“The Night of the Shooting Stars,” “Diva Dolorosa”

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04082008_nightoftheshootingstars.jpgBy Michael Atkinson

A distinctive force in European cinema for over 35 years, Paolo and Vittorio Taviani achieved from their first films an eloquent stylistic bridge between Rossellinian stringency and Fellinian braggadocio. Their movies are often framed like friezes, but the chaos of human whim always muddies the compositions. Appropriately, the Tavianis began as political barnburners, fashioning absurdist parables and sometimes cosmic commedia from Italy’s lunatic flirtations with extreme movements. No European filmmaker has ever been as dedicated to their nation’s peasant legacy, and no one on the continent since the ’70s has made such potent and revealing use of their native landscape. Still, if the Tavianis’ penchant for old-fashioned narrative folkiness has grown tedious over the last decade or two, there’s still 1982’s “The Night of the Shooting Stars,” their premier achievement, and arguably the best Italian film of the ’80s.

Right off the bat, with its framing device of a fantastical war story told by a mother to a sleepy child as the stars fall in the sky outside the bedroom window, the movie has the cut-to-the-point grip of a grim fairy tale. The narrative is an extrapolation of a real incident, retold as history in the Tavianis’ first short, “San Miniato, Luglio ’44” (1954), in which the villagers of the eponymous town obeyed the Nazis, took shelter from their supposedly bomb-rigged homes in the village’s church and then were collectively massacred. In the brothers’ re-imagining, a small mob of the peasants, following a laconic patriarch (Omero Antonutti), disobey the Germans and set out on foot in the middle of the night in search of the American forces.

Of course, the eyes through which we witness this anti-Odyssean journey belong to the narrator, who in 1944 was an impetuous six-year-old prankster in a print dress. And so the story itself is imbued with a child-like lyricism and irreverence — death comes and goes without much ado, hiding in the forest with 30 adults feels like nothing so much as a great game, and every disruption of the ordinary is a bolt of magical living. The Tavianis’ details accumulate like special knowledge: the villagers shielding their ears against the pleading barks of their own dogs, left behind; the way the procession walks, arm in arm and chatting and free in the sunshine, the next morning; a dying girl’s daydream of meeting Sicilian soldiers from Brooklyn; the way the villagers all sleep jumbled in a bomb crater, like mass grave victims waking up and stretching. This poetry crests in the film’s climactic passage — a great, ironic battle of guns and pitchforks with Black Shirts in a vast wheat field, where no one knows who precisely the enemy is until they meet on their knees, nose to nose. “Even true stories can end well,” someone says, despite heavy tragedy and scores of corpses, and so the Tavianis make their case, with an unimpeachable observational style and sense of the gritty absurd. “The Night of the Shooting Stars,” defying genre but embracing comedy as well as horror, remains one of those rare movies that can inspire faith in living and history.

04082008_divadolorosa.jpgThe legacy of Italian cinema is the primary axe being ground in “Diva Dolorosa” (1999), making its long overdue appearance on DVD almost a decade after it dazzled authentic cinephiles at film festivals all over. Even so, it’s a Dutch film, a found-footage assemblage constructed by professional archive plunderer Peter Delpeut (“Lyrical Nitrate,” “The Forbidden Quest”) out of footage from a particular genre of Italian silent films: the Black Romantic melodramas of the 1910s, in which tragically willful, independent fin-de-siècle aristocratic women self-destructed, dramatically and hyper-tragically, in the name of love. The genre, which pervaded other mediums as well, might be the first and last word on the communion between sex and death, and the clips Delpeut uses are chockablock with swoony melancholy and suicidal ardor. Despite their age, many of them look remarkably accomplished as pieces of cinema; perhaps the archives will eventually DVD-up complete editions of “La Donna Nuda” (1914) and “Rapsodia Satanica” (1915) (both of which star the Black Romantic Garbo, Lyda Borelli). But Delpeut is crafting a found-object poem here, with a rhapsodic orchestral score and a sure sense of how so much weepy, proto-campy mega-sadness can collect in your head as a statement about its own culture, and also as a palpably beautiful, tragic spectacle despite the odor of antique cheese. But of course, “Diva Dolorosa” is really about cinema itself, and therefore about lost time, and therein lies in deepest and loveliest sorrow.

[Photos: “The Night of the Shooting Stars,” United Artists Classics, 1982; “Diva Dolorosa,” Zeitgeist, 1999]

“The Night of the Shooting Stars” (Koch Lorber) and “Diva Dolorosa” (Zeitgeist) 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.

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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

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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.