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On DVD: Derek Jarman, “Heavy Metal in Baghdad”

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06242008_caravaggio.jpgBy Michael Atkinson

To each fiery cinema individualist his own honorial DVD box set: here we have a reacquaintance — or initiation, for the babies of the Reagan/Thatcher era — with the unique howl of Derek Jarman, dead in 1994 from AIDS at the age of 52, a career attenuated by the very same fate that ended up giving it such amperage. You’d never know it, but there was a time when British filmmakers, emboldened by punk culture, fueled by hatred for Thatcherite conservatism, and funded by the BFI and the new Channel Four, made outrageous, experimental, high culture vs. low culture collision movies, doped on structuralism and gender-bending and period-picture mockery. Jarman was the moment’s jester prince; he never made a film you’d mistake for the work of another, or a film that doesn’t manifest on the screen as an unpredictably impish riff on serious matters, Art-making and Sex and Death. Not to mention, Jarman’s was a not-so-distant day when thanks to a small number of artists, but largely to Jarman, gay cinema had a chance to be regarded as pioneering art, and not just politics.

His arsenal of tools was various but distinctive: voguing tableaux, camp ballet, cabaret schtick, poeticized narration, post-Genet softcore iconicity, satiric anachronism, found footage, etc. (Add in a tireless fascination with angels, before Tony Kushner saw AIDS in an angelic light.) But Jarman’s style, always meta-, freely mutated from film to film. “Caravaggio” (1986) put him on the map, and in addition to fulfilling the threadbare promise of “Sebastiane” (1976), it divided and conquered its relationship with classical culture. Jarman simultaneously reproduced the Italian master’s imagery and lighting dynamics (this was done so adroitly it was in turn slavishly co-opted by Tarsem Singh in his famous video for R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion”), but also insisted on a caricatured, theatrical distance when it came to character and biography, framing art history not as a matter of a lofty past, but of a chaotic, exuberant, erection-hard now. His actors — Nigel Terry, Tilda Swinton, Dexter Fletcher, Sean Bean — gesticulate and fume and pose like street performers, and the artificiality of every aspect of the film repercusses around the contrived fauxness of all art. (Hardly anything is lent as much time and patience as the boredom and personality of Caravaggio’s models.) Applying a pregnant wit that has escaped both Peter Greenaway and Sally Potter, Jarman makes a pastiche out of the artist biopic, while at the same time revealing the process of making art as tangible and as just one factor in an artist’s stormy, sexual, emotional life.

Also in the glamly labeled “Glitterbox” set, along with a closet full of extras, essays, interviews and shorts, “Wittgenstein” (1993) pushes the palette of “Caravaggio” to extremes, characterizing the titular philosopher and the “art” of philosophy in general as mockable, cartoonish, vaudeville farce, complete with blackened stage background and dialogue with Bertrand Russell, John Maynard Keynes and a green-skinned dwarf Martian. “The Angelic Conversation” (1985) is a minor, impressionist collage film shot in Super-8 (a kind of warm-up for “The Last of England” three years later), but it’s “Blue” (1993), Jarman’s terminal work, that dares the most. Famously, it’s hardly a movie, but a complex narration and soundtrack playing behind (beside? atop?) an empty but bright blue screen. (It takes Godard and Gorin’s “Letter to Jane” one step further, from one image to none; it’s closest corollary might be a radio play.) Jarman’s text, about the decay of his body and eyesight in the grip of AIDS, and about his closing life already emptied of friends and lovers, is wry and intimate, and its relationship with what you’re seeing — and not seeing — is, to say the least, disquieting. “Blue” is intended to be seen in a darkened theater, where the relentless color amounts to an optical assault, and ends up playing tricks on your eyes. On home video, the experience is closer to seeing a Caravaggio in a textbook: edifying and necessary, but no replacement for being there.

06242008_heavymetalinbaghdad.jpgA refreshing radical spirit thumps out of “Heavy Metal in Baghdad” (2007), a crudely assembled video doc by the team behind Vice magazine, in which editor Suroosh Alvi and his crew recount firsthand the tale of Acrassicauda, Baghdad’s only heavy metal band. It’s a potent tale, because there really isn’t any heavy metal culture in Iraq, and the band itself (badly named, they admit, for the Latinate moniker of an Iraqi black scorpion) could barely find a place to practice, much less play for an audience. What’s more, members keep leaving the country as refugees, and, of course, there’s a war going on. The film is rich with telling details — the band wants to grow their hair ’90s-Metallica-long but cannot for fear of Muslim reprisals (their English, learned from American music and TV, often has a hick twang to it), and during one concert (performed in a catering hall dining room), the electricity shuts down, hilariously, in the middle of a song, inciting some griping about the American invasion before the power comes up again, resuming the thrash.

But in the end, the guys of Acrassicauda are just guys, making livings and starting families and eventually hightailing to Syria, where there isn’t any heavy metal, either, and “Heavy Metal in Baghdad” emerges as a rare, pro-am window on what’s actually going on in Iraq — it’s a “gangster’s paradise,” says Alvi, who effectively smuggled himself and his crew into Iraq without official sanction. Acrassicauda’s eloquent and stalwart bassist Firas, who ran an electronics store in downtown Baghdad for years before leaving, decimates the U.S. media’s portrait of the “sectarian fighting” — “Dude, I’m Sunni, my wife’s Shia, it’s just propaganda shit.” Jihad?, Alvi asks. “There’s no jihad. The people who are dying are all Muslim.”

[Photo: “Caravaggio,” Cinevista, 1986; “Heavy Metal in Baghdad,” Vice Films, 2007]

“Glitterbox: Derek Jarman x 4” (Zeitgeist Video) and “Heavy Metal in Baghdad” (Hart Sharp Video) are now available on DVD.

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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.


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…


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.


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).


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.


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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