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On DVD: “Please Vote for Me,” “Primo Levi’s Journey”

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08262008_pleasevoteforme.jpgBy Michael Atkinson

The new Chinese documentary “Please Vote for Me” (2007) has an irresistible arc: take a class of average middle class third-graders, give them the opportunity to vote for “class monitor;” tell the three candidates that they have to run campaigns, in order to net as many votes as they can; and let the political process run its course — that is, let it corrupt, humiliate and demoralize the children just as they were led to believe they were creating “democracy.” Weijun Chen’s film — which runs a mere 55 minutes — has an almost crystalline purity to its ironies. Three Wuhan children are “selected” by the teachers — two boys (one of whom is the incumbent monitor, and given to shoving his classmates around) and a girl, whose shy demeanor would seem to make her a dubious candidate. Right out of the gate, the campaigns become hilarious-yet-chilling mirror images of adult political activity: rather than appeal to common sense with reason and honesty, the seduction of power takes over, and the three candidates instantly resort to bullying, subterfuge, illicit coalitions and false accusations. Palm-pressing is relentless, and subordinate posts are promised in exchange for votes (including something called a “vice monitor”). A “talent show” is disrupted by heckling (afterwards the guilty candidate forces his cohorts to tearfully apologize to the victim, an act that he hopes will win him class-wide approval); debates immediately devolve into character assassinations. Behind the scenes, the candidates’ parents encourage them to fight dirty, and instruct them in appearance and substance-free speechifying. Every monstrous tendency of our political system, including, in the end, bribery, finds its way into this innocent little classroom, and there may not be a more potent new film to see this election year.

Except I’m not completely sure Chen’s harrowing film is completely nonfiction. We’re intended to swallow this bitter pill as a reflection on inevitable human nature, a kind of “Lord of the Flies” version of the caucus process (or of Gore Vidal’s “The Best Man”). But if you watch the film twice, you begin to suspect that the theme began as an agenda, and the children were at least guided, if not rehearsed, in their amoral actions. The scenario is too neatly divided into familiar character types (how and why did the teachers choose these students?), the kids’ underhanded choices come too quickly, the camera is too close to intimate conspiracies, and everyone, including the parents, seem to be happily playing the role assigned to them. Such suspicions certainly evoke every nefarious news tidbit we saw come out of China before and during the Olympics, and you could make the argument that these spoiled, neo-bourgeois children are simply reflecting the corrupt modern culture in which they’re growing up. But, however devilishly deceptive “Please Vote for Me” is or is not, it’s too easy to accept the film’s implicit proposition that democracy is impossible, and all political action becomes inevitably corrupted. I think it is when we let it, and I think the kids, had they been left to their own devices, would’ve run the more pure-hearted election of eight-year-olds, as many of us did in our American schools, without an abusive incident or instance of Rovian treachery.

08262008_primolevisjourney.jpgIn documentary terms, there’s no questioning the veracity of Davide Ferrario’s “Primo Levi’s Journey” (2006) because the filmmaker’s clear-eyed, exploratory stance is evident in every frame, and he leaves our conclusions — about history, evil and salvation — up to us. Ferrario began with an inspired idea: follow the exact route, camera in hand, that Primo Levi helplessly took upon being released from Auschwitz in 1945, from Poland through hunks of the Soviet Union and Romania and Hungary, finally arriving, 10 months later, in Italy. Ferrario didn’t seem to have any idea of what would come of the voyage, and the resulting movie is engaging amorphous and contemplative, folding in chunks of Levi’s memoir (read by Chris Cooper) and simply observing the state of Eastern Europe as it is now, and as it both echoes and departs from Levi’s experience of it during the last days of the war. The exquisite cadaver of Communism is everywhere — from the ruins of Chernobyl to the cluttered “cemetery for Communist statues,” where tourist shops hawk Lenin t-shirts and Che Guevara socks — and neo-Nazis share the uneasy terrain with shopkeepers, roadside melon sellers and Andrzej Wajda. Ferrario is just traveling, not forcing a perspective, and if his travelogue in the end feels inconclusive, that’s because the historical moment he captured is, in contrast to Levi’s, still figuring itself out.

[Photos: “Please Vote for Me,” PBS, 2007; “Primo Levi’s Journey,” Cinema Guild, 2006]

“Please Vote for Me” (First Run Features) and “Primo Levi’s Journey” (New Yorker Video) are now available on DVD.


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.


Wicked Good

See More Evil

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is on Hulu.

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GIFs via Giphy

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:


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.


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!


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.


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.



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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GIFs via Giphy

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.”


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. 


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.