“Suddenly…”: Seven different salutes to the Odessa Steps scene.

“Suddenly…”: Seven different salutes to the Odessa Steps scene. (photo)

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Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 film “The Battleship Potemkin” boasts the double-edged distinction of containing a sequence so famous — the “Odessa Steps,” part of the very ABCs of film history — that people who’ve never seen the movie are intimately familiar with it, the same way everyone’s seen a rocket launch into the moon’s eye-socket even if they don’t know it’s a Méliès short.

The steps sequence, which you can watch, with the Pet Shop Boys’ new soundtrack, here, is famous for its effectiveness, its pioneering use of montage, its striking violence, and of course, its bit with the baby carriage. And because of this, it’s been ripped off, homaged, parodied and appropriated in dozens of ways. Here are seven of the best examples of the way it’s trickled down into the culture.

06142010_untouchables.jpg“The Untouchables” (1987)

Brian De Palma is as diametrically opposite a filmmaker from Eisenstein as you could imagine. No fast editing or montage for him — he favors the long, cool gaze, preferably in slow motion. The most cynical movie of his career (and, for some reason, one of his rare hits), “The Untouchables” contemplates Kevin Costner’s preening Prohibition agent Eliot Ness as he chases down bootlegger and crime king Al Capone (Robert De Niro). The big shoot-out, set in Chicago’s Union Station, does two things. It allows De Palma to destroy montage theory (filming it in elegant slow-mo as opposed to with fast, dynamic cutting) and it lets him taunt the audience. “Okay,” he seems to be saying; “worried about that baby? Fine. The baby can live. Everyone else will get shot though. Happy now?” The cuts to the blond-haired urchin seal the deal.

06142010_vaccuum.jpg“Brazil” (1985)

There are plenty of good reasons for Terry Gilliam to parody “Potemkin” with a vacuum cleaner in place of a baby carriage. It plays nicely into “Brazil”‘s skewed hierarchical world, where the mundane has been elevated into the sublime and ducts are the highest architectural embellishment. In the film’s satiric rendering, the death of a loud, annoying house-cleaning accessory is as tragic as the snuffing out of an infant. But according to Gilliam on the commentary track, “this is what happens when I get bored” during shooting — he claims his elaborate shot parodies were made up to kill time. Gilliam’s compared the over-designed frames and sight gags of his work as being in part inspired by Mad magazine’s old trick of including cartoon gags in the margins of unrelated pages. His invocation of “Potemkin” is intended in the same spirit. (Skip to about 7:30 in the video below.)

06142010_partner.jpg“Partner” (1968)

In Bernardo Bertolucci’s third film, characters say things like “Advertising is a servant of fascism” and mean it. Loosely inspired by Dostoyevsky’s “The Double,” “Partner” stars Pierre Clementi as two doppelgangers, both of whom happen to be assholes. The revolutionary rhetoric leads to one of the film’s more amusing bits. Clementi and his theater students stand on a staircase, put an explosive in a baby carriage and push it down the stairs. When it doesn’t go off (presumably some kind of metaphor), they run around releasing red colored smoke into the air while making noises that sound a lot like a six-year-old imitating an airplane. While I couldn’t track down a video of that bit on YouTube, I did turn up this sequence, which contains the strangest song you’ll hear this week:

06142010_bullets.jpg“When Nature Calls” (1985)

Troma release “When Nature Calls” is a movie that, to get to a mere 75 minute runtime, had to be padded at the front with three faux-trailers, beating “Grindhouse” to the punch decades early. One of those is “Baby Bullets,” about a gangster baby. It’s ridiculous, but contains a “Potemkin” sight gag that’s inventive — the carriage goes down the stairs, but it’s actually a small car, with the baby whizzing past everyone, including the glasses woman. The rest is forgettable — much better is the full-length trailer for the whole film, which includes excerpts from “Raging Bullshit” (I’m sure you can guess what that’s a spoof of), a dead-on visit to the “Asylum for the Terminally Jerry Lewis” and a cameo from G. Gordon Liddy.

06142010_critic.jpg“The Critic” (1994-95)

This one’s brief but worthwhile: a down in the dumps Jay Sherman — his show canceled, his life purposeless (well, more so than usual) — decides to revisit his film school days and screen his student short. We’re invited to snigger at all the tropes of the unwatchably pretentious art film, which include salutes to the “Potemkin” baby carriage as well as “The Seventh Seal” (the title “L’artiste est Morte” is a dead giveaway), before Jay calls himself “Prometheus Sherman” and hangs himself. As far as art school parodies go, it’s as wan as “Art School Confidential” (it’s shooting fish in a barrel, and no one really does this), though the Kool-Aid jug morphing into a mushroom cloud is a nice touch. Jay, of course, is honest with himself: “I know,” he shrugs. “It stinks.” (Skip to 1:28 if you’re in a hurry.)

06142010_catastrophe.jpg“Une Catastrophe” (2008)

In his book “The Great War and Modern Memory,” Paul Fussell proposes that the essential mindset of the 20th century is to live in perpetual wartime, used to the fact that there’s never global peace. Jean-Luc Godard would probably agree — the opening “Inferno” montage from 2003’s “Notre Musique” posits as much. If you don’t have ten minutes to spare (or the patience to give Godard ten minutes) on that clip, here’s the just-over-a-minute short “Une Catastrophe,” whittled down from the same material, and reappropriating “Potemkin.”

06142010_naked.jpg“Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult” (1994)

By the time Leslie Nielsen’s no-brow “Naked Gun” franchise got around to parodying “The Untouchables” (back in the day when you could assume audiences remembered a movie from seven years ago — now our rapid-response parodies are a lot faster, and generally poorer for it), “Potemkin” didn’t really have anything to do with it. Instead, we get sight gags, the most inspired of which is O.J. Simpson doing a touchdown dance with a baby (three months later would come the murders and the white SUV and the trials, retroactively changing the tone of the movie). The parody doesn’t so much mock De Palma’s ponderousness as simply raise the absurdity quotient until it achieve comedy, two degrees removed from the sequence that started things.

[Photos: “Battleship Potemkin,” Kino, 1925; “The Untouchables,” Paramount, 1987; “Brazil,” Universal, 1985; “Partner,” New Yorker Films, 1968; “When Nature Calls,” Troma, 1985; “The Critic,” Sony Pictures Television, 1994-95; “Une Catastrophe,” Viennale, 2008; “Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult,” Paramount, 1994]


Face Melting Cameos

The 10 Most Metal Pop Culture Cameos

Glenn Danzig drops by Portlandia tonight at 10P on IFC.

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Glenn Danzig rocks harder than granite. In his 60 years, he’s mastered punk with The Misfits, slayed metal with the eponymous Danzig, and generally melted faces with the force of his voice. And thanks to Fred and Carrie, he’s now stopping by tonight’s brand new Portlandia so we can finally get to see what “Evil Elvis” is like when he hits the beach. To celebrate his appearance, we put together our favorite metal moments from pop culture, from the sublime to the absurd.

10. Cannibal Corpse meets Ace Ventura

Back in the ’90s,  Cannibal Corpse was just a small time band from Upstate New York, plying their death metal wares wherever they could find a crowd, when a call from Jim Carry transformed their lives. Turns out the actor was a fan, and wanted them for a cameo in his new movie, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. The band had a European tour coming up, and were wary of being made fun of, so they turned it down. Thankfully, the rubber-faced In Living Color vet wouldn’t take no for an answer, proving that you don’t need to have a lot of fans, just the right ones.

9. AC/DC in Private Parts

Howard Stern’s autobiographical film, based on his book of the same name, followed his rise in the world of radio and pop culture. For a man surrounded by naked ladies and adoring fans, it’s hard to track the exact moment he made it. But rocking out with AC/DC in the middle of Central Park, as throngs of fans clamor to get a piece of you, seems like it comes pretty close. You can actually see Stern go from hit host to radio god in this clip, as “You Shook Me All Night Long” blasts in the background.

8. Judas Priest meets The Simpsons

When you want to blast a bunch of peace-loving hippies out on their asses, you’re going to need some death metal. At least, that’s what the folks at The Simpsons thought when they set up this cameo from the metal gods. Unfortunately, thanks to a hearty online backlash, the writers of the classic series were soon informed that Judas Priest, while many things, are not in fact “death metal.” This led to the most Simpson-esque apology ever. Rock on, Bartman. Rock on.

7. Anthrax on Married…With Children

What do you get when Married…with Children spoofs My Dinner With Andre, substituting the erudite playwrights for a band so metal they piss rust? Well, for starters, a lot of headbanging, property destruction and blown eardrums. And much like everything else in life, Al seems to have missed the fun.

6. Motorhead rocks out on The Young Ones

The Young Ones didn’t just premiere on BBC2 in 1982 — it kicked the doors down to a new way of doing comedy. A full-on assault on the staid state of sitcoms, the show brought a punk rock vibe to the tired format, and in the process helped jumpstart a comedy revolution. For instance, where an old sitcom would just cut from one scene to the next, The Young Ones choose to have Lemmy and his crew deliver a raw version of “Ace of Spades.” The general attitude seemed to be, you don’t like this? Well, then F— you!

5. Red and Kitty Meet Kiss on That ’70s Show

Carsey-Werner Productions

Carsey-Werner Productions

Long before they were banished to playing arena football games, Kiss was the hottest ticket in rock. The gang from That ’70s Show got to live out every ’70s teen’s dream when they were set loose backstage at a Kiss concert, taking full advantage of groupies, ganja and hard rock.

4. Ronnie James Dio in Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny (NSFW, people!)

What does a young boy do when he was born to rock, and the world won’t let him? What tight compadre does he pray to for guidance and some sweet licks? If you’re a young Jables, half of “the world’s most awesome band,” you bow your head to Ronnie James Dio, aka the guy who freaking taught the world how to do the “Metal Horns.” Never before has a rock god been so literal than in this clip that turns it up to eleven.

3. Ozzy Osbourne in Trick or Treat

It’s hard to tell if Ozzy was trying his hardest here, or just didn’t give a flying f–k. What is clear is that, either way, it doesn’t really matter. Ozzy’s approach to acting seems to lean more heavily on Jack Daniels than sense memory, and yet seeing the slurry English rocker play a sex-obsessed televangelist is so ridiculous, he gets a free pass. Taking part in the cult horror Trick or Treat, Ozzy proves that he makes things better just by showing up. Because that’s exactly what he did here. Showed up. And it rocks.

2. Glenn Danzig on Portlandia

Danzig seems to be coming out of a self imposed exile these days. He just signed with a record company, and his appearance on Portlandia is reminding everyone how kick ass he truly is. Who else but “The Other Man in Black” could help Portland’s resident goths figure out what to wear to the beach? Carrie Brownstein called Danzig “amazing,” and he called Fred “a genius,” so this was a rare love fest for the progenitor of horror punk.

1. Alice Cooper in Wayne’s World

It’s surprising, sure, but for a scene that contains no music whatsoever, it’s probably the most famous metal moment in the history of film. When Alice Cooper informed Wayne and Garth that Milwaukee is actually pronounced “Milly-way-kay” back in 1992, he created one of the most famous scenes in comedy history. What’s more metal than that? Much like Wayne and Garth, we truly are not worthy.

For directors, sometimes it’s better to say nothing at all.

For directors, sometimes it’s better to say nothing at all. (photo)

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At the end of his pan of Chuck Workman’s doc on American avant-garde “Visionaries” Tom McCormack drops a poignant observation about Jonas Mekas, the film’s main focus:

Somewhere between a warmer, polite Jean-Luc Godard and a more honest and forthright Werner Herzog, Mekas shares with both men a propensity for the over-emphatic aphorism. In talking about the demands that avant-garde cinema often puts on the viewer, Mekas says that the films are “like orange juice concentrate, you can add a glass of water and make orange juice.”

The more challenging your work, the more you risk giving ammunition to your detractors by saying anything concrete. That’s why many of the great filmmakers are obscure with their intentions. One of the most revered books about film ever — Robert Bresson’s “Notes on the Cinematographer” — has been described as sharing characteristics with Zen koans.

06032010_son.jpgGodard sometimes stuck aphorisms into the movies themselves, then covered those up with more aphorisms, at least partially in the name of getting you to read the authors he was name-checking.

But someone like Herzog is more prone to say things like “Iguanas look so amazingly absurd and stupid,” as he did in a recent interview in Sight & Sound that’s unfortunately not online. When asked if partnering with David Lynch on “My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?” was “like a summit of the bizarre,” he responded huffily “No, it was not a summit of the bizarre. It was a summit of those who are storytellers. […] I know how to tell a good story. And so does David Lynch.”

Really, what unites them is an insistence to describing their work in only the vaguest terms. Lynch famously refuses to provide interpretations; Herzog yells about “poetic truth.” Lynch proselytizes for technology he likes, Herzog tells good production stories.

Even the straightforward Noah Baumbach responded to a question about what “Greenberg” was “about” with “it takes me an hour and 46 minutes of film to say it.”

08212009_headlesswoman1.jpgA completely opaque director like Lucrecia Martel will cheerfully start diagramming her work, while the far more accessible John Ford was famous for insisting his movies didn’t really mean anything, weren’t art and so on.

But even when it’s frustrating, it’s hard not to sympathize with directors who — having worked hard to make the best film they felt capable of — are called upon to then explicate it all over again. It’s nice when they do, but the allure of the cryptic is understandable. Sometimes vagueness can spark more of an imaginative response anyway.

[Photos: “Visionaries: Jonas Mekas and the (Mostly) American Avant-Garde Cinema,” Chuck Workman, 2009; “My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done,” Paper Street Films, 2009; “The Headless Woman,” Strand, 2009]

The controversies of Cannes.

The controversies of Cannes. (photo)

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If you’ve been following the news lately, you may have noticed that the world’s been going to hell at a slightly faster clip than usual these last few weeks (presumably making up for time lost while all the planes in Europe were grounded) — so much so that one of the weird things about this year’s Cannes isn’t that it’s generated a few controversies, but not nearly as many as you’d expect.

The big news — still, and heartbreakingly — is the ongoing imprisonment of Iranian master Jafar Panahi. There was once a time I hoped Panahi would be recognized first and foremost as a master of urban filmmaking, a producer of films that were masterful immersions into crackling environments first and polemics second; this, alas, is becoming increasingly unlikely. He’s announced a hunger strike that concludes with “My final wish is that my remains be returned to my family, so that they may bury me in the place they choose.” This is very grim territory: J. Hoberman reports on an “unconfirmed announcement” that Panahi may be released in time to arrive for a public screening of Kiarostami’s “Certified Copy.” The reasons are shaky: Kiarostami, having publicly criticized Bahman Ghobadi and basically kept his mouth shut until recently calling for Panahi’s release, could be the only Iranian director still even vaguely on negotiating terms with the government. It takes guts to decide to return to Iran at this moment for his next film.

05192010_uncle.jpgAll the (much-deserved) attention shone on Panahi may, however, taken the spotlight slightly off the strange case of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, whose “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” remains the last great hope of highbrow cinephiles for this year’s competition. Known to his followers as “Joe,” it’s taken Weerasethakul four contentious years to follow up 2006’s “Syndromes And A Century,” whose Thai release was censored, leading Weerasethakul to spearhead the Free Thai Cinema Movement. With Thailand in turmoil, it’s unclear whether Weerasethakul will be able to attend, though an unknown Twitter is now claiming he will. The stakes are lower, but still high.

Weerasethakul doesn’t make overtly political protest films (unlike Panahi), and he’s unlikely to see jail time. But the absence of both filmmakers, even potentially (Panahi was invited to be on the jury — his empty chair is a pointed reproof) adds to a sense of looming political menace and gloom — along with Godard’s cryptic absence due to “problems of a Greek type”. Not to mention “Draquila: Italy Trembles” — an anti-Berlusconi film that led Italy’s culture minister to boycott the fest — and Rachid Bouchareb’s “Outside the Law,” a film about post-war Algerian refugees in Paris denounced by government ministers as “an insult to France.” It’s punchy and grim out there. Who says Cannes has nothing to do with the real world?

[Photos: “Certified Copy,” MK2 Productions, 2010; “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Remember His Past Lives,” Kick The Machine, 2010.]

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