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Aki Kaurismäki’s Proletariat Trilogy, “Shadow”

Aki Kaurismäki’s Proletariat Trilogy, “Shadow” (photo)

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When we first met Aki Kaurismäki, in 1989 when “Ariel” had its run as probably the first Finnish film to play theatrically in America since Jörn Donner’s “Portraits of Women” (1970), we more or less fell in love. Lost in the hollow skull of the Reagan-Bush ’80s, suffering the ascension of Spielberg and Ivan Reitman and Shane Black, wondering what remote atoll international art cinema had escaped to, and more or less completely ignorant of Finnish life, we had every reason to embrace this last of the red hot deadpan existentialists, whose films somehow altered the cellular structure of working class depression and turned it into cool comedy. His distinctively bittersweet dyspepsia established Kaurismäki, in a thick run of films that included “Leningrad Cowboys Go America” (1989), “The Match Factory Girl” (1990) and “La Vie de Bohème” (1992), as a new arthouse brand name, a kind of vodka-weary Bresson-meets-Tati.

Kaurismäki is still busy — both “The Man Without a Past” (2002) and “Lights in the Dusk” (2006) made it onto U.S. screens — but it’s his bursting work of the late ’80s and early ’90s that will be remembered, and not merely for their faded hipness. As expert in dry comic timing as Keaton, Kaurismäki is a cunning intelligence interrogating the empathic rhythms of moviewatching by way of Job tragedy and comatose vaudeville. Still, your experience is never preordained: watching a Kaurismäki movie, you may guffaw when no one else on Earth would, and vice-versa. His earliest features are hilarious, but Kaurismäki found his distinctive laugh-or-cry balance and socialist footing with “Shadows in Paradise” (1986), a noir-romance that is neither very noirish nor romantic, but rather establishes its own vocabulary of droll absurdity, of backbeat silences and inexpressive mopeyness, as instant Kaurismäki axioms Matti Pellonpää and Kati Outinen, playing a dimwit garbageman and a kohl-eyed supermarket clerk, find each other in the dreary low-rent corners of Helsinki and, almost off-handedly, go on the run from the law, trying to make a life together. “Trying” may be too strong a word — in Kaurismäki’s films, part of the poignant, cosmic comedy derives from the sense that the characters’ options are already spent, their life energy is all but used up, and that they go through the motions of life out of habit and a residue of preposterous hope. It’s a minor-key masterpiece, but every Kaurismäki film feels like a blessing, as he balances a rueful gallows humor with genuine sympathy for his near-catatonic people, and creates a visual sensibility so rigorous and unpatronizing that it musters metaphoric notions about the meaning of human life and about socioeconomic injustice without lifting a finger. “Ariel” (1988) plays out like a miniaturized Hugo novel, as a grizzled out-of-work miner (Turo Pajala, looking like a Finnish Colin Farrell) drives south through Finland in a dead man’s Cadillac, meets a lonely single mom (who, in contrast, works around the clock in a vast variety of jobs), and succumbs to a desperate life of crime. Ironically, given the movie’s success internationally, it seems like the milder entry in Kaurismäki’s so-called “proletariat trilogy,” perhaps because it encompasses familiar noir elements (including a prison break and a bank robbery, all handled with the flatfooted simplicity Kaurismäki has made his own).

09232008_amtchgirl.jpgThen there’s “The Match Factory Girl,” a wintry, austere, brutally funny lower-depths horror show focused on Outinen’s Iris, a plug-ugly, dour, spiritually wasted young woman stuck in a Helsinki factory job and living with her abusive parents. She doesn’t even speak for nearly 30 minutes into the movie, as there is no reason for her to; her family communicates better with the TV, which is busy broadcasting images of political rebellion from around the world, primarily from Tiananmen Square. With just such encouragement, she impetuously — though expressionlessly — buys a red dress, and her sickly routine is altered forever, attracting a sunken-eyed louse of a man who knocks her up. As he tries to cut her loose, Iris turns an invisible corner, and begins to exact revenge on the world. Call it Finnish gothic (although there’s nothing pulpy or expressionist about the movie) if you must, but the film’s essentially a despondent, dead-stare comedy about misery obtained and dealt back, as if a jukebox-era Buster Keaton had in fact been exiled to the outskirts of the civilized world to make movies (instead of the sunlit pastures of California) and grew monstrously bitter as a result. Kaurismäki deliberately engages Bresson’s “Mouchette” (“I decided to make a film,” he’s been quoted as saying, “that will make Robert Bresson seem like a director of epic action pictures.”), just as he finally subverts it (Iris never contemplates suicide) and uses the idea of distanced purity for the sake of yuks. Outinen’s hangdog visage transforms one horrible humiliation after another into ghastly sight gags, while the dizzy seesawing between comedy and crushing tragedy comes to seem a formal joke onto itself, beat perhaps only by the long, stone-still sequence set to the Renegades’ “My Baby Threw Up in My New Cadillac.” You can’t find anything wrong with “The Match Factory Girl” — in its squalid little corner of the universe, it’s a perfect and beautiful creature.

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New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…

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IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. 

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number! 

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time. 

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by. 

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IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo. 

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim. 

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t? 

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?” 

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud. 

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

The-Craft

The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”

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Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).

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Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.

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And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.

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Get Physical

DVDs are the new Vinyl

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available On Disc.

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In this crazy digital age, sometimes all we really want is to reach out and touch something. Maybe that’s why so many of us are still gung-ho about owning stuff on DVD. It’s tangible. It’s real. It’s tech from a bygone era that still feels relevant, yet also kitschy and retro. It’s basically vinyl for people born after 1990.

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Inevitably we all have that friend whose love of the disc is so absolutely repellent that he makes the technology less appealing. “The resolution, man. The colors. You can’t get latitude like that on a download.” Go to hell, Tim.

Yes, Tim sucks, and you don’t want to be like Tim, but maybe he’s onto something and DVD is still the future. Here are some benefits that go beyond touch.

It’s Decor and Decorum

With DVDs and a handsome bookshelf you can show off your great taste in film and television without showing off your search history. Good for first dates, dinner parties, family reunions, etc.

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Forget Public Wifi

Warm up that optical drive. No more awkwardly streaming episodes on shady free wifi!

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Inter-not

Internet service goes down. It happens all the time. It could happen right now. Then what? Without a DVD on hand you’ll be forced to make eye contact with your friends and family. Or worse – conversation.

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Self Defense

You can’t throw a download like a ninja star. Think about it.

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If you’d like to experience the benefits DVD ownership yourself, Portlandia Season 7 is now available on DVD and Blue-Ray.