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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]

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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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