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On DVD: Lech Majewski, “Brand Upon the Brain!”

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08192008_gospelaccordingtoharry.jpgBy Michael Atkinson

Who is Lech Majewski? Among other things, he’s something of a newfound challenge for the critic and budding cinephile. A tireless and passionate Euro artiste of a kind that gets often relegated to the “underground” or “experimental” categories in this country, but who also employs old-fashioned surrealism and sometimes nets name actors like Viggo Mortensen (pre-“LOTR”), Majewski does everything on his films but make the coffee, and thus they are his works, uncorrupted by business and audience. Which may be the trouble — based upon the set of features released by Kino, Majewski may be one of the most pretentious filmmakers alive and working. Or is he a visionary? What separates the two quantities, except taste and argument? When does Majewski’s brand of rampaging, overtly symbolic experimentalism dip below the line of transformative art and into nonsense? “Gospel According to Harry” (1994) attacks modern society’s materialistic failures at happiness by placing Mortensen and wife Jennifer Rubin and a houseful of appliances in the barren dunes of the Mojave Desert, where a tragic domestic scenario plays out complete with Biblical allusions (a Catholic Pole, Majewski can rarely resist crucifixions) and digs at consumerism. “The Roe’s Room” (1997) is a brooding, original modern opera-oratorio (libretto by Majewski, of course), sung over an ostensibly autobiographical dream-dynamic, in which the drab apartment inhabited by a young artist living with his middle class parents is transformed by the son’s creative spirit into a bustling, seasonally active natural landscape. (Not unlike “Where the Wild Things Are,” when you think about it, or David Lynch’s “The Grandmother.”) Too often, memories of music videos and Monty Python skits would impede on the viewing moment. “Glass Lips” (2007), assembled from a few dozen installment-art video pieces originally entitled “Blood of a Poet,” limns without a word of dialogue the memories and hallucinations of a psychotic mental patient, a hopscotching journey that includes a Cronenbergian birth nightmare, bleeding walls (another LM motif), Oedipal lust and a woman in an evening gown boxing a heavy bag in an empty opera house…

I was far from convinced until “The Garden of Earthly Delights” (2004), which is not only a deeply felt and artfully conceived tragedy, but a film that adopts a faux-home-movie strategy that effectively eliminates the possibility of Majewski’s more indulgent tendencies. His other films are pictorially beautiful, but thin and narcissistic; “Garden” looks like a handheld camcorder document, and it sings. More than simply possessing a straight narrative, which is admittedly a relief, the film has something else the other ornate concoctions don’t: character. As seen through the protagonist’s ubiquitous camera, we first meet Claudine (Claudine Spiteri), a British art lecturer currently focused on Bosch and the eponymous triptych. She’s adorably three-dimensional, earnest and coy and sexy and generous in turn, and we fall in love with her as Chris (Chris Nightingale), the filmmaker, does. Jump ahead (and back and forth — the film proceeds like a rifling through an unorganized box of home videos) to Venice, where the two lovers find an apartment, work on a lecture about Bosch and engage in all manner of exploratory and often ridiculous lovers’ games (many derived from interpretive questions arising from the Bosch painting, which Claudine is always trying to figure out), until we slowly realize that genuine engine of the scenario: Claudine has throat cancer, and is dying.

08192008_gardenofearthlydelights.jpgI couldn’t say when was the last time I saw frank, fun-loving sexiness so convincingly folded into a character’s troubled personality; suggesting a more voluptuous Kristin Scott Thomas with a touch of a working-class accent, Spiteri is unforgettable. But the larger thrill of “The Garden of Earthly Delights” comes from the seamless dovetailing of high art and human transience — Claudine is always searching for meaningful answers in the radicalism of Bosch, just as Chris believes without saying so that his ceaseless recording of her will somehow attenuate her impending doom. “Isn’t it strange,” she wonders aloud late in the game, “that the picture is more permanent than the body?” Here, Majewski’s metaphors are concise and arresting, including Chris’ science fair attempt to satisfy Claudine’s puzzlement over the trivial amount of chemicals that make up the human body. The film may be Majewski at his most orthodox, but it’s also the least like a well-heeled student film, and is, in fact, a world-class love story.

Guy Maddin needs no introduction, and no qualifications: crazed Winnipego, paleokino alchemist, obsessive fabulist, no-budget indie magus, and, recently, nerve-frayed quasi-meta-autobiographer, in the suite of features that began with “Cowards Bend the Knee” (2003) and landed, sweetly, with “My Winnipeg” (2007). Let’s be frank about our position: Maddin is a messiah in a benighted movie age when visual style is judged by its achievement as consumerist distraction, and film history is considered nothing more than a forgotten cellar vault of musty effluvia. Every time he steps into the breach it feels, yet again, as if he’s reinventing the medium from the soil up, or from the foggy-skulled inside out. The middleman in the aforementioned trilogy, “Brand Upon the Brain!” (2006), now paraded down the aisle in a Criterion tuxedo, is prototypically essential Maddin, but something of a special case in its original conception: famously, it was intended as a live performance, with live music, Foley effects and a different narrator in each venue (Crispin Glover, Eli Wallach, Lou Reed and Isabella Rossellini were among the chosen). On DVD, Rossellini is the off-screen anchoring voice, backgrounding the adventures of “Guy Maddin” (played by several actors at different ages) as he returns to his childhood home — a lighthouse-cum-orphanage — and flashbacks to a traumatized, and extremely unlikely, youth, scrambled with Boys’ Own youth capers, an ogre-ish Mom and his father’s mad-scientist lab experiments.

08192008_branduponthebrain.jpgRoughly the first decade of Maddin’s career was dominated by a bizarro fidelity to antique film styles, inhabited by deadpan anti-acting and physically stressed to resemble a run-down 16mm TV print that somebody, somewhere, watched the shit out of. (Half the fun is the differential between how little Maddin has to work with, and how much he makes of it.) But at least since 2000’s “The Heart of the World,” which mutated from silent Soviet montage into an exultant post-mod movie-movie heart attack, Maddin seems to have been less interested in ironically replicating forgotten modes, and more in adapting them into what’s come to be a seamless hyperedited-but-old-style film world that exists on its own plane. The trilogy that climaxes with “My Winnipeg” doesn’t quite look or feel like any other cinema, and yet the films are as simple as a folktale, and as mysterious as an ancestor’s lie that cannot be disproven. The Criterion package comes with alternative narrations (of course, including Laurie Anderson and John Ashbery), two new Maddin shorts and an essay by critic Dennis Lim.

[Photos: Viggo Mortensen in “Gospel According to Harry,” Kino, 1994; Claudine Spiteri in “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” Kino, 2004; “Brand Upon the Brain!” Vitagraph Pictures, 2007]

“The Garden of Earthly Delights” (Kino International) and “Brand Upon the Brain!” (Criterion Collection) 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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