2006; Lois Weber’s “Hypocrites,” Kino]

“The Guatamalan Handshake” (Benten Films) and “Hypocrites” (Kino Video) are now available on DVD.



Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

Posted by on
GIFs via Giphy

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.”


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. 


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.


New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

Posted by on

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.

Posted by on
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.