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DID YOU READ

On DVD: Larisa Shepitko, “A Throw of Dice”

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08112008_theascent.jpgBy Michael Atkinson

The farther we get from it, the clearer it seems that the Age of the Waves — the ’60s and ’70s, roughly demarcated — was film culture’s own belle époque, glowing with post-teen hoochie koo and experimental piss and vinegar and hard-won grit, wherever movie tickets were sold and film stock could be bought. From the Parisian vague team to Budapest to Buenos Aires to even Hollywood, wavism spread over the globe like a supercool, ultra-realist virus, and as the home video digitization of film history continues, it’s become obvious that what we thought we knew about the New Waves barely scratches the nitrate. (In just the last two years, the discs have included previously unavailable, and little-seen, world-beaters by Godard, Marker, Teshigahara, Borowzcyk, Varda, Masumura, Rosi, Melville, Syberberg, Klein, and probably scads I missed.) A bewitching case in point: Larisa Shepitko, who was something like the gorgeous Lombard to husband Elem Klimov’s Gable, together the premier couple of the Khrushchev-thawed Soviet New Wave.

Luminaries in a generation that included Tarkovsky, German, Konchalovsky, Muratova and Iosseliani, the couple were made even more glam by their thorny run-ins with the censorship bureau and, most of all, by Shepitko’s tragic 1979 death in a car wreck, amidst shooting her fifth feature at the age of 40. (That movie, “Farewell to Matyora,” was completed by Klimov in a thrashing fit of scarred heartsickness; he would make only one more film, 1985’s terminal “Come and See,” before declaring himself through with the medium that had brought the two restless spirits together.) Shepitko herself may have been the more powerful sensibility, given that Klimov’s hellacious final work is, in retrospect, rather Shepitkovian, and in some ways a re-imagining of her last completed film, “The Ascent” (1977). This in-your-face Eastern Front war saga begins with breathtaking confidence in the Byelorussian forests, among Communist partisans running in the deep snow from Nazis and scrounging desperately for food. (Shepitko was always looking to upend expectations — the elaborate gunfight with the Germans unfurls behind the opening credits.) Subsumed by icy whiteness, two soldiers on recon confront the wilderness, trade fire with distant patrols, and land, wounded and starving, in a farmhouse full of children, just in time for a Nazi patrol to show up. Thereafter, it’s the most ethically hysterical POW drama ever made, in a frontier dungeon that becomes a hothouse of betrayal. The partisans’ odyssey in the wilderness is picked over in interrogation (the local hilfswilliger doing the questioning and torturing is played by Tarkovsky fave Anatoli Solonitsyn), and measured against patriotism, collaborationism, partisanship, self-preservation and even spiritual sanctity.

Shepitko was a maestro at poetic visuals, as in the “Vampyr”-like close-up of the wounded partisan as the Nazi sled takes him through the countryside, the camera gently veering up to the sky and back again, or with the pas de deux between the other soldier and the farmhouse mother, in which he confronts her, blocking our view, and then she leans back into the frame, over and over again. “The Ascent” can be over-emphatic (especially in its acting), but there’s no escaping the final gallows scene, when a diminutive teenage we barely know helps out by placing the noose around her own neck.

08112008_theascent2.jpgAccompanying “The Ascent” in the new Criterion Eclipse set is a refreshing, heartfelt film we’d probably never otherwise get to see: Shepitko’s first feature, “Wings” (1966), nothing more in its rather spectacular way than a character portrait of a middle-aged woman (played by beloved character star Maya Bulgakova) caught in a menopausal lostness between her current, lonely and unadventurous life as a headmistress, and her previous life as aviatrix and war heroine. We find out her whole story only in the end, but meanwhile she’s an indelible character, and we’ve all met her before: proudly professional but unforgiving, silently bitter, capable of being overbearing, holding on to an ill-fitting masculinity, used to dominating the room and controlling her fate but finding out there’s less and less to control the older she gets. It’s the kind of subtle, realistic, unclichéd role that hungry actors used to get in the New Wave era, and Bulgakova maintains complete control over her regal presence and repressed expressiveness. (There is also an unfortunate resemblance to Donald Rumsfeld.) Still, Shepitko doesn’t rely completely on her star — a flashback passage sees only what the heroine sees, and the ending is, literally, pure, abstracted, unexpected flight. Made when Shepitko was only 28, it’s one of the great movies about women’s lives (that is, not about their place in the lives of men), and a rare exploration of female mid-life crisis — a subject more prescient in Soviet culture, where women were officially encouraged to meet men equally in the tasks of culture and society, than in ours.

08112008_athrowofdice.jpgA much more obscure archival fossil, Franz Osten’s “A Throw of Dice” (1929) is for all intents an Indian silent, set in ancient times and detailing the backstabbing struggle between two young, gambling-obsessed provincial kings and their combative desire for a young maiden. Derived from “The Mahabharata” and fluid in its use of landscape, the movie is actually a passionate work of Euro-exoticism, co-produced by a British company (British Instructional Films) and directed by a German ex-expressionist who later belonged to the Nazi party even as he lived in India and continued making Indian films, in Hindi. Made for everyone, it would seem, other than Indians, in the same year that a modern Indian flag was first flown over Lahore in defiance of British control, Osten’s film is a revealing and pulpy fancy, on one hand exploiting the escapist nature of cinema as ethnographic spectacle (showing audiences what they’d only read and dreamed about), and on the other indulging in imperialist assumptions. (Germans have always had a cartoony yen for the subcontinent, as we saw 30 years later in Fritz Lang’s “The Indian Tomb” diptych.) Ironically, when “A Throw of Dice” was restored and shown in London last year, it attracted crowds of desi emigres, just as seducible by fairy tale visions of the old country as the First Worlders had been three generations earlier.

[Photos: “The Ascent,” 1977, Criterion; “Wings,” 1966, Criterion; “A Throw of Dice,” 1929, Hollywood Pictures Corporation]

“Eclipse Series 11: Larisa Shepitko” (Criterion Collection) and “A Throw of Dice” (Kino International) and are now available on DVD.

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Hacked In

Funny or Die Is Taking Over

FOD TV comes to IFC every Saturday night.

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We’ve been fans of Funny or Die since we first met The Landlord. That enduring love makes it more than logical, then, that IFC is totally cool with FOD hijacking the airwaves every Saturday night. Yes, that’s happening.

The appropriately titled FOD TV looks like something pulled from public access television in the nineties. Like lo-fi broken-antenna reception and warped VHS tapes. Equal parts WTF and UHF.

Get ready for characters including The Shirtless Painter, Long-Haired Businessmen, and Pigeon Man. They’re aptly named, but for a better sense of what’s in store, here’s a taste of ASMR with Kelly Whispers:

Watch FOD TV every Saturday night during IFC’s regularly scheduled movies.

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Wicked Good

See More Evil

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is on Hulu.

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Okay, so you missed the entire first season of Stan Against Evil. There’s no shame in that, per se. But here’s the thing: Season 2 is just around the corner and you don’t want to lag behind. After all, Season 1 had some critical character development, not to mention countless plot twists, and a breathless finale cliffhanger that’s been begging for resolution since last fall. It also had this:

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The good news is that you can catch up right now on Hulu. Phew. But if you aren’t streaming yet, here’s a basic primer…

Willards Mill Is Evil

Stan spent his whole career as sheriff oblivious to the fact that his town has a nasty curse. Mostly because his recently-deceased wife was secretly killing demons and keeping Stan alive.

Demons Really Want To Kill Stan

The curse on Willards Mill stipulates that damned souls must hunt and kill each and every town sheriff, or “constable.” Oh, and these demons are shockingly creative.

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They Also Want To Kill Evie

Why? Because Evie’s a sheriff too, and the curse on Willard’s Mill doesn’t have a “one at a time” clause. Bummer, Evie.

Stan and Evie Must Work Together

Beating the curse will take two, baby, but that’s easier said than done because Stan doesn’t always seem to give a damn. Damn!

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Beware of Goats

It goes without saying for anyone who’s seen the show: If you know that ancient evil wants to kill you, be wary of anything that has cloven feet.

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Season 2 Is Lurking

Scary new things are slouching towards Willards Mill. An impending darkness descending on Stan, Evie and their cohort – eviler evil, more demony demons, and whatnot. And if Stan wants to survive, he’ll have to get even Stanlier.

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is now streaming right now on Hulu.

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SO EXCITED!!!

Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”

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IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?


Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!


Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.


Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 

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IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.