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“Year of the Dog,” “Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis”

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By Matt Singer

IFC News

[Photo: Molly Shannon in “Year of the Dog,” Paramount Vantage, 2007]

Year of the Dog

Mike White’s characters are all cut from the same swatch of alienated cloth: prone to obsession and often a little touched in the head, they struggle to live within the norms of adult society. Even the most innocuous of White’s characters — like a Nacho Libre, or Dewey Finn from “School of Rock” — are, at best, lovable eccentrics. Not for nothing was White a writer and supervising producer on the beloved television show “Freaks and Geeks.” He’s practically American film’s foremost authority on the subject.

His latest tour into personal peculiarity is also his directorial debut. “Year of the Dog” follows a particularly Whiteian heroine: a spinster named Peggy (Molly Shannon) who lives in perfect utopia with her darling beagle Pencil. But when her dog dies suddenly (of mysterious poisoning), Peggy’s life spirals into chaos. She tries to fill the void with a new dog (a much less cute, much meaner German Shepherd named Valentine) and with relationships with two diametrically opposed men: a schlubby part-time hunter named Al (John C. Reilly) and an animal shelter employee and vegan named Newt (Peter Sarsgaard). We can relate to Peggy’s pain — Pencil’s every glance is like a dagger to the heart of unadulterated cuteness — but at a certain point grief gives way to scary, even dangerous behavior.

White’s produced more mainstream films, like his Jack Black collaborations, but “Year of the Dog” is a lot closer in tone to his breakthrough screenplay, 2000’s “Chuck & Buck,” in which an emotionally immature man reconnects with a childhood friend with stalkerish results. Both films begin with the sudden death of character that upends the apple cart that is the hero’s existence (in “Chuck & Buck,” it’s Buck’s mom that croaks) and both films start with humor that gives way to more uncomfortable chuckles until you’re fidgeting in your seat. Though “Year of the Dog”‘s trailer sells the film as a sweet romantic comedy, be forewarned: this film goes to some dark places.

That’s not a criticism, mind you, merely an observation. Grief can do terrible things to people, and it certainly does to Peggy. That’s not to discount the obvious affection White has for her, and really all of his characters, which never wavers, even when the audience begins to: he loves them for their flaws, not in spite of them. As “Year of the Dog” progresses, it becomes more clear that Pencil’s death didn’t cause the problems in Peggy’s life, it merely uncovered them. When she becomes a vegan in response to her growing obsession with protecting animals, Peggy tells her sister-in-law (Laura Dern), “It’s nice to have a word that describes you. I’ve never had that before.”

As a first-time director, White’s technique is relaxed and assured, and he pulls good, understated performances from Shannon and Reilly (and an appropriately exaggerated one from Sarsgaard). I particularly liked his use of close-ups in dialogue scenes that aren’t as close as they should or would typically be. As a result, Peggy is put at a distance, not only from the audience but from the other characters in the film. She is always at a remove from people, who, she remarks on more than one occasion, always let her down in ways that animals don’t. Once Pencil is gone, no one can get close to her.

The movie has a few good laughs (particularly from Peggy’s excitable co-worker Layla, who announces her engagement with the line, “I guess all my whining paid off — and I’m not even pregnant!”) but this is White undiluted by collaborators who might want to push him more towards the mainstream. Here, he’s allowed to be as prone to obsession and as touched in the head as he wants.

“Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis”

“Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis,” also opening this week, is another portrait of obsession. Smith was a member of the New York avant-garde art scene in the 1960s and 1970s who became infamous when his film “Flaming Creatures,” an orgy of glitter, chiffon and orgies, was deemed so obscene that public screenings were raided and prints confiscated by the police. Smith hated the notoriety and what he considered the monetary exploitation that followed in its wake, when cinephiles like Jonas Mekas started hosting screenings of “Flaming Creatures” without consent or compensation. As a result, he never truly finished another project for the rest of his career.

Most artists have their share of quirks, but Smith was a flat-out iconoclast, a rabid anti-capitalist with a fervid love of trash (literally — one friend recalls a story where the pair were walking down the street and Smith stopped to rearrange garbage in the gutter to make it more aesthetically pleasing). Throughout the 70s and 80s, Smith held endless improvisational plays in his loft; as the story goes, one night no one showed up and Smith went on and performed all night anyway (don’t ask me how they know that if no one showed up). In the years after “Flaming Creatures,” Smith kept his work in a constant state of flux. At the only public showing of one of his later films, he was editing the raw footage in the projection booth in the middle of the screening. “I want to be uncommercial film personified,” Smith said, and he meant it.

Mary Jordan’s doc includes tons of great Smith material, which, per the artist’s nature, has been difficult to see for years, even before his death from AIDS in 1989. Still, at 95 minutes, without any discussion of his life outside of his art, “Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis” is a little thin on material, and by the second hour it falls into a bit of a sour grapes rut. (For someone who was so uninterested in ownership, Smith was sure obsessed with other people’s money). I felt like I learned a great deal about Smith the artist, and only a little about Smith the man. Perhaps Jordan’s point is that to Smith, the two aspects were one and the same.

“Year of the Dog” opens in limited release on April 13th (official site); “Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis” opens in New York on April 11th (official site).

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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

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

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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