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Looking Back at “Dont Look Back”

Looking Back at “Dont Look Back” (photo)

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Watch the world premiere of the latest Bob Dylan music video, “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’,” exclusively at

As if capturing a momentous period in Bob Dylan’s career and crafting one of the best and earliest examples of a major cinematic movement — cinema vérité — with “Dont Look Back” weren’t monumental achievements enough, D.A. Pennebaker began his seminal film with what would be recognized decades later as perhaps the first music video. Ironically, this opening sequence, set to Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” is one of several instances in the film where Pennebaker strays from the tenets of vérité: in an overtly staged performance (which in fact was shot in alternate takes in two other locales) with Dylan playing to the camera, the singer/songwriter lets a series of placards do his lip-synching for him. In a wide-legged stance, boards with various lyrics and riffs on lyrics (written out by Allen Ginsberg — who appears loitering in the background — Bob Neuwirth and Donovan, the film’s delectable Dylan frenemy) stacked in his right arm, an affectless Dylan tosses corresponding cards to the ground as his Beat-inflected lyrics fly by.

Shot in one take, the sequence was Dylan’s idea, and despite his manager Albert Grossman’s involvement as a producer of “Dont Look Back,” it’s probably the best if not the only example of the control Dylan was able to exert over the project. Control, of course, or unfettered access, is a vérité director’s lifeblood, and one of the marvelous things about looking at “Dont Look Back” today is the atypically candid (or candid-seeming, but more on that in a minute) portrait we get of an artist who came to guard himself from portraiture almost completely in its wake.

In the spring of 1965, Pennebaker followed Dylan over four days of his tour of England, just as fame was beginning to take its confounding hold on his life and career. The involvement of Grossman, as Richard Goldstein suggested in his 1967 New York Times review, does leave the film open to accusations of leaning toward a “commissioned portrait,” with Pennebaker’s access granted as conditional to flattering this young star on the make. But then Grossman, who’s featured in the film in a couple of unsavory sequences, comes off worse than anyone, and Dylan reveals himself, almost immediately, to be no fan of publicity. One need only revisit the film these years later to confirm that Pennebaker was up to something more.

05102009_Don'tLookBack3.jpg“Dont Look Back” is often cited as a watershed film, though it’s more accurately a well-timed culmination of several of its forerunners, beginning with Robert Drew’s 1960 political doc “Primary” and Wolf Koenig and Roman Kroitor’s 1962 NFB short “Lonely Boy,” which follows Paul Anka as he attempts to transition from teen to adult performer. “What’s Happening! The Beatles in the USA,” the Maysles’ 1964 documentary about the Beatles’ arrival in the United States fleshes out the model Pennebaker would use a little further. Combining his subject, an unlikely idol and ambivalent star on whom the mantle of truth-teller and generational prophet had fallen, and the nascent filmic mode of “truth-telling,” whose host of signifiers were all meant to suggest an authentic presentation of “reality,” resulted in its own star-making moment for Pennebaker, who’s worked steadily in film — and often rock documentaries, a genre his film would influence heavily — ever since.

Despite having no overt narrative structure other than “Bob Dylan Tours England,” Pennebaker shot enough film to create a supple, nuanced structure in the editing room. What was innovative about “Dont Look Back” when it was released in 1967 remains so contemporarily, not only because we can now recognize its style as having infected both feature films and television, where hand-held cameras, natural light and locations and unobtrusive, minimal crew has come to connote “reality,” but because so many of the rock documentaries of today can’t match its stylistic invention.

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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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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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.


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.



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 and the IFC app.

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