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On DVD: “Variety,” “Come Drink with Me”

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06032008_variety.jpgBy Michael Atkinson

One of the pioneering wagon-train movies of the inaugural, New York-based independent film movement, predating Jarmusch’s “Stranger than Paradise,” Bette Gordon’s “Variety” (1983) comes off in retrospect as a veritable time capsule of post-punk downtown coolness. Just read the credits: screenwriter Kathy Acker (experimental novelist), star/photog Nan Goldin (famed shutterbug and model for the Ally Sheedy role in “High Art” 15 years later), soundtrack composer John Lurie (of Jarmusch movies and The Lounge Lizards), cinematographer Tom DiCillo (director of “Living in Oblivion,” etc.), producer Renee Shafransky (Spalding Gray’s longtime girlfriend), co-star Luiz Guzman, bit players Spalding Gray and Cookie Mueller (veteran of John Waters’s universe), production assistant Christine Vachon, and so on. Where is Cindy Sherman? The grungy vibe of “Variety” is itself a window on the past — only at the nascent launch of a DIY indie wave in the post-’60s period could you, or would you, set an interrogatory neofeminist psychodrama like this in a Times Square grindhouse devoted exclusively to cheap Euro-porn.

Gordon’s heroine is Christine (Sandy McLeod, who later went on to co-direct the 2003 Oscar-nominated short “Asylum”), an unassuming out-of-town girl who takes a job selling tickets at the joint out of desperation. Of course, she begins to brush up, sometimes literally, against the men that used to attend those theaters, becoming vulnerable to deranged masturbatory phone calls and even falling tentatively into the orbit of a wealthy middle-aged mystery man living a shadowy criminal existence at night, after spending his days watching porn. All the while, Christine tries to maintain her relationship with a reporter (Will Patton), but the more she talks about the movie house and its clients, the more he’s repulsed. Acker and Gordon’s simple masterstroke here is to make Christine hard to nail down — she’s good-natured but not sweet, attitude-free but not naïve, more curious than shockable, and not overtly political in any way. As “Variety” presses on, Christine nonjudgmentally explores the possibility of being a sexual object — we’re meant to read into her blankness, Rorschach-style.

“Variety” is smart but strangely, even beguilingly off-putting. It’s also profoundly depressing; the lack of proactive energy on Christine’s part is both the film’s overriding message and the source of its hopelessness. (The dialogue and acting — excepting Patton, who was already perfecting his think-one-crazy-thing-say-another persona — tends toward the arch and stiff, but this is back when “indie” meant “without professional training or infrastructure of any kind,” not “slumming stars taking a pay cut.”) But historically, it speaks volumes: this is one of the first American films with a true feminist docket and an unalloyed female perspective, in a Reagan-era New York of lingering Forty Deuce smut and all-night luncheon counters and cultural warfare in the streets between the old-guard desires of men and the newfound sexual self-definitions of women.

06032008_comedrinkwithme.jpgWe were, of course, behind the times — female fighting machines, for instance, are de rigueur today, but Hong Kong cinema was putting them front and center decades ago, as in the seminal, long-time-coming-to-video HK classic from legendary director King Hu, “Come Drink with Me” (1966). This is where “Kill Bill” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” and the latter movie’s far too many candy-colored imitators, came from. King’s epic is many times more arresting because the razzle dazzle and vaulting combatitude is arrived at not via digital effects but with old fashioned stuntwork, snap-crackle editing and simple filmmaking savvy.

Fans of the utterly psychotic wuxia pian fantasias Tsui Hark pushed to their limit in the ’80s and early ’90s know where we are: the amorphous period of medieval dynasties, where a bandit clan with big grudges has kidnapped an official, and Golden Swallow (Cheng Pei-pei; think of her as the Sandra Dee of spine-shattering kung fu) is sent to the rescue…whatever. The plots of Shaw Brothers movies from the ’60s onward were clotted, preposterous and often simply abridged for the sake of action. This is, in a sense, cinema in something close to its rawest form. In fact, the film’s first major set piece — when the harmless-seeming Golden Swallow arrives at a country inn in bandit country, and soon has to take on dozens of bad guys alone, using the tables and rafters and everything else — is visual explosiveness and high-flying breathlessness almost completely sans narrative. You can get whiplash trying to keep up with the flurry of perspectives and lightning-fast shifts of physical activity, but you won’t ever accuse the movie of playing to the cheap seats or telling you something twice.

[Photos: Bette Gordon’s “Variety,” Variety Motion Pictures, 1983; King Hu’s “Come Drink with Me,” Shaw Brothers, 1966]

“Variety” (Kino Video) and “Come Drink with Me” (Genius Products-Dragon Dynasty) are now available on DVD.

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Give Back

Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.

Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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GIFs via Giphy

Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.


Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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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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