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“Bamako,” “The Films of Morris Engel”

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05062008_bamako.jpgBy Michael Atkinson

Malian filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako may have made the one African film everybody needs to see — at least for its disarming fugue of frank political awareness and state-of-the-quotidian African life. In most other ways, though, “Bamako” (2006) is a challenge to orthodoxy, because it’s not driven by its narrative, and hardly even provides an establishing context for itself. Before we know it, we’re in a sun-dappled Mali courtyard (Sissako’s family home, as it turns out), in which a kind of tribunal is going on, complete with black-robed jurists, waiting witnesses, anxious journalists and stacks of documentation. This is, we slowly realize, a fantasy trial in which the African people have taken civil proceedings against the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and American-led global capitalism in general, for the crime of exploiting and loan-sharking the continent and its peoples. The testimony is not from actors, but from real African citizens, writers, activists, tribal leaders, etc.; the lawyers, European and African, on both sides are also genuine advocates.

It sounds like a Peter Watkins film, except “Bamako”‘s primary thrust is mitigated, colored and accented in a distinctly African fashion: in, behind and around the trial courses a never-ending flow of relaxed, workaday life full of loiterers, babies, laundry, troubled families, goats, sunglasses salesmen, fabric dyers, well-women and so on. Every one of Sissako’s shots is a deep-focus study in the irresistible press of life; beyond every passionate witness who gives testimony is Africa itself, working and lazing and surviving. A beautiful nightclub chanteuse, whose marriage is dissolving, stops the court in mid-morning to have someone, anyone, tie up the back of her dress. The locals listen to the proceedings on loudspeakers until they no longer wish to and watch TV instead. (Sissako doesn’t let that opportunity slip by, inventing for broadcast a cheesy spaghetti western parable on cowboy diplomacy starring Danny Glover and Elia Suleiman.) At one point, a wedding ceremony plows through the courtyard.

But the witnesses are never deterred, and the core of “Bamako” is intense, eloquent testimony against the state powers that systematically, under the guise of aiding developing nations, rape them of resources and drain them through intolerable debt. For Americans who generally accept the spin about the IMF and the G8 being philanthropic or, at best, error-prone organs of national assistance, getting the picture from the African perspective could have an awakening effect. The IMF’s lawyer, embodied by French decolonization advocate Roland Rappaport, cannot muster much of a proposed defense, but who could, given the vocabulary and priorities Sissako has established? (The name “Paul Wolfowitz” is spat out like a swallowed bug.) There’s no denying the integrity of Sissako’s assembled voices, especially once an elderly tribesman takes the stand and belts out a wailing, and unsubtitled, Bambara elegy of cultural woe, making everyone in the vicinity stop dead and go grave. Humanistic agitprop, “Bamako” may be African, but it is aimed outward at the world with global unrest in its heart.

05062008_littlefugitive.jpgThe integrity located at the nougat center of Morris Engel’s three modest features — “Little Fugitive” (1953), “Lovers and Lollipops” (1956) and “Weddings and Babies” (1958) — is just as undeniable, just as it’s virtually impossible not to feel charmed and even a little blessed by the movies’ affectionate attention to realistic details (despite their cloying titles). They are, in fact, such an unassuming clutch of cinema that it’d be easy to overlook the revolution they represented — without “Little Fugitive,” there might not have been a French New Wave or John Cassavetes, and therefore, perhaps, no new wave movement at large. Before Engel, “indies” were exploitation and genre rip-offs, destined for the grindhouses. Before Engel, American film characters had heavily plotted actions to carry out — they didn’t live in real rooms, speak in convincing cadences, or lallygag around watching children or laying in parks or dallying over luncheon counters. Before Engel, shooting an entire dramatic film as if it were a spontaneous documentary was unheard of. From the late ’40s noirs onward, American films were tentatively, nervously, edging toward a street-savvy realism, but it took Engel to push the zeitgeist over for real, with no studio behind him and with a handheld camera, into the sawdust of Coney Island and onto the sidewalks of Little Italy.

Engel, working with his photographer-editor wife Ruth Orkin at every stage of production, had a crafty and expressive eye, but his films feel as natural as daylight through an old apartment window. “Little Fugitive” is a tiny story — a Brooklyn seven-year-old thinks he killed his bullyish brother, and escapes alone to Coney Island — slogged by post-dubbing and amateurish performances, and yet it’s a miracle; it’s as if no one had ever photographed a real child doing authentic childish things before. Freckly, beady-eyed Richie Andrusco is just a paradigmatic kid (no extraordinary resources of charisma or camera love here), but essential, unfettered boyness was rare in movies, and it’s what makes him compulsively watchable. Similarly, “Lovers and Lollipops” dawdles over little Cathy Dunn as a fatherless girl whose lonesome mom (Lori March) finds a new, and not terribly kid-savvy, boyfriend (Gerald O’Loughlin); the people are just as interesting to Engel as the landmarks of Manhattan, including Central Park, Macy’s and the Statue of Liberty (source of a typical Engelian moment: as the adults talk high in the statue, kids run along its shadow’s perimeter on the grass).

“Weddings and Babies,” the only Engel film to be made with synch-sound and without Orkin, is a stunningly intimate view of a working couple at odds about marriage and offspring. (Viveca Lindfors, coming to Engel’s penniless improv New Yawk after 10 lackluster years in Hollywood, gives one of the best performances of the ’50s.) “Little Fugitive” won a top prize at the Venice Film Festival, played in 5,000 U.S. theaters, and has since been inducted into the National Film Registry. (It is, in addition to everything, an anthropological portrait of Coney Island in the early ’50s.) But all three movies are sincere and true and powerfully expressive love letters to kids, to lower-middle-class Americans, and to New York and its outer boroughs, in a day of thriving street life. Influential or not, Engel was a hardcore independent who struggled to get his films made. He made a fourth feature, “I Need a Ride to California” (1968), which still has never been seen; otherwise, he and Orkin made their livings as photographers and occasional commercial directors, outcasts from a culture-scape they pioneered.

[Photos: Aïssa Maïga in “Bamako,” New Yorker, 2007; “Little Fugitive,” Joseph Burstyn, 1953]

“Bamako” (New Yorker Video) and “The Films of Morris Engel” (Kino Video) are now available on DVD.

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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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GIFs via Giphy

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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G.I. Jeez

Stomach Bugs and Prom Dates

E.Coli High is in your gut and on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Brothers-in-law Kevin Barker and Ben Miller have just made the mother of all Comedy Crib series, in the sense that their Comedy Crib series is a big deal and features a hot mom. Animated, funny, and full of horrible bacteria, the series juxtaposes timeless teen dilemmas and gut-busting GI infections to create a bite-sized narrative that’s both sketchy and captivating. The two sat down, possibly in the same house, to answer some questions for us about the series. Let’s dig in….


IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

BEN: Hi ummm uhh hi ok well its like umm (gets really nervous and blows it)…

KB: It’s like the Super Bowl meets the Oscars.

IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

BEN: Oh wow, she’s really cute isn’t she? I’d definitely blow that too.

KB: It’s a cartoon that is happening inside your stomach RIGHT NOW, that’s why you feel like you need to throw up.

IFC: What was the genesis of E.Coli High?

KB: I had the idea for years, and when Ben (my brother-in-law, who is a special needs teacher in Philly) began drawing hilarious comics, I recruited him to design characters, animate the series, and do some writing. I’m glad I did, because Ben rules!

BEN: Kevin told me about it in a park and I was like yeah that’s a pretty good idea, but I was just being nice. I thought it was dumb at the time.


IFC: What makes going to proms and dating moms such timeless and oddly-relatable subject matter?

BEN: Since the dawn of time everyone has had at least one friend with a hot mom. It is physically impossible to not at least make a comment about that hot mom.

KB: Who among us hasn’t dated their friend’s mom and levitated tables at a prom?

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

BEN: There’s a lot of content now. I don’t think anyone will even notice, but it’d be cool if they did.

KB: A show about talking food poisoning bacteria is basically the same as just watching the news these days TBH.

Watch E.Coli High below and discover more NYTVF selections from years past on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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