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Dysfunction Junction

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By Aaron Hillis, Michelle Orange, Matt Singer, R. Emmet Sweeney and Alison Willmore

IFC News

[Photo: “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” Bryanston Distrib., 1974]

Ah, Thanksgiving. The time of year where unchecked family issues come home to curdle in stress and congealed cranberry sauce. We’re just kidding — love you, Mom! In honor of the holiday, the IFC News team presents a look back at some of their favorite dysfunctional family moments in film. After all — your drunken uncle has nothing on Werner Herzog.

“Grey Gardens” (1975)

Directed by David and Albert Maysles

Having spawned a Broadway stage adaptation, an upcoming Hollywood drama with Drew Barrymore and a 2006 pseudo-sequel that seems as dubious as a brand new Tupac album, the O.G.G. (in hip-hop terms, “Original Grey Gardenz”) carries a somewhat rare honor as a documentary with cult-classic rewatchability. Not so much a portrait of dysfunctionality as it is eccentricity in squalor, the Maysles brothers’ 1975 milestone documents the bizarro living conditions of Jackie O’s aging aunt and first cousin, both named Edith Bouvier Beale. Alone in a rapidly decaying East Hamptons mansion with a multiplying number of cats, raccoons and flies, the fashionably head-wrapped “Little Edie” continually makes threats about separating from her 77-year-old mother, “Big Edie,” which come to a head in one sequence where both are fully aware of the camera immortalizing their confessionals. “I just have to leave for New York City and lead my own life. I don’t see any other future,” says the younger, bickering with Big Edie (who responds with “Will you shut up, it’s a goddamn beautiful day!”) that she left behind a perfectly happy existence to live with her mom for 25 years. But when David Maysles misunderstands and asks who the man was that tended to her, Little Edie re-focuses her target: “Dare say my mother was ever taken care of by any man but my father, and I’ll push you under the goddamned bed!” —Aaron Hillis

“Julien Donkey-Boy” (1999)

Directed by Harmony Korine

Exasperating iconoclast Harmony Korine (“Gummo,” writer of “Kids” and “Ken Park”) virtually disappeared from the indie landscape after directing this mesmerizing 1999 eyesore, the first American film to pretentiously bear a Dogme 95 certificate instead of opening credits. Inspired by Korine’s real-life schizophrenic uncle, “Julien Donkey-Boy” chronicles a few weeks’ worth of fragmented moments in the lives of a seriously unhinged family, mainly the mentally ill Julien (Ewen Bremner), who spends the film burbling incoherently, loogies dripping from the gold grill that hides his rotted-out teeth. One night, while listening to harp music played by the sister he may have impregnated (Chloë Sevigny), Julien is confronted by his overbearing German father (master filmmaker Werner Herzog, relishing earlier moments where he dances alone in his boxers and a gas mask, slurping cough syrup from a bedroom slipper). “Why don’t you tell your sister she’s a dilettante and a slut,” commands Herr Herzog in his brilliantly enunciated drone, berating his son as “utterly and completely and irrevocably stupid.” Dark comic absurdity turns quickly to jarring horror as Herzog violently plucks the strings off Chloë’s harp, then coerces his son to repeatedly slap and punch himself. Ain’t nothing but wholesome fun for nihilistic hipsters, Will Oldham cameo and all. —AH

“The Lion in Winter” (1968)

Directed by Anthony Harvey

In Harvey’s just-the-right-side-of-camp masterpiece, the splendid cast gnaws on the scenery to such an extent that you have to wonder how many backdrops they burned through in a standard day of shooting. Even the most nightmare family gathering looks benign next to the film’s holiday gathering of venomous medieval royals vying for power. Katherine Hepburn, as the aging but still impossibly regal Eleanor of Aquitaine (imprisoned for years by her husband Henry II, played by Peter O’Toole), gets the best lines of her career — posing in front of a mirror, she informs a piece of jewelry “I’d hang you from the nipples, but you’d shock the children.” But no scene is as bitterly funny and appalling as when Eleanor taunts Henry with details of her affair (real or manufactured) with his father until he runs out of the room and vomits. In their vicious but half-fond banter, they reveal they know each other so well that it’s effortless and hopelessly tempting to twist the knife, even if it gets them nowhere. Watching him run out of the room, already regretful, she sighs in a magnificent understatement: “What family doesn’t have its ups and downs?” —Alison Willmore

“The Night of the Hunter” (1955)

Directed by Charles Laughton

The kids gather ’round the table, piled high with fried chicken, sweet potatoes, corn bread and apple cobbler. The preacher/step-father, Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), asks the young moon-faced Pearl if she wants to see something cute. She waddles forward as he brandishes his switchblade. A huge glycerine tear streaks down her face after he bellows, “You poor, silly, disgusting little wretch.” There’s no place like home. The kind preacher has just sliced their mother’s throat in pursuit of the cash hidden somewhere in the house — and he turns his interrogation towards the trembling offspring. It’s a scene of primal fear and unexpected humor, all contained in Mitchum’s extraordinarily theatrical performance. His incantation of “Where’s the money hid?” peaks with malevolent force as he pops his eyebrows at the recalcitrant son John, while minutes later he nimbly executes a pratfall and squeals like an agitated Jerry Lewis. Scary stuff. —R. Emmet Sweeney

“The Squid and the Whale” (2005)

Directed by Noah Baumbach

From the opening line — “Mom and me versus you and dad” — “The Squid and the Whale” is basically one long dysfunctional family scene. Noah Baumbach knows whereof he directs, and the drab implosion of a 1986 Brooklyn family, depicted largely from the perspective of the two kids, reaches an awkward crescendo about an hour in. By the time we get to the “burgers” scene, the Berkmans are living all over each other, even as their isolation causes each of them to act out; it’s been a while since they’ve been in the same room, and the familiarity is a little overwhelming. Bernard (Jeff Daniels) comes to the old house to re-appropriate younger son Frank for the evening, but is thwarted when Joan (Laura Linney) arrives. Eventually older son Walt shows up, Bernard catches Frank swilling beer, storms back into the house — interrupting Walt’s questioning of his mother about why she got married in the first place — and begins talking, incredibly, of reconciliation. Citing some burgers he was forced to make when Joan had pneumonia as part of the effort he made to save their marriage, Bernard’s version of a rapprochement triggers hysterical laughter in Joan, and as the boys look from their parents, to each other, and back, trying to figure out what this moment will mean for them, the dysfunction reaches critical mass: the marriage is irretrievable — the cat is out of the bag, and indeed will in moments bolt out of the house — and the way Linney mutters “Burgers,” with rue and wonder, makes that gloriously, heartbreakingly clear. —Michelle Orange

“The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (1974)

Directed by Tobe Hooper

There are scarier sequences in Tobe Hooper’s original “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” but none more gut-churningly repulsive than the classic scene where the sole surviving non-people eater in the film, Marilyn Burns’ Sally, wakes to discover herself surrounded by Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) and his demented brethren enjoying a wholesome family dinner of assorted human vittles and tasty man-meats. As if it wasn’t bad enough to be force fed sausages made out of your friends — and they weren’t exactly lean friends to begin with, if you catch my drift — Sally’s hand is cut open so that the patriarch of the family, the cadaverous Grandpa (John Dugan), can sup on her delicious bodily fluids. With this obvious metaphor for the draining, depressing, and altogether disgusting nature of family interactions, Hooper reminds us that as bad as your Thanksgiving might be, it could still be a hell of a lot worse. Think about that when you’re eating your mom’s dry turkey. Wait, that’s not cranberry sauce! —Matt Singer

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

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Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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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

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