DID YOU READ

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.

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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.