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“La Chinoise,” “Le Gai Savoir,” “Silent Ozu: Three Family Comedies”

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05202008_lachinoise.jpgBy Michael Atkinson

“A Film in the Making” is how Jean-Luc Godard defined “La Chinoise” (1967) in the film itself, in one of its many aphoristic title card face-slaps, and it’s a simple parameter with which to view all Godard: as a process, not a product; as interrogation, not “entertainment”; and as a refutation of commercial culture and every easy market-driven conclusion it encourages. Of course, a filmmaker can hardly take a more politically radical position, and here we have Godard entering, at the spiraling end of the ’60s, into his most radicalized and notoriously forbidding period, when the youthful ardor for old Hollywood began to slip away and a maddened attention to the unsolvable political present gripped him like a fever. I know, I’ve had my randy libertine’s way with Godard and Godard-love a good deal in this space lately, as his massive oeuvre gets digitized for home video posterity, but a few things always remain to be said, particularly since we’re celebrating the anniversary of the May ’68 strikes in France that Godard virtually prophesied — or perhaps inspired. Or perhaps he just became the atomic telescope lens through which his society could view itself (in 1967, he also released “Two or Three Things I Know about Her” and “Week-End,” and two shorts), which would make him at the very least the Balzac or Hugo of the mid-20th century.

Godard was and is more than that, and “La Chinoise” — which uses an apartment full of Maoist students spouting dogma and half-assedly planning terrorist action as base materials to form a screaming, yowling, uneasy, tongue-in-cheek collage of capitalist and Communist chic — is a fabulously ambivalent film, embracing the hot contradictions in Paris culture at the time. It was decried as being pro-totalitarian and pro-terrorism, but presumably only by people who haven’t seen it. In reality, amid its cacophony, “La Chinoise” explores the idea that Marxism in its Soviet and Maoist forms wasn’t Marxism at all, but rather new “brands” to be hawked and consumed and argued over, like Coca-Cola and Marlboro. (In fact, nothing in Godard’s filmography gets as much artillery shot at it as the cultures of advertising and marketing, especially if it’s American.)

Jingled together with news photos, laughable faux-radical pop songs, play executions, sloganeering so incessant it begins to mock itself, arguments about piddling 1967 controversies surely forgotten by the next spring, vandalism (the apartment is not the kids’ to deface, it turns out), and Godard’s most explicit self-reflexivity (the camera operator and sound man are addressed, and filmed themselves), the movie’s characters are simultaneously satirical caricatures and painfully realistic, and Godard loves them (Jean-Pierre Léaud, Juliet Berto, Anne Wiazemsky) for their self-absorbed foolishness and youthful rage, even as they brandish weapons and rationalize sacrificing lives for the greater good.

“Le Gai Savoir” (1969) is Godard wrestling with the hungover aftermath of the short-lived utopia of ’68, bringing Léaud and Berto back into a TV-studio field of complete darkness to reignite their arguments from nearly two years earlier, this time focusing on language and how it distorts history, and therefore any genuine political involvement. The resulting text, and the scrambled referential pop imagery around it, scans like the movie equivalent to an obsessive blog, inconclusively choked with links and downloads and pedantry. (Godard sticks a pin in his Truffaut doll with a sequence involving an absurd free-association-test session with a young boy, à la “The 400 Blows.”) The pair of talkers point to the subtitles, talk back to the tumultuous soundtrack (Godard often cuts to black, and lets the bubbling stew of newsreel audio and political speechifying swallow the film), comment on the nature of unknowability in a world controlled by corporate commercialism — and so naturally, the discourse itself sometimes becomes nonsensical, incoherent, inadequate. This isn’t a movie at all (as we know it), but an uncompromising statement of frustrated fury sent like a missile at the summer ground zero of 1969, as if it was meant to be witnessed just once, like a public protest, and then merely remembered.

05202008_iwasbornbut.jpgHere’s an old-school tonic water to cut the grain alcohol of Godard’s postmodernism — the new Criterion Eclipse set of three silent comedies from the first phase of Yasujiro Ozu’s unassailable career, back when Japan was just acquiring talkie technology (the first sound film came in 1931, but Ozu, a lifelong heel-digger, waited a few more years), and when he, in his late 20s, was just finding the calm and observant syntax that made him happy for the next three decades. Naturally, none of them are simply comedic. “Tokyo Chorus” (1931) is a rather pathetic tribulation about a helplessly obstinate man failing as an insurance clerk and then scrounging for work; Ozu’s gentle-at-a-distance and sympathetic eye suggests an almost Flaubertian sensibility hovering over the action, and the social satire blooms because of it, as in the scene where several salarymen attempt to spy on each other’s bonus checks and end up pissing on them in the office urinal. “Passing Fancy” (1933) is more assured, set in and around a low-rent boarding house and evolving into a portrait of a dazzlingly dimwitted single dad day worker (Takeshi Sakamoto, an infectious presence who acted in 22 other Ozu films) and his bumbling relationship with his impetuous son, which builds to a lacerating and tragic pitch. In synopsis, all Ozu films sound mundane, and the early comedies even more so — but visually there’s something mysterious going on here, as Ozu exercises his personality on the camera, the cuts, the actors and the length of shots, and comes away with experiences that feel just as large as our real lives, and just as poignant.

The masterwork here is “I Was Born, But…” (1932), which again lands on the tatami mats of a struggling salaryman family, this time blessed with two young brothers, who battle their new neighborhood’s complex and contentious schoolboy society as they reflectively confront their father’s low position on the company totem pole. It’s a film about power as it’s prized and exchanged and used on every social level, but it’s also outrageously and hypnotically funny, with the most precise and eloquent camera placement outside of Keaton, and the best cast of implacable child actors ever assembled for a comedy. Remarkably, the visual palate Ozu used until his final film is here (low angle mid-shots, skies cut by eaves and telephone wire, etc.), as well as his battery of endlessly affecting gestures (i.e., the reaction shot that begins with an inexpressive pause, as if still registering the pleasure or hurt that came before). But here, the kids rule — no crisis is so intense that the action can’t pause for a crotch scratch or the urge to pick up an odd rock off the road.

[Photos: Godard’s “La Chinoise,” 1968; Ozu’s “I Was Born, But…”, 1932]

“La Chinoise” & “Le Gai Savoir” (Koch Lorber Films) and “Silent Ozu: Three Family Comedies” (Criterion Collection: Eclipse Series) 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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