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DID YOU READ

Pommel Horsing Around: The Tragically True Story of A Cultless Cult Film

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By Matt Singer

IFC News

[Photo: “Gymkata,” MGM/Warner, 1985]

“The skill of gymnastics, the kill of karate,” the poster screamed. “When you fight for ultimate stakes, you use the ultimate weapon!” the video box shouted. No one noticed.

“Gymkata”‘s reception was thoroughly unremarkable. The All Movie Guide called it “a standard no-plotter.” Roger Ebert reviewed the film, giving it one star, but could barely work up the strength to mock it. The movie grossed just over five and a half million dollars when it was first released theatrically in1985. According to BoxOfficeMojo.com, in its first weekend of release, “Gymkata” made $1.2 million, ranking tenth at the box office behind a Chuck Norris vehicle, “Gotcha!” (a movie based on a squirt gun toy), “Ladyhawke” (starring Matthew Broderick, Rutger Hauer and a bird) and, in its second month in theaters, “Police Academy 2: Their First Assignment.” To call “Gymkata” a footnote on the history of cinema would be to vastly overstate its importance.

In an aside during his review, Ebert hinted at the movie’s power. “I heard more genuine laughter during the screening than at three or four-so-called comedies I’ve seen lately,” he wrote. “I was even toying with praising the movie as a comedy.” Ever the forward-thinker, Ebert had stumbled onto an idea that would gradually take hold while the film languished in an even deeper obscurity than the one that met its initial release. This week, with very little fanfare, and without the benefit of bonus materials, “Gymkata” comes to DVD for the first time, a cult movie in desperate need of a cult.

As Ebert noted, it’s difficult to categorize “Gymkata” in simple good or bad terms. By any standard definition, the film is terrible. The acting is amateurish, the story confusing when it’s not altogether incoherent, and the dialogue often sounds like it was written by a computer program designed to string together random words into sentences. But anyone who has seen “Gymkata” cannot deny that it also holds a strange sway over the viewer; it’s bad, but not painfully bad. In fact, it’s one of those movies that is so utterly misguided it’s almost pleasurable to watch. And it’s an easy to movie to watch again, and again. I’d estimate I’ve seen in nearly two dozen times in the last decade.

The plot — and I swear to you I’m not making any of this shit up — involves an American gymnast named Jonathan Cabot. After his secret agent father goes missing in action, Cabot is recruited to take his place in a deadly tournament called “The Game,” taking place in a made-up Eastern European country named Parmistan. The United States wants to launch a spy satellite from Parmistan and, for reasons left to the audience’s imagination, if Cabot wins The Game — a contest whose main objective seems to be to not get shot in the chest with an arrow — they will be allowed to do so.

Cabot is selected for this assignment because of his unique skill set: a hellacious mullet and his incredible gymnastic abilities. Before heading to scenic Parmistan, Cabot learns to combine his athletic prowess with beating the crap out of people, thus making him a practitioner of “gymkata.” This decision proves most fortuitous when Cabot arrives in Parmistan and finds that the obviously insane civil engineers who designed the country’s infrastructure chose to build gymnastics equipment into the country’s architecture. Hence, in the film’s signature moment, Cabot defends himself from a village of loony Parmistanians (more on them later) by swinging himself around on a well conveniently mounted with pommel horse handles.

Information about “Gymkata” is sketchy; few if any have ever cared to inquire about the film, and those involve probably preferred it to stay that way. The film is based on a long out-of-print novel, 1957’s “The Terrible Game” by Dan Tyler Moore, which was, according to the quote from The Cleveland Press adorning the paperback edition, “One of the most exciting stories in recent years.” It’s a nearly impossible book to track down (unless you want to shell out big bucks for it on eBay) but here’s one reader’s description I found online:

The USA and the “REDS” were competing for political advantage in a foreign “backwards” country. The country’s leader decided that their national military competition rules would be used to decide the better, more powerful country with which to align themselves. So our hero and his dad are chosen to travel and compete against a team from the RED side. The rules allow a competitor to kill an opponent under certain circumstances.

Astonishingly, this description makes “Gymkata” sound like a fairly faithful adaptation; subtract the dude in the gym shorts kicking guys on the uneven bars and you’ve basically got “The Terrible Game,” right down to the illogical geopolitical implications and national pastime that’s almost as barbaric as lacrosse.

But the broad strokes don’t get at the totality of the wackiness that is “Gymkata,” from the expository scene set against the backdrop of a couple of men in a warehouse shoveling an enormous mountain of what looks like cocaine to the alarming number of close-ups of Thomas’ crotch to the Parmistanian city known only as “The Village of the Crazies,” where the townspeople are crazy, the livestock is crazy and the monetary unit is the crazy (1 crazy equals roughly 1/650th of an American dollar). It is here that Cabot climbs his pommel horse well, so, if we choose to, we can believe that the Crazies in the Village of the Crazies built it that way because are so batshit insane.

In reality, all the gymnastics equipment is there because the star of the film is Kurt Thomas, a world class US gymnast. Thomas won a gold medal in floor exercise at the 1978 and 1979 World Championships, and was heavily favored to win a gold at the 1980 Summer Olympics until the US boycotted the event over the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, giving Thomas’ rightful medal to that scoundrel Roland Bruckner of East Germany. His Olympic potential squandered, Thomas’s legacy consists of a floor exercise move named after him (“the Thomas flair”) and a movie in which he has a karate fight with a shirtless man in a pigpen. He now runs a gymnastics training facility in Texas.

I first saw “Gymkata” on a bootleg VHS acquired by my friend’s father on a trip somewhere in Asia. It may as well have come from another planet; I had never and have since never seen anything like it. In many ways it is the ideal so-bad-it’s-good movie: innocent yet silly, dopey yet exciting, dumb yet quirky, mundane yet (village of the) crazy. And it remains the ideal movie to convert nonbelievers to the joys of stupid movies — I’ve turned many a snob into a devout bad movie head with a single viewing.

The only thing keeping “Gymkata” from its rightful place in the cult firmament is availability. It rarely airs on television, and it’s been out-of-print since well into the last century; as if it too has been subject to a worldwide boycott. Finally released this week as part of an Amazon.com’s program designed to let online shoppers decide what titles Warner Home Video would release — a contest I’m proud to say I influenced by getting everyone I know to vote — it is ready for its moment in the sun. Here’s hoping it sticks the landing.

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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.

via GIPHY

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…

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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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