“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.


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.


Get Physical

DVDs are the new Vinyl

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available On Disc.

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GIFs via Giffy

In this crazy digital age, sometimes all we really want is to reach out and touch something. Maybe that’s why so many of us are still gung-ho about owning stuff on DVD. It’s tangible. It’s real. It’s tech from a bygone era that still feels relevant, yet also kitschy and retro. It’s basically vinyl for people born after 1990.


Inevitably we all have that friend whose love of the disc is so absolutely repellent that he makes the technology less appealing. “The resolution, man. The colors. You can’t get latitude like that on a download.” Go to hell, Tim.

Yes, Tim sucks, and you don’t want to be like Tim, but maybe he’s onto something and DVD is still the future. Here are some benefits that go beyond touch.

It’s Decor and Decorum

With DVDs and a handsome bookshelf you can show off your great taste in film and television without showing off your search history. Good for first dates, dinner parties, family reunions, etc.


Forget Public Wifi

Warm up that optical drive. No more awkwardly streaming episodes on shady free wifi!



Internet service goes down. It happens all the time. It could happen right now. Then what? Without a DVD on hand you’ll be forced to make eye contact with your friends and family. Or worse – conversation.


Self Defense

You can’t throw a download like a ninja star. Think about it.


If you’d like to experience the benefits DVD ownership yourself, Portlandia Season 7 is now available on DVD and Blue-Ray.