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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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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.