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Two from Jean-Pierre Melville, “The Last Laugh”

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Supercool and desperate and retroactively magnificent though it is, American film noir rarely had — film for film — very much deliberate philosophical torque; they were too busy being fast-moving, medium-to-low-budget programmers. In the American psyche, westerns always held more self-consciously ontological cachet: here were portraits of the American soul reckoning with evil, with fate and with itself. Noir came by its resonance more circumstantially, collectively and after the fact, although the catalogue of ’45-’60 noirs still constitutes the most culturally expressive chunk of Hollywood films ever made. It took the French to recognize noir for what it was, and, in the personage of pulp archangel Jean-Pierre Melville, to transform the noir paradigm into a full-on dark night of existentialist tribulation. The two Melvilles to get newly, ravishingly Criterionized, “Le Doulos” (1962) and “Le Deuxième Souffle” (1966), are studies in the famous genre’s evolution from haphazard Zeitgeist to the expressionistic poetry of modern alienation. The hapless gangsters in Melville’s films don’t know much except two things: their sense of honor is the only thing they can take with them to the grave, and that date with the grave is coming all too soon.

Melville was a one-man filmmaking combine who famously lived in an apartment above his own studio; both Bertrand Tavernier and Volker Schlöndorff schooled here, and the Cahiers du cinéma crowd loved him. While not his most romantic or ambitious movie, “Le Doulos” might be his best; there’s no underestimating the thrill of having seeing it in 1962 and sensing that the overcast, uncaring, starkly capitalist world you live in was being captured on film for the first time. (For Americans, the battle between male friendship and criminal necessity in a society being stripped of masculine options was best expressed in 19th-century frontier towns; in France, it was in the chaos of contemporary cities and their outskirts.) It begins simply enough, in drizzly gray black and white that begs for a trenchcoat: Faugel (Serge Reggiani) is a crook released from prison and engaged quickly in a simple heist. But then it seems as if his friend Silien (Jean-Paul Belmondo) ratted on him, but then it seems he didn’t, and as it reveals its narrative selectively, Melville’s film becomes an epistemological inquisition: how much do we think we know about anyone, and how much of that is true? Most of the time, we, like Faugel, do not know who to trust. (To paraphrase William Hurt from “The Big Chill,” men in hats are always doing something terrible.) With its doublings and mirror episodes and postponed judgments, “Le Doulos” is a famous Tarantino correlative (you can imagine that as a clerk at Video Archives in Manhattan Beach, Tarantino took home “Le Doulos,” “City on Fire” and “Diner” one night, and “Reservoir Dogs” was born). It’s still one of the most innovatively conceived crime movies ever made, and one that feels intimate with the fringe mob life in unique and convincing ways.

10142008_ledeuxiemesouffle.jpg“Le Deuxième Souffle” begins more abstractly — with an absorbing prison break sequence that’s visualized completely in terms of angular rooftop vertigo and executed completely in silence. Again, the narrative appears easy to grasp at the outset, but Melville is never less than committed to the idea that while we watch one thing, a myriad of significant actions are unfolding off-screen. Always. Of the escapees, one survives, Gu (Lino Ventura), an aging, burly bull of a stock-in-trade murderer, and his efforts at staying hidden and then participating in one more heist, so he can flee the country, dominate the story. You expect the heist to go awry, but it doesn’t — life does. Meanwhile, Melville’s gray, realistic images of lost men in fedoras facing the inevitable uselessness of their lives on Earth come off as iconic as traditional Christian sculpture, and his fascinating habit of revisiting places and instances from successive points of view makes him a filmmaker-philosophe, the undisputed Antonioni of the genre film.

10142008_thelastlaugh.jpgNo one has recently thought to reevaluate the thematic gist of F.W. Murnau’s film school staple “The Last Laugh” (1924), a lavishly realized silent classic that’s as famous for its Murnovian “subjective camera” mise-en-scene (he reused many of the tropes a few years later in Hollywood, in “Sunrise”) as it is derided for its simplistic morality-tale story, in which Emil Jannings’ self-important luxury hotel doorman becomes demoted, due to his age, down the company ladder to lowly washroom attendant. Today, the intertitle-free film no longer scans merely as an indictment of hubris and status-mongering — after all, how far does the fat old fool actually fall? (He lives, with a deluded sense of importance, in a ghetto.) The emphasis, visually realized and otherwise, focuses on the character’s point of view, but if you step back, “The Last Man” (as it was originally titled) plays like a parable on service industry exploitation, a downsizing nightmare, and thus it is not far from Kafka, or from modern American society. The tacked-on happy ending insisted upon by the producer, which declares itself to be improbable, has never pleased anyone. The film’s a landmark no matter how you read the thrust (Murnau set a high bar for the moving camera that was only equaled in the ’30s by Lang and finally surpassed by “Citizen Kane”), but with time its proletariat message has only gained force. The definitive Kino edition comes with both the restored German version and the unrestored export edit, a making-of doc and a new score.

[Photos: “Le Deuxième Souffle,” 1966; “The Last Laugh,” 1924]

“Le Doulos” (Criterion Collection), “Le Deuxième Souffle” (Criterion Collection), and “The Last Laugh” (Kino Video) are now available on DVD.

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Give Back

Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.

Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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GIFs via Giphy

Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.


Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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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…


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.


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).


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.


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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