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On DVD: “Still Life,” Roberto Rossellini

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12022008_stilllife1.jpgBy Michael Atkinson

Every now and then, the natural world and the massive self-satisfying erections of man provide filmmakers with ready-made metaphors of massive torque and resonance. Werner Herzog is an expert at locating these visual/thematic El Dorados; Marker, Kiarostami and Ghobadi are current explorers of the paradigm, which necessitates an embrace of documentary reality. (Slavic artists are just beginning to make use out of the ex-Soviet landscape of unfinished and derelict public projects, from decommissioned nuclear power plants to entire cities left abandoned after infrastructure support dried up.) But Jia Zhang-ke is the filmmaker bringing new life and commitment to the idea of finding universalized meanings in real-life monstrosities. Jia’s “Platform” used its traveling theater troupe as a stand-in for the average citizen watching Chinese history pass chaotically before them, but it was with “The World” that Jia discovered the surreal significances that emanated organically from the titular, and largely depopulated, Epcot-ish amusement park, which presents mini-versions of global cities all clustered together within a single monorail track. It seems inevitable, then, that the Three Gorges Dam would attract Jia, as it slowly devastates an entire countryside, displaces millions of people, and leaves countless towns and cities, many thousands of years old, permanently underwater. It’s an unprecedented Moloch, ravaging a helpless society one buried life at a time.

The enormity of the project and its impact on Chinese geography has created all by itself a post-apocalyptic landscape only hinted at in sci-fi movies; massively abandoned urban centers, vanished cultures, armies of refugees living under bridges and on plots of land earmarked for submersion, human culture refuse sent lost and floating, mountains covered with old concrete skeletons straining upward and, often in Jia’s film, falling under day-worker demolition. It’s “Waterworld: The Prequel,” or one of Antonioni’s garbage dumps times a zillion — that is, an absurd crystallization of how developmental progress ruins lives across the globe. Jia has made not merely one film out of it but two, the fictional “Still Life” (2006) and the documentary “Dong,” which profiles the artist who invited Jia to visit the Fengjie and its surrounding area with him. (The DVD carries both.) Employing the entire catastrophic mountainside city as its set, “Still Life” is classic Jia, shot with observational long takes that take on an odd personality as they persist: laborers hammering away at a building develops the aural and graphic thrust of a rhythmic dance routine, as the same syncopated cacophony provides the soundtrack for a team of hazmat inspectors searching the ruins and its squatters for radioactivity. Jia’s story centers first on a middle-aged miner who comes to the region to find his long-lost wife and daughter and finds their address under the river, and then on a younger nurse looking for her wayward, dam-worker husband. They’re just our reconnoiterers; from the first pans across the passengers of a crowded worker ferry, it’s clear that Jia is interested in the big picture, the full scope of social damage done.

12022008_stilllife2.jpgIt’s a magnificent journey, made all the more mysterious by Jia’s seizures of fantasy (a UFO passes over the Yangtze at one point, resembling nothing so much as Kenneth Anger’s extraterrestrial moment in “Lucifer Rising”), the most moving of which is the ghostly appearance of three Peking opera jing figures huddled around a table, as the sign of a character’s off-screen death under a pile of rubble. As always using a non-professional cast and incorporating the left curves of happenstance into his setups, Jia is making the kind of cinema the early 21st century may well become noted for eons hence — a circumstantial cinema, of poeticized reality and observed humanity, free of bullshit and patronization and cliché.

I don’t remember hearing, amidst the plaintive cries for certain rare films to be finally available on DVD, the call going out for Roberto Rossellini’s “Era Notte a Roma” (1960), arguably the infrequently considered auteur’s least known film, but here it is, bundled into one of those trademarked Lionsgate boxes sold on the strength of a famous name but including that name’s most forgettable films. This is not the neorealist Rossellini, the wrestling-with-Ingrid Bergman Rossellini, nor the historical-dissection Rossellini. This is the Rossellini that dumped Bergman and came back to Italy after getting kicked out of India by Nehru (for another romantic scandal, to a married woman who’d become his third wife), and found himself paying penance with studio projects. “Era Notte a Roma” (released in the U.S. as “Escape by Night”) looks at first like Rossellini painting by numbers, with its escaped-POW scenario, fresh-faced nuns and studio-Rome sets.

12022008_eranotte.jpgBut of course, it evolves into a much more complicated matter, often detailed by the master’s capacious camera moves and multitasking scenes. The nuns that take in the fleeing Allied soldiers (Brit Leo Genn, wounded Yank Peter Baldwin and Russian Sergei Bondarchuk) in the post-Mussolini Nazi occupation aren’t nuns at all but black marketeers; their gorgeous leader (Giovanna Ralli) hides the trio in her attic until she realizes she can be summarily shot by the Germans if discovered. But by then, they can’t leave and “Era Notte a Roma” spirals out into a portrait of Italy itself. The film’s individuals bristle with generosity just when you pegged them as antagonists and vice versa (excepting one defrocked priest, who’s the epitome of the slavering collaborationist, and who gets his just desserts), but the Italian people as a whole take a ferocious beating, as amoral “banners in the wind,” fair-weather Fascists, Nazi enablers, Royalist vanity cases and greedy exploiters of each other’s needs. For the Rossellini-starved, there are plenty of set-pieces that you must rewind and see twice: the sensitively wrought Christmas dinner (which is when the conventional scenario sprouts serious tears), the dream-like interlude for the POWs in a Vatican seminary (one pan of a crowd of seminarians absorbing the news of Nazi reprisals is a stunnah), a covert surveillance ballet between churchgoers, priests and the defrocked informant in a church. The DVD version is nearly an hour longer than the truncated cut that saw American theaters in the ’60s, and boxed with Rossellini’s “Dov’è la Libertà…?” (1954), a biting social satire in which monster-eyed comic Totò plays a cuckolded fool who, after emerging from years in prison, cannot land a break or find a dollop of freedom in postwar Italy and connives to repatriate himself to the penitentiary.

[Photos: “Still Life,” New Yorker Films, 2006; “Era Notte a Roma,” Lux Film America, 1960]

“Still Life” (New Yorker Video) and Roberto Rossellini: Director’s Series (Lionsgate) are now available on DVD.



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.


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…


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.


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 ’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?”


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).



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.


And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.