The Joy of American Avant-Garde

The Joy of American Avant-Garde (photo)

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Movieheads who like to consider themselves as alternative still often shrink from the demands and new thinking required of even the oldest and most conventional “avant-garde” film, a situation that the ubiquity of the DVD format hasn’t done very much to mitigate. So be it: the hardy envelope-pushers in the crowd have enjoyed unforeseen access to the quasi-genre’s history by now (the DVD menu format is a peerless mode of presentation for motley underground shorts, to be surpassed only, I suppose, once quality streaming-tube clips can be curated and thrown onto our mega TVs instead of our laptops). If you count Image’s “Unseen Cinema” mega omnibus and Facets’ “The Lawrence Jordan Album” among your prized media possessions as I do, then the good work of the National Film Preservation Foundation will already be on your radar: their robust, elaborately documented orphan-film collections (newsreels, shorts, home movies, etc.) have often featured avant-gardisms, notably Joseph Cornell’s otherwise tough-to-see landmark “Rose Hobart” (1936), Ed Emshwiller’s “George Dumpson’s Place” (1965) and so on.

The fourth edition of “Treasures” focuses exclusively on what’s been called “new American cinema,” but with a twist. Although many of the arena’s big guns are represented (Warhol, Jordan, Breer, Kuchar, Harry Smith, etc.), it’s not with their best-known films, but with semi-forgotten entries, representative of their artists’ aesthetic but hardly reputation-makers. The impulse may well have been supported by both the inclination to rescue the more desperately orphaned films, and also to, even within the confines of “avant-garde,” vary the menu as widely as possible.

Whatever: Ken Jacobs’ “Little Stabs at Happiness” (1959-63) certainly stands as a landmark (inspiring the chintz-dream mythmaking of Jack Smith and Andy Warhol, as much of a cultural ignition switch as Cassavetes’ “Shadows”). Harry Smith’s “Film No. 3: Interwoven” (1947-49) is one of the hand-painted abstractions of his that forged the way for Stan Brakhage (represented here by the meditative montage “The Riddle of Lumen,” from 1972) and many others. The forked paths of the underground — non-figurative films that strive for painting-ness and/or poetry-ness, and the movie-movie mythopoeia that’s bewitched everyone from Kenneth Anger to the Kuchars to Guy Maddin — each have their pioneers represented. (Of the latter, it’s difficult not to swoon over Ron Rice’s diaphanous “Chumlum,” made in 1964, a year after “Flaming Creatures” and right before Rice died of pneumonia at 29.)

04072009_framptonnostalgia.jpgBut the more conceptual films leap out at you — like Hollis Frampton’s stirring masterpiece “(nostalgia)” (1971), in which he narrates (actually spoken by fellow experimenter Michael Snow) over a series of art-scene photographs he’s taken over the years, as each in turn is immolated on an electric grill. But the emotionally reserved voice-over somewhere leaps ahead, describing photos we haven’t seen yet, as the bereft images of a past moment we’re looking at gets slowly, graphically reduced to ashes.

As structurally mysterious, Standish Lawder’s “Necrology” (1969-70) is a one-shot spectral happening, a black and white litany of average people, face-forward, passing upward through the frame, and it takes us awhile to realize that they’re going down an escalator and the film is running in reverse. (Individuals eye the camera, often scornfully, and then look away, enigmatically disinterested.) Then Lawder’s hilarious ending credits invent personas and names for each and every anonymous person filmed.

Chick Strand’s “Fake Fruit Factory” (1986) is a beatific documentary, shot in surreal close-ups, of a Mexican factory where underpaid but boisterous women rotely paint realistic papier-mâché bananas and apples. But perhaps I love the obscure Joseph Cornell fragment best, a simple assemblage of industrial footage turned upside down and nature clips gone radioactively negative, dated to sometime in the ’40s, retroactively labeled “By Night with Torch and Spear” after a stray intertitle, and recently scored by John Zorn. It’s close to being an epitome of what there is to love about watching the film image.


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.


Get Physical

DVDs are the new Vinyl

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available On Disc.

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GIFs via Giffy

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.


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.


Forget Public Wifi

Warm up that optical drive. No more awkwardly streaming episodes on shady free wifi!



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.


Self Defense

You can’t throw a download like a ninja star. Think about it.


If you’d like to experience the benefits DVD ownership yourself, Portlandia Season 7 is now available on DVD and Blue-Ray.