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“Hannah Takes the Stairs,” “The World According to Shorts”

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04222008_hannahtakesthestairs.jpgBy Michael Atkinson

Though it may seem unfair at first, let’s pick up Joe Swanberg’s “Hannah Takes the Stairs,” heft it in our grips for a moment, and then use it to beat this thing called “mumblecore” to a pulp. Implicitly a kind of low-budge, ultra-spontaneous, all-HDV answer to the glossy fatuousness of current American film, mumblecore has a number of inherent problems (the least of which is its inherited moniker; using “-core” as a suffix in this way has no meaning). The fad’s general strategy — naturally lit shaky-cam coverage of semi-inarticulate twentysomethings with bedhead speaking entirely in casual small talk and having or ruining relationships — is easy to peg as narcissistic and lazy, if you’re not finely attuned to the genre’s nonchalant sense of cool. But more than that, mumblecore movies strive for an interpersonal intimacy they never achieve, because intimacy requires skill, real acting and visual wisdom, not merely amateurishness. In the pursuit of realism, mumblecore characters spend enormous amounts of time amusing themselves in variously immature ways, the upshot of which is less realistic than, well, immature. No one is actually witty, sex isn’t on anyone’s mind, and everyone, even when they’re being goofy, is tediously earnest.

Is it even a movement? Is anyone outside of the ticket buyers at a handful of smallish American film festivals passionate about these movies, and if not, why are they getting so much press? Still, any cost-benefit analysis of the genre must admit that flowers do arise out of the sludge, and in “Hannah Takes the Stairs,” it’s the title character, as conceived by Swanberg’s ensemble and defined by Greta Gerwig’s performance. Hannah is a lovely-but-not-too-lovely production assistant at some kind of small-time production company, sharing an office with two geeky writers (Kent Osborne and Andrew Bujalski). Swanberg’s story merely follows her as she bounces from an unemployed boyfriend through relationships with her officemates, but Hannah herself is a fascinating concoction: she’s sweet and thoughtful, but at a loss in her own life, a little dull (and painfully aware of it), never the smartest person in the room and hardly at grips with what she wants out of a man. Gerwig has a dazzlingly guileless smile and big startled eyes (she’s more than a little DeGeneres-esque), and she imbues Hannah with an essential insecurity that remains mostly hidden — as in real life, you detect the weakness and uncertainty by way of the defenses propped up to cover them. Watch Gerwig’s hands — Hannah never knows where to put them. Organically, a clear sense of Hannah’s situation dawns: she can’t articulate her frustration, but she’s condemned to play second fiddle to every man she knows, because though she’s beautiful, she’s not creative or dynamic enough to dominate them. You don’t go to Swanberg’s movie because the cast is a veritable who’s who of mumblecore filmmakers (all of whom get screenplay credit as improvisers), or because it’s the genre entry the industry [including’s sister company IFC First Take] thought would break through to the mainstream. You go for Hannah.

04222008_unitedwestand.jpgAnother sort of ultra-indie phenom, the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s annual program “The World According to Shorts” (eight years and running) simply makes the world’s festivals’ commercially unviable short films available on the big screen for New Yorkers, and now a sampling has been packaged on DVD. Appropriately, it’s a mixed bag: I thought Daniel Askill’s digital trickery “We Have Decided Not to Die” (2004) was crashingly pretentious, but Hans Petter Moland’s “United We Stand” (2002), a deadpan Norwegian comedy about old men and quicksand, was refreshing and sharp. Hugo Maza’s “La Perra” (2002) — a Chilean bourgeois farce — may be obvious, but Adam Guzinski’s “Antichrist” (2002) fiercely and mysteriously limns a landscape of feral children self-destructing in a post-industrial wilderness, and it’s mesmerizing. Best of all is Andreas Hykade’s “Ring of Fire” (2000), a German-made gout of black and white vaginal psychedelia that riffs on the Western’s clichés and the aura of Johnny Cash just as it suggests the impact of a new mind-altering substance you didn’t know you took.

[Photos: “Hannah Takes the Stairs,” IFC First Take, 2007; “United We Stand,” New Yorker, 2008]

“Hannah Takes the Stairs” (Genius Products) and “The World According to Shorts” (New Yorker Video) are now available on DVD.

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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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