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.


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.