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The Secret History

The Secret History (photo)

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It’s been hard to forgive Peter Greenaway, above all, for the howling miscreant-ism of “8 1/2 Women” (1999). His particularized brand of hyper-structural art cinema — and Greenaway’s movies have always been stylistically distinctly his, which is no mean achievement — had already been in self-involved decline (“The Pillow Book,” etc.), but “8 1/2 Women” was a cliff edge, a film beyond which any globally respected career would have to take a good stoning, creep shamefacedly into a crawlspace somewhere and work on a sensibility overhaul while hoping we’d soon forget all about it. Greenaway has more or less hibernated since — a short here or there, and beginning in 2003 he churned out four connected features known as “The Tulse Luper Suitcases” that saw only festival screens, and went unreleased everywhere.

I still appreciate Greenaway, even if his movies are sometimes unbearable — his obviously honest compulsion to construct intricate Erector Set narrative contraptions, and his serious passion for such unfashionable things as history and fine art are endearing. “Nightwatching” (2007), then, is good news — a return to form and a full-on historical-riff epic, tricked out in Greenaway’s trademarked proscenium-tableau style (itself an inheritance from Renaissance art), exploring the vagaries and political labyrinth of Rembrandt’s life during the Dutch Golden Age. But, like Greenaway’s “The Draughtsman’s Contract” (1982), it’s centered on proposing and solving a mystery — Rembrandt’s landmark painting “The Nightwatch,” being a centuries-long source of conjecture and rereadings, is “solved” here as a literal j’accuse in regards to the murder of one of its subjects before the painting was finished.

In Greenaway’s view, Rembrandt (a robust and saucy Martin Freeman, probably best known for “The Office”) had little more than disdain for the Dutch aristocrats he was commissioned to paint, and so once he became embroiled with the Amsterdam Militia (more of a landowner men’s club than an actual militia in the mid-1600s), and realized that their captain’s death by gunshot wasn’t an accident, he contrived to load the group portrait he was paid to finish with clues, clues that have stood in the passage of time as odd enigmas in what was supposed to be a standard rich-man’s-genre painting of the period.

Greenaway captures the Rembrandt lighting and decor like no one else could ever, and his languid, big-boned visual energy is still hypnotic. And as always, Greenaway can be fabulously long-winded, and “Nightwatching” is for the most part entertainingly gabby, with the actors (including Jodhi May, Toby Jones and Natalie Press) tucking into their blocks of dialogue as if they were venison steaks. (Freeman has a spellbinding moment in which, while he’s discussing a painting, he offhandedly massages an infant’s gums with his pinkie.) But “Nightwatching” isn’t by itself completely satisfying — the mystery of “The Nightwatch” that Greenaway has used to restructure history isn’t exactly in the foreground. The film endeavors instead to explore Rembrandt’s character, as a hedonist and fading art-world power and womanizer, a familiar project that is inevitably less seductive than solving a 400-year-old murder with one of the world’s most famous paintings.

09152009_nightwatching3.jpgLuckily, Greenaway has it both ways — a second disc in the DVD set holds “Rembrandt’s J’Accuse” (2008), an elaborate, tumescent documentary retracing the other film’s case but doing it via Greenaway’s direct address, genuine museum visits, film clips, digital layering and a college year’s worth of cultural erudition. Greenaway goes over the painting questionable detail by detail, contextualizing it within the era, and does so with an Oxford don’s authority. The mystery holds up, and together the two films are a fascinating diptych and a rousing case made for the relevance and allure of history, in a modern world where, too often, last year is too long ago to remember.

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Rev Up

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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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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