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“The Guatemalan Handshake,” “Hypocrites”

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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.

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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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