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DID YOU READ

On DVD: “Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom,” “Television Under the Swastika”

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09022008_salo.jpgBy Michael Atkinson

The most fabulous and fascinating thing about Pier Paolo Pasolini’s notoriously terminal film “Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom” (1975) is its intractability, its single-minded evasion of traditional matters of visual pleasure, narrative, spectator experience and thematic thrust. Calling it a “masterpiece,” as transgression-obsessed critics have done, or an “abomination,” as many Italians, clergy and stuffed shirts have done over the years, or even a work that could be judged as simply good or bad, thumbs up or thumbs down, is not only unhelpful but ridiculously wrong. In many ways, the movie stands outside of cinema, and art culture — which is, of course, exactly where the Marquis de Sade himself has long stood. Sade didn’t write books — stories meant to be read progressively in time for purposes of empathy and enlightenment and entertainment — he was the first hell-and-high-water oppositionist, assembling massive ramparts of words and ideas intended not as art, but only as testaments to a tireless antiestablishmentarianism. He didn’t care about his readers, their interest or arousal or even disgust; Sade only cared about building his unreadable castle of protest. Pasolini had always been a much more socially responsible, and politically savvy, artist, but with “Salò” he followed Sade’s example and managed the unprecedented: he made a film the viewing of which is incidental, but the existence of which is fundamental.

Which is all to say that “Salò” is no goddamn fun, a film with only a metaphorical agenda to recommend it, a movie that seeks to be repetitive and depressing and inhumane for the sake of its metaphors. Is this all to its credit, or not, and why or why not? Every viewer will have his or her own answers, and a lifetime of cinema familiarity will not help. “Salò” is not, at any rate, the film-to-be-feared that its reputation maintains, a reputation that’s grown like cellar mold thanks to the film’s censorship history and erratic availability on video. Pasolini’s initial idea, apparently, was to film Sade’s book straight, as an 18th-century debauch which would helplessly excoriate the indulgences of old-time aristocracy. But then it occurred to him to transplant the action — four noblemen sequester themselves in a manor house with a herd of young boys and girls, and indulge their every sadistic whim — to Salò, the northern Italian town in which a post-arrest Mussolini was placed by the Nazis in 1943, and where the new, short-lived Fascist government was formed, abetted by the local landowners. The specificity of Salò’s history as a semi-forgotten cesspool of power abuse helps Pasolini’s critique, as long as you don’t worry much about history. Otherwise, the film lays out a timeless litany of humiliation and violence, perpetrated by the four implacable old gargoyles (including Paolo Bonacelli, recognizable as Rifki in “Midnight Express”) upon a platoon of teenagers (all between 15 and 18), which include bondage, rape, coprophagy, torture and mutilation. (Of course, none of the action is either hardcore or snuff-ishly “real.”) Pasolini, perhaps sensibly, films it all with deliberate gracelessness; there’s not a single titillating or exciting moment amid the stiff-legged mayhem. “Pleasure,” as these hedonists use the word, has left the premises.

09022008_salo2.jpgThere is no arguing with Pasolini’s sincerity — “Salò” is simply too dour, too dogged, too joyless to be mistaken as pulp or pornography, which is why, I suspect, it has disturbed so many. (True pulp, no matter how realistically executed, has a juvenile energy that gives its game away. Pasolini fastidiously avoided zest.) Helplessly, in such a sex-fueled movie, there are questions of judgment — why would Pasolini, a famously gay director and author, make a film in which the primal villainous act is anal sex? (In fact, as per Sade, the four aristocrats outlaw vaginal sex at the onset of festivities.) Sex itself is a troublesome tool, subject to changing norms — violating someone sexually is still taboo, but the various types of sex practice Pasolini uses here to illustrate evil and injustice don’t seem so satanic in the age of the Internet, when horses and water sports and nipple clips, ad infinitum, are as available to every ninth-grader as a SpongeBob Spitwad game. An extreme view might conclude that while Sade’s position was irrationally liberating, a true defiance, Pasolini’s is a conservatism (fear of sexual excess) wrapped in the enigma of liberal social criticism.

But that doesn’t seem quite right, since “Salò” is so effectively soul-depleting, however jaded we may be, and since Sade’s full-on anarchy is thankfully unfilmable anyway, and since Pasolini is correctly focused on the violence of the movie’s action, and hardly at all on Sade’s various consensual scenarios. Part of “Salò”‘s mystique has been Pasolini’s still-unsolved murder, mere weeks before his film’s premiere, which lent the work a scary kind of requiem cachet. If Pasolini had lived to make ten more films, how would “Salò” have been viewed, as a mortal keening, or just a bizarre extremist hiccup in a rangy and thoughtful career? The extraordinary Criterion package comes with a second disc of docs and interviews, and a book of seven original essays, each trying to vet the movie’s elusive nature.

09022008_televisionundertheswastika.jpgThe sunny reality of fascism, if you will, is visible in all of its banality in Michael Kloft’s “Television Under the Swastika” (1999), a German TV doc that makes use of the exhumed 35mm footage broadcast on Third Reich television beginning in 1935. The Nazis didn’t quite invent TV — otherwise, there’d have been no mention of it in Hollywood fluff like “International House” (1933) — but they were the first to get it up and running as an industry and as a social phenomenon, beginning with light entertainment broadcasts to “television parlors” frequented only by the Reich’s crème de la crème, and eventually using it to record and broadcast the 1936 Berlin Olympics. The near-instantaneous spontaneity of TV made it of little use to propagandists at first (Goebbels was horrified by his own unrehearsed image), and so the footage here provides a doubly-grease-painted portrait of Nazi life: cooking shows, housewife training films, rallies, dance acts and uncontrolled footage of Der Führer processions succumbing to large-crowd entropy. Propaganda can be beautiful, too — as with the wartime footage of five one-legged runners, all wounded vets, humping enthusiastically over a track & field obstacle course, in a vision not even Monty Python could’ve matched.

[Photos: “Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom,” Zebra, 1977; “Television Under the Swastika,” Spiegel TV, 1999]

“Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom” (Criterion Collection) and “Television Under the Swastika” (First Run Features) are now available on DVD.

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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…

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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G.I. Jeez

Stomach Bugs and Prom Dates

E.Coli High is in your gut and on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Brothers-in-law Kevin Barker and Ben Miller have just made the mother of all Comedy Crib series, in the sense that their Comedy Crib series is a big deal and features a hot mom. Animated, funny, and full of horrible bacteria, the series juxtaposes timeless teen dilemmas and gut-busting GI infections to create a bite-sized narrative that’s both sketchy and captivating. The two sat down, possibly in the same house, to answer some questions for us about the series. Let’s dig in….

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IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

BEN: Hi ummm uhh hi ok well its like umm (gets really nervous and blows it)…

KB: It’s like the Super Bowl meets the Oscars.

IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

BEN: Oh wow, she’s really cute isn’t she? I’d definitely blow that too.

KB: It’s a cartoon that is happening inside your stomach RIGHT NOW, that’s why you feel like you need to throw up.

IFC: What was the genesis of E.Coli High?

KB: I had the idea for years, and when Ben (my brother-in-law, who is a special needs teacher in Philly) began drawing hilarious comics, I recruited him to design characters, animate the series, and do some writing. I’m glad I did, because Ben rules!

BEN: Kevin told me about it in a park and I was like yeah that’s a pretty good idea, but I was just being nice. I thought it was dumb at the time.

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IFC: What makes going to proms and dating moms such timeless and oddly-relatable subject matter?

BEN: Since the dawn of time everyone has had at least one friend with a hot mom. It is physically impossible to not at least make a comment about that hot mom.

KB: Who among us hasn’t dated their friend’s mom and levitated tables at a prom?

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

BEN: There’s a lot of content now. I don’t think anyone will even notice, but it’d be cool if they did.

KB: A show about talking food poisoning bacteria is basically the same as just watching the news these days TBH.

Watch E.Coli High below and discover more NYTVF selections from years past on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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