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Tim Grierson on Director Andrea Arnold and Her Superb “Wuthering Heights”

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Breaking into Hollywood is never easy, but in the 21st century it’s still especially difficult if you’re a woman. A study produced earlier this year found that only 5% of 2011’s top 250 grossing movies were directed by women. (In case you’re wondering if that number is an anomaly, 7% of 2010’s top 250 had a female director.) There are plenty of reasons why that figure is alarming, but if you’re in need of a silver lining within that particularly gray cloud, it’s worth noting that we perhaps have more great female filmmakers right now than in any era of film history. Whether it’s a veteran like Chantal Akerman (whose “Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles” was the only movie made by a women to hit the Top 50 of the recent Sight & Sound critics poll) or vital independent voices such as Kelly Reichardt, Lynn Shelton, Lynne Ramsay, Debra Granik, Lisa Cholodenko and Nicole Holofcener, there are plenty of superb movies directed by women. (And this isn’t even mentioning Jane Campion or Kathryn Bigelow, who became the first woman to win a Best Director Oscar for “The Hurt Locker,” and whose “Zero Dark Thirty” is one of the most anticipated films of December.)

Another woman who deserves to be in this conversation is Andrea Arnold. Like several other names on the above list, she flies under the radar a bit: Her first two films combined grossed just over $500,000. Hopefully, her third (and best) feature will help raise her profile. It’s her first adaptation, but it contains all the qualities that distinguish her as one of our most exciting new filmmakers, which is an odd thing to say about someone who’s 51.

Her new movie is “Wuthering Heights,” based on the Emily Brontë novel, and it opens in New York on Friday. (It’ll be moving across the rest of the country soon after.) This is Arnold’s first period feature, but she makes the tragic love story between Heathcliff and Cathy feel bracingly contemporary.

For those unfamiliar with the book, “Wuthering Heights” tells the story of a young, penniless boy named Heathcliff (Solomon Glave) who is adopted by a kindhearted farmer (Paul Hilton) who lives in the foreboding, isolated English countryside. (Fans of the novel will note that Arnold has chosen to make Heathcliff black, a nod to modern-day interpretations of the possible racial background of this brooding, mysterious character.) Heathcliff instantly takes a shine to Cathy (Shannon Beer), the farmer’s sweet daughter, and a bond develops between them — despite the irritation of Cathy’s bigoted brother Hindley (Lee Shaw).

Even if you skipped over Brontë’s classic in school, watching “Wuthering Heights” you can sense in your bones that a happy ending seems unlikely for Heathcliff and Cathy. But the precise way in which Arnold tells her story provides so much sadness and passion to the familiar text — according to IMDb, this is the 15th version of the book made for film or television — that its romantic anguish is as bruising as the rain that pounds down on the characters.

In a sense, Arnold’s directing career has led to remaking “Wuthering Heights.” Failed love and disconnected souls have long been a hallmark of her work. After ending a career as an actress and television personality, Arnold started making short films in the late ‘90s, winning the Oscar for Best Live Action Short for 2003’s “Wasp,” which was about a beleaguered single mother who tries to get back with an old boyfriend by trying to convince the man that her four kids aren’t hers. The gritty handheld camerawork, the luckless characters, the examination of class, the refusal to go for the easy resolution: “Wasp” can be seen as an introduction to everything Arnold would explore when she turned to features.

Her first feature, “Red Road,” about a woman (Kate Dickie) who works as a surveillance camera operator, and her second, “Fish Tank,” about a teen (Katie Jarvis) who grows strangely close to her mother’s sexy boyfriend (Michael Fassbender), were unsparing portraits of life lived on the margins of society. Arnold could sometimes be faulted for indulging in a sort of “poverty porn” — letting her characters go down dark paths that feel contrived rather than organic — but her skill with emerging or first-time actors was remarkable, as was her ability to make you care for such unhappy people.

With “Wuthering Heights,” she takes her work to a new level, although she hasn’t veered dramatically from her usual milieu. Both actors who play Heathcliff — James Howson is the character as an adult — and Beer are making their screen debut, and there isn’t a false note in any of the performances. And while Arnold’s previous work has zeroed in on modern-day ills, she herself recognized the connective tissue between her previous films and Brontë’s novel. “Think about Heathcliff,” she said before filming began, “he’s an outsider, he’s a Gypsy boy. It’s a big class story. All my films have been about class, and ‘Wuthering Heights’ is more of the same.” Quite right, but never before has she made her underdog hero so monstrously empowered. Both Glave and Howson portray Heathcliff as a quiet, powerfully introspective soul whose burning desire for Cathy is immediate almost from the start. Denied his prize by fate and Hindley’s cruelty, Heathcliff may be Arnold’s most despondent protagonist, but she gives him a heroic resolve that’s new in her films. As a result, her “Wuthering Heights” is a tragedy that plays out with such fire that you’re never convinced that Heathcliff won’t end up with his beloved.

And then there’s the way Arnold has constructed her film’s strikingly atmospheric look. Working with her longtime cinematographer (Robbie Ryan), editor (Nicolas Chaudeurge) and production designer (Helen Scott), Arnold has envisioned the moors of Northern England as a perpetually damp, bleak enclave cut off from the rest of the world. The book’s gothic tone is captured on screen without music — all the better to hear the wind blow through the lonely trees — and framed in the old-fashioned, boxy 1.33 aspect ratio, which makes the characters feel even more trapped in their environment. (It also denies the viewer the widescreen pleasures of the beautiful locales. Arnold isn’t interested in making a travelogue.) As with her previous films, “Wuthering Heights” is a feast of intensely sensual and immediate encounters. “Red Road” and “Fish Tank” both featured powerfully carnal sex scenes, and although her new film doesn’t possess a similar moment, an exchange between Glave and Beer amidst the moors ripples with such awakening passion that it’s spellbinding. Few current filmmakers translate their characters’ desires into screen language as potently as Arnold does, and the longing in “Wuthering Heights” is so viscerally visual that it’s a small marvel.

Without any major stars, this “Wuthering Heights” won’t catapult Arnold into the realm of commercial blockbuster filmmakers, although with any luck it’ll be one of the year’s top 250 grossers. But although one wouldn’t want to dismiss the importance of box office to help make a director’s life easier when it comes to financing his or her next project, works like Arnold’s should remind us that grosses matter much less than artistry. Like many of Arnold’s female contemporaries, vision and talent are commodities she has in abundance. If audiences aren’t interested in noticing, it’s their loss, not hers.

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Car Notes

Portlandia Keeps Road Rage In Park

Get a lesson in parking etiquette on a new Portlandia.

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It’s the most American form of cause and effect: Park like a monster, receive a passive-aggressive note.

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This unofficial rule of the road is critical to keeping the great big wheel of car-related Karma in balance. And naturally, Portlandia’s Kath and Dave have elevated it to an awkward, awkward art form in Car Notes, the Portlandia web series presented by Subaru.

If you’ve somehow missed the memo about Car Notes until now, you can catch up on every installment online, on the IFC app, and on demand. You can even have a little taste right here:

If your interest is piqued – great news for you! A special Car Notes sketch makes an appearance in the latest episode of Portlandia, and you can catch up on it now right here.

Watch all-new Portlandia Thursdays at 10P on IFC.

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Naked and Hungry

Two New Ways to Threeway

IFC's Comedy Crib gets sensual in time for Valentine's Day.

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This week, two scandalous new digital series debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib.
Ménage à Trois invites people to participate in a real-life couple’s fantasy boudoir. And The Filling is Mutual follows two saucy chefs who invite comedians to make food inspired by their routines. Each show crosses some major boundaries in sexy and/or delicious ways, and each are impossible to describe in detail without arousing some awkward physical cravings. Which is why it’s best to hear it directly from the minds behind the madness…

Ménage à Trois

According to Diana Kolsky and Murf Meyer, the two extremely versatile constants in the ever-shifting à trois, “MàT is a sensually psychedelic late night variety show exploring matters of hearts, parts and every goddamn thing in between…PS, any nudes will be 100% tasteful.”

This sexy brainchild includes sketches, music, and props that would put Pee-wee’s Playhouse to shame. But how could this fantastical new twist on the vanilla-sex variety show format have come to be?

“We met in a UCB improv class taught by Chris Gethard. It was clear that we both humped to the beat of our own drum; our souls and tongues intermingled at the bar after class, so we dove in head first.”

Sign me up, but promise to go slow. This tricycle is going to need training wheels.

The Filling is Mutual

Comedians Jen Saunderson and Jenny Zigrino became best friends after meeting in the restroom at the Gotham Comedy Club, which explains their super-comfortable dynamic when cooking with their favorite comedians. “We talk about comedy, sex, menses, the obnoxiousness of Christina Aguilera all while eating food that most would push off their New Year’s resolution.”

The hook of cooking food based off of comedy routines is so perfect and so personal. It made us wonder about what dishes Jen & Jenny would pair with some big name comedy staples, like…

Bill Murray?
“Oh, that’s easy Meatballs with Lingonberry Space Jam it’d be great, but then we’d have to Oh, that’s easy Meatballs with Lingonberry Space Jam it’d be great, but then we’d have to… Oh, that’s easy Meatballs with Lingonberry Space Jam it’d be great, but then we’d have to avoid doing any kind of silly Groundhog Day reference.” 

Bridget Everett?
“Cream Balls… Sea Salt encrusted Chocolate Ganache Covered Ice Cream Ball that melt cream when you bite into them.” 

Nick Kroll & John Mulaney? 
“I’d make George and Gil black and white cookies from scratch and just as we open the oven to put the cookie in we’d prank ’em with an obnoxious amount of tuna!!!”

Carrie Brownstein & Fred Armisen? 
“Definitely a raw cacao “safe word” brownie. Cacao!”

Just perfect.

See both new series in their entirety on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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Dark Arts

Foot Fetish Jesus And Other Nightmares

Meet the minds behind Comedy Crib's latest series, Quirks and The Mirror.

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The Mirror and Quirks are really, really strange. Deeply disturbing yet hauntingly beautiful. But you really don’t need to read a synopsis of either of the aforementioned shows to understand the exact variety of nightmare-bonkers comedy these shows deliver — that’s why the good lord made links. Instead, take a peek behind the curtain and meet the creators.

Quirks

Let’s start with Kevin Tosi. Kevin does the whole show by himself. That doesn’t mean he’s a loner — Kevin has a day job with actual humans. But that day job is copywriting. So it’s only natural that his suppressed demons would manifest themselves in biting cartoon form, including “Foot Fetish Jesus”, in ways that somehow speak to all of us. If only all copywriters channeled their inner f*ckedupness into such…expressive art.

The Mirror

Onward to the folks at Wham City Comedy.

These guys aren’t your typical comedy collective in that their work is way more left-field and even elevated than your standard digital short. More funny weird than funny ha-ha. They’ve done collaborations with musicians like Beach House, Dan Deacon & Wye Oak, television networks (obviously), and others. Yeah they get paid, but their motivation feels deeper. Darker. Most of them are video artists, and that explains a lot.

See more of The Mirror and Quirks on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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