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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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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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