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A Bell Jar Etude

A Bell Jar Etude (photo)

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Famously a mere low-budget Brit horror movie produced by a softcore outfit and directed by a young Roman Polanski with only one feature under his belt, after he’d emigrated from Communist Poland, “Repulsion” (1965) is also the first truly Freudian movie. That is, not a movie that merely employs Freudian psychology to tell its story (that began, more or less, with Pabst’s “Secrets of a Soul,” from 1926), but a movie that harbors a silent Freudian reptile brain and insists that we search for answers to the heroine’s irrational mysteries, without narrative assistance, acting like analysts ourselves in the dark.

This idea, I’ve always thought, was manifested best a year later, in Bergman’s “Persona” (1966), the Gordian knot of which positions the audience as the unspeaking therapist to Bergman’s spewing neurotic, just as Liv Ullmann’s mute patient becomes the confessor to Bibi Andersson’s logorrheic nurse. But Polanski’s film isn’t nearly as meta; its diegetic hothouse has four very distinct walls, which sometimes turn to clay and emit grabbing hands, but which are nevertheless solid and unreflexive. There’s something to this setup that suggests a distinct microgenre: the bell jar etude, in which one or perhaps two characters dissolve psychologically in a closed space, summoning the memory of “Psycho” and of John Parker’s “Daughter of Horror” (1955), other breakdown movies sustained by exegesis (in the latter, by Ed McMahon’s ranting narration). Polanski does it his way — nobody explains a thing, and watching the chips fall is “Repulsion”‘s only mode of discourse.

Catherine Deneuve, a spacious London flat, a skinned rabbit that never gets cooked, a few unlucky male visitors, a family photograph, passing days — that’s about it. Of course, “Repulsion” isn’t difficult to figure out, at least to the degree of a rash DSM IV diagnosis by the end credits. The title says it all — left alone for a fortnight by her room-sharing sister, Deneuve’s French manicurist is catastrophically mousey and hesitant around men, while being unbelievably hot, and it doesn’t take us long, in the film’s roll-out banquet of clues, surreal non sequiturs, hallucinations, reaction shots and symbolisms, to assess her as being damaged sexually, and in ways that only fester with time. The famous last image, placed beside the sled shot in “Citizen Kane” as the “explanation” for the entire questioning mess that preceded it, isn’t definitive, but it is, telling us something we already know (because we’ve seen other movies and read newspapers), but doing it nonetheless with an image that’s as improbable (would you keep this family snapshot in a frame?) as it is haunting.

07262009_Repulsion2.jpgStill, Deneuve’s reactions — be they flight or fight — are never quite predictable (as they shouldn’t be, if she’s disturbed), and the inquisitional action the film forces us to perform, as we quickly become hyperaware of the possible secondary meaning of everything, was a new kind of storytelling in 1965. At the same time, Polanski’s movie is an eye magnet, crafted as an impeccable Petit Guignol spectacle in deep black and white, with all of the nascent master’s deft neo-Hitchcockian attitude. Watch how the apartment’s rooms and hallways slowly grow enormous (William Friedkin went to school on this movie before “The Exorcist”), how the heroine’s experience of time gets utterly lost between fishing out a shoe from under the bureau and checking on a running bathtub (a whole day could’ve passed), how imaginary rapists appear in places we weren’t looking, and so on. Though never quite profound narratively, it remains a fascinating ordeal by cinema, sometimes dangerous but always seductive in a rubbernecking manner that’s quintessentially cinematic.

Another kind of clinical tale-spinning, Kevin Rafferty’s “Harvard Beats Yale 29-29” recounts a football game, a game that shouldn’t have happened the way it happened when it happened, and yet is still just a game. The doc’s saving grace is the absence of sports movie homilies — the notorious 1968 face-off between the two Ivy League teams doesn’t “mean” anything to anyone, or serve as an inspirational template for self-actualization or salvation or any of that bastard nonsense. Given that, I’ll leave the actual arc of the game to a spoiler safety zone, but it is a ridiculous and extraordinary story, told exclusively by the men who played it. (They include Tommy Lee Jones and Brian Dowling, Yale’s star quarterback and the model for “Doonesbury”‘s B.D., but do not include Garry Trudeau, Meryl Streep, Al Gore and George W. Bush, who were all football team cohorts in various ways, but none of whom actually played.)

The leathery cast of narrators are themselves a fascinating bunch, all of them gregarious and dazzled by memory, except for one lineman, Mike Bouscaren, who not only comes off as a lizard-eyed heel, but who’s demonstrated to be an outright liar by Rafferty’s careful use of archival footage. All in all, this may be the best way to watch a football game: edited into up and down moments, narrated by the participants who have gone on with their lives, referencing the social history of the moment (Vietnam was the game’s larger context), but always coming back, lightly, to the fact of the play and the crazy luck at work and the athletic glory moments that peak and then vanish forever. I’m not a football fan, and Rafferty’s movie was a hypnotic pleasure.

“Repulsion” (Criterion Collection) and “Harvard Beats Yale 29-29” (Kino on Video) are now available on DVD and Blu-ray.

[Additional photo: Yale quarterback Brian Dowling in “Harvard Beats Yale 29-29,” Kino, 2008]


Hacked In

Funny or Die Is Taking Over

FOD TV comes to IFC every Saturday night.

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We’ve been fans of Funny or Die since we first met The Landlord. That enduring love makes it more than logical, then, that IFC is totally cool with FOD hijacking the airwaves every Saturday night. Yes, that’s happening.

The appropriately titled FOD TV looks like something pulled from public access television in the nineties. Like lo-fi broken-antenna reception and warped VHS tapes. Equal parts WTF and UHF.

Get ready for characters including The Shirtless Painter, Long-Haired Businessmen, and Pigeon Man. They’re aptly named, but for a better sense of what’s in store, here’s a taste of ASMR with Kelly Whispers:

Watch FOD TV every Saturday night during IFC’s regularly scheduled movies.


Wicked Good

See More Evil

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is on Hulu.

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GIFs via Giphy

Okay, so you missed the entire first season of Stan Against Evil. There’s no shame in that, per se. But here’s the thing: Season 2 is just around the corner and you don’t want to lag behind. After all, Season 1 had some critical character development, not to mention countless plot twists, and a breathless finale cliffhanger that’s been begging for resolution since last fall. It also had this:


The good news is that you can catch up right now on Hulu. Phew. But if you aren’t streaming yet, here’s a basic primer…

Willards Mill Is Evil

Stan spent his whole career as sheriff oblivious to the fact that his town has a nasty curse. Mostly because his recently-deceased wife was secretly killing demons and keeping Stan alive.

Demons Really Want To Kill Stan

The curse on Willards Mill stipulates that damned souls must hunt and kill each and every town sheriff, or “constable.” Oh, and these demons are shockingly creative.


They Also Want To Kill Evie

Why? Because Evie’s a sheriff too, and the curse on Willard’s Mill doesn’t have a “one at a time” clause. Bummer, Evie.

Stan and Evie Must Work Together

Beating the curse will take two, baby, but that’s easier said than done because Stan doesn’t always seem to give a damn. Damn!


Beware of Goats

It goes without saying for anyone who’s seen the show: If you know that ancient evil wants to kill you, be wary of anything that has cloven feet.


Season 2 Is Lurking

Scary new things are slouching towards Willards Mill. An impending darkness descending on Stan, Evie and their cohort – eviler evil, more demony demons, and whatnot. And if Stan wants to survive, he’ll have to get even Stanlier.

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is now streaming right now on Hulu.



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.