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On DVD: Derek Jarman, “Heavy Metal in Baghdad”

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06242008_caravaggio.jpgBy Michael Atkinson

To each fiery cinema individualist his own honorial DVD box set: here we have a reacquaintance — or initiation, for the babies of the Reagan/Thatcher era — with the unique howl of Derek Jarman, dead in 1994 from AIDS at the age of 52, a career attenuated by the very same fate that ended up giving it such amperage. You’d never know it, but there was a time when British filmmakers, emboldened by punk culture, fueled by hatred for Thatcherite conservatism, and funded by the BFI and the new Channel Four, made outrageous, experimental, high culture vs. low culture collision movies, doped on structuralism and gender-bending and period-picture mockery. Jarman was the moment’s jester prince; he never made a film you’d mistake for the work of another, or a film that doesn’t manifest on the screen as an unpredictably impish riff on serious matters, Art-making and Sex and Death. Not to mention, Jarman’s was a not-so-distant day when thanks to a small number of artists, but largely to Jarman, gay cinema had a chance to be regarded as pioneering art, and not just politics.

His arsenal of tools was various but distinctive: voguing tableaux, camp ballet, cabaret schtick, poeticized narration, post-Genet softcore iconicity, satiric anachronism, found footage, etc. (Add in a tireless fascination with angels, before Tony Kushner saw AIDS in an angelic light.) But Jarman’s style, always meta-, freely mutated from film to film. “Caravaggio” (1986) put him on the map, and in addition to fulfilling the threadbare promise of “Sebastiane” (1976), it divided and conquered its relationship with classical culture. Jarman simultaneously reproduced the Italian master’s imagery and lighting dynamics (this was done so adroitly it was in turn slavishly co-opted by Tarsem Singh in his famous video for R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion”), but also insisted on a caricatured, theatrical distance when it came to character and biography, framing art history not as a matter of a lofty past, but of a chaotic, exuberant, erection-hard now. His actors — Nigel Terry, Tilda Swinton, Dexter Fletcher, Sean Bean — gesticulate and fume and pose like street performers, and the artificiality of every aspect of the film repercusses around the contrived fauxness of all art. (Hardly anything is lent as much time and patience as the boredom and personality of Caravaggio’s models.) Applying a pregnant wit that has escaped both Peter Greenaway and Sally Potter, Jarman makes a pastiche out of the artist biopic, while at the same time revealing the process of making art as tangible and as just one factor in an artist’s stormy, sexual, emotional life.

Also in the glamly labeled “Glitterbox” set, along with a closet full of extras, essays, interviews and shorts, “Wittgenstein” (1993) pushes the palette of “Caravaggio” to extremes, characterizing the titular philosopher and the “art” of philosophy in general as mockable, cartoonish, vaudeville farce, complete with blackened stage background and dialogue with Bertrand Russell, John Maynard Keynes and a green-skinned dwarf Martian. “The Angelic Conversation” (1985) is a minor, impressionist collage film shot in Super-8 (a kind of warm-up for “The Last of England” three years later), but it’s “Blue” (1993), Jarman’s terminal work, that dares the most. Famously, it’s hardly a movie, but a complex narration and soundtrack playing behind (beside? atop?) an empty but bright blue screen. (It takes Godard and Gorin’s “Letter to Jane” one step further, from one image to none; it’s closest corollary might be a radio play.) Jarman’s text, about the decay of his body and eyesight in the grip of AIDS, and about his closing life already emptied of friends and lovers, is wry and intimate, and its relationship with what you’re seeing — and not seeing — is, to say the least, disquieting. “Blue” is intended to be seen in a darkened theater, where the relentless color amounts to an optical assault, and ends up playing tricks on your eyes. On home video, the experience is closer to seeing a Caravaggio in a textbook: edifying and necessary, but no replacement for being there.

06242008_heavymetalinbaghdad.jpgA refreshing radical spirit thumps out of “Heavy Metal in Baghdad” (2007), a crudely assembled video doc by the team behind Vice magazine, in which editor Suroosh Alvi and his crew recount firsthand the tale of Acrassicauda, Baghdad’s only heavy metal band. It’s a potent tale, because there really isn’t any heavy metal culture in Iraq, and the band itself (badly named, they admit, for the Latinate moniker of an Iraqi black scorpion) could barely find a place to practice, much less play for an audience. What’s more, members keep leaving the country as refugees, and, of course, there’s a war going on. The film is rich with telling details — the band wants to grow their hair ’90s-Metallica-long but cannot for fear of Muslim reprisals (their English, learned from American music and TV, often has a hick twang to it), and during one concert (performed in a catering hall dining room), the electricity shuts down, hilariously, in the middle of a song, inciting some griping about the American invasion before the power comes up again, resuming the thrash.

But in the end, the guys of Acrassicauda are just guys, making livings and starting families and eventually hightailing to Syria, where there isn’t any heavy metal, either, and “Heavy Metal in Baghdad” emerges as a rare, pro-am window on what’s actually going on in Iraq — it’s a “gangster’s paradise,” says Alvi, who effectively smuggled himself and his crew into Iraq without official sanction. Acrassicauda’s eloquent and stalwart bassist Firas, who ran an electronics store in downtown Baghdad for years before leaving, decimates the U.S. media’s portrait of the “sectarian fighting” — “Dude, I’m Sunni, my wife’s Shia, it’s just propaganda shit.” Jihad?, Alvi asks. “There’s no jihad. The people who are dying are all Muslim.”

[Photo: “Caravaggio,” Cinevista, 1986; “Heavy Metal in Baghdad,” Vice Films, 2007]

“Glitterbox: Derek Jarman x 4” (Zeitgeist Video) and “Heavy Metal in Baghdad” (Hart Sharp 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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