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Won’t Get Fooled Again

Won’t Get Fooled Again (photo)

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Since he emerged out of the psychotronica closet of his first potent but crude features, there have been two fairly distinct David Cronenbergs — the extremist/obsessive who’s been happy to exploit the fleshier anxieties of science fiction and surrealism, and the critic’s darling that sprung up around the time of the still-underrated “Crash” (1996), all the easier to laud for having left the icky aspects of genre behind him. Relative to the psychosexual force on exhibition in “Videodrome” (1983), “The Dead Zone” (1983), “The Fly” (1986), “Dead Ringers” (1988) and “Naked Lunch” (1991), it seems to me that “eXistenZ” (1999), “Spider” (2002), “A History of Violence” (2005) and “Eastern Promises” (2007) are both fairly prosaic and predictable, especially in light of the critical handstands they inspired. It’s not all as cut and dried as that, of course, but it still leaves “M. Butterfly” (1993) lingering, coyly and enigmatically, right in the middle. Cronenberg fans never warmed to this unsensationalized Broadway adaptation, and for theater fans, the film was far too odd, too self-aware, too subtle. Despite producer David Geffen’s highball hopes, it sank without a splash.

Saying “M. Butterfly” fits in with Cronenberg’s docket of ideas, from body horror to identity-versus-perception to cataclysmic sexual confusion, is nothing new, but the film’s replacement of fantasy disorientation with a freakshow true story was. And what a story, rich in double meanings and fractured realities: a French diplomat in 1960s China named Bernard Boursicot was seduced by a male Peking Opera star he believed to be a woman, carried on a years-long affair with him/her (all the while divulging state secrets, which were passed on to the Chinese), and even produced, somehow, a child, and for the length of the relationship the Frenchman never realized he was in love with a man. In Cronenberg’s closed-maze version (though shot on location, the film’s Beijing is made to resemble the Zone from “Naked Lunch”), Jeremy Irons is the diffident, dreamy bureaucrat, and the cross-dressing spy is John Lone, and though they act the devil out of the many dicey scenarios on hand (including the discreet, fully-robed, must-be-anal sex), the casting is both the movie’s ball & chain and its wittiest flourish.

Lone is the stickiness here: never for a moment is he believable as a woman (as opposed, it is said, B.D. Wong on Broadway), even if Cronenberg himself says in the DVD supplements that he worried about Lone’s name in the credits giving the game away.

But Cronenberg knew he wasn’t going for verisimilitude: I remember reading interviews at the time in which he dismissed several authentic drag queens while casting, saying they were too convincing — kinda like Christ’s last temptation, what does the diplomat’s moony ardor and credulity mean if it’s easily fooled, if we all might make the same error? (Cronenberg’s decision to avoid gotchas is so much more interesting than the near-contemporaneous and comparatively banal “The Crying Game,” whose cross-dressing hero didn’t fool me, a straight man, for a second either.) As usual with Cronenberg, there’s a sense of meta-awareness that doesn’t always jump up and say howdy — every one of Lone’s scenes is a defiant essay on otherness, scrambling received notions of femininity, masculinity, Chinese-ness, continental European-ness, even “Orientality,” as Lone’s Chinese man masquerades as a woman singer playing a female Japanese character in an opera written by an Italian man, for a French audience (played by Brits), who mistake him (or see him truly?) as a male Beijing Opera actor traditionally playing the female parts. No wonder Beijing looks like a set. Appearances are everything — as the Maoist students demonstrate outside, burning great piles of traditional dress.

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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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