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On DVD: “Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis,” “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown”

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09082008_jacksmithatlantis.jpgBy Michael Atkinson

“Our starved instincts have been clamoring for centuries for more and more substitutes,” Henry Miller once wrote, “and as a substitute for living the cinema is ideal.” There may not be a single filmmaker that Miller’s cynical observation describes better, sans the cynicism, than Jack Smith, famed New York avant-gardist, gay downtown gadfly, rebel performer and temperamental film artist. All Smith ever wanted was to create a new world for himself, separate from the mundane, ugly and unjust world he saw around him, and if we know his name today, it’s because he largely succeeded. Mary Jordan’s documentary “Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis” (2007) is, for a new generation with heretofore unprecedented access (on DVD) to the entire legacy of experimental film, a smashing introduction into the world of mid-century, iconic D.I.Y. rooftop moviemaking, where penniless idiosyncrats could become world famous with a borrowed camera, some thrift-store accoutrements and the will to transgress.

Almost all writing about avant-garde film (or labeling of it, for that matter) is inadequate to its subject — fascinating but hopeless — and so documentary portraits like Jordan’s, employing wide swaths of the films themselves, are an ideal indoctrination; the often badly needed context is present, but the experience of the footage can speak for itself. Smith is the perfect candidate (bio-docs of Cornell, Deren and Markopoulos could come next), because his life has the tortured arc of a rock star: born in Middle America left-of-center and gay and crazed about B-movie queen Maria Montez, Smith emigrated to Greenwich Village after the war and found freedom to be himself, lived on next to no income, and made photographs and eventually films that spoke only to his inner mythology. The film that made him a celebrity, “Flaming Creatures” (1963), is typical “new American cinema” — an arch, irreverent, overexposed costumed ritual that exudes an undeniable, totemic vibe — and got censored and talked about enough to instantly install Smith at the head table of the era’s leading counter-culture figures. But Smith, sort of a functioning Dadaist at heart, couldn’t (or wouldn’t, being a fierce anti-capitalist) ever finish another film; his epic, “Normal Love,” was largely shot in 1963 and shown but never completed, according to Smith, who’d tinker with it for years. By the 1980s, Smith was an emaciated Village godhead, raging at the world, but producing live theater in his outrageously decorated apartment sometimes only for himself. Deciding AIDS was “a fabulous way to die,” Smith frequented the porn theaters, got infected and died in 1989.

Jordan’s film scrambles interviews and footage of Smith with his own films and recordings of him ranting in his painfully unique, suppressing-a-burp squeak, and makes the case for his kind of cinema beautifully — her love letter to “Normal Love,” in a montage scored with Rimsky-Korsakov, should make any awake cinephile pine for the film in its entirety. (Pine away, Smith’s films are all unavailable.) Jordan also makes Smith matter historically, reminding everyone how much Warhol stole from Smith, and how much Smith’s lurid, dime-store pageants influenced Fellini (she visually compares “Normal Love” and Fellini’s “Satyricon”), and nearly everything else. (“Half the rock videos you see look like a Jack Smith,” someone scoffs.) Smith’s is a primal cinema, divorced from narrative and character, but obsessed to an almost devotional degree with image, gesture, spontaneity, an almost Art Nouveau sense of compositional beauty, and the forthright expression of Smith’s pansexual, pagan, self-invented view of the world he wanted to live in. At the same time, the films are worshipful parodies of B-movieness. Smith’s work is hard to describe; you have to be there, and at the very least, Jordan’s lovely film could prep the willing for the day a Smith DVD box hits the streets.

09082008_greatpumpkin.jpgExperimental in its own way, though never underground, and so thoroughly evocative of its own private universe that once it’s implanted in our cortices it stands little chance of being evicted, “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” (1966) is one of the great masterpieces of American television, a waist-high autumnal idyll like no other, and as evocative of a preteen universe — a place where Halloween has epochal significances, if it’s always difficult to figure out exactly what they are — as any film made in English. Of course, it’s in our genes, relentlessly rerun in October for 30 years now, but look at it again: it’s a lyric, a Frostian ode to the omens of fall, the fire of the imaginative furnace, the awkward tribal brutalities of children, the yearning for a cosmic justice in a landscape where social tension leaves unhealable scars. What is the legend of the Great Pumpkin if not an answer to the preadolescent rule of might is right? Linus van Pelt’s poignant compulsion to follow his private star (predicated on the “sincerity” of a pumpkin patch) and invent his own mythic resonance is recognizably Jack Smithian, and his fate echoes Smith’s. Still, the cartoon’s greatest passage, and arguably the most mysterious and magical sequence ever animated for TV, is Snoopy’s vivid journey through the night battlefields and barbed-wire trenches of WWI, making concrete for us finally what we knew as children: play is realer than real, and can set us free.

[Photos: “Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis,” Sundance, 2007; “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown,” Paramount, 1966]

“Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis” (Arts Alliance America) and “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” (Warner Home 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.