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Doing It to Death

Doing It to Death (photo)

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Smooth criminal or fragile humanitarian? Eternally childlike or mortally flawed? Black or white? Might not the late Michael Jackson have been all of the above? As for Kenny Ortega, the longtime MJ associate entrusted to whittle three-and-a-half hours of rehearsal footage down to less than two, he was obviously never going to be Barbara Kopple or Albert Maysles, much less Pedro Costa or Frederick Wiseman. But at least Ortega’s “This Is It” allows us to see the self-anointed King of Pop as a moonwalking mass of contradictions right to the end, which is about as much as one could reasonably want from a posthumous cash-in whose printed prologue rushes to praise MJ’s “passionate gift,” a work of literal deadline journalism whose stated responsibility is to “the fans.”

Still, for some — that is, roughly a smidgen of the zillions who’ll flock to “This” — as much as one could reasonably want will be more than they can bear. Driven to protect their late idol even after he’s gone, a subset of die-hards have boycotted the movie for presumably rewarding those close collaborators who didn’t do enough to save their heavily medicated and rail-thin boss between early March and June 25. As if addressing this very constituency, Ortega includes himself in the film asking Jackson — perturbed by a pesky headset whose sound is “like a fist in my ear” — whether there’s anything the crew can do for him, gently reminding the superstar that all he needs to do for help is ask.

However unintended, “This Is It” testifies to a truth older than “HIStory”: Faced with the untimely death of a loved one, the grief-stricken can find it more comforting to pin the tragedy on others (in this case, Ortega, et al.), even or especially when, on some level, the deceased could be said to have done it to himself. Another thing is more certain still: Fist in his ear, machine-gun blazing for “Smooth Criminal,” a digital army at his command in “They Don’t Care About Us,” the MJ of “This” is a man whose metaphors are exceedingly violent — at least until the world-healing finale, wherein we learn that the King of Pop loved trees, too.

Those teeming undead of “Thriller,” ordered by Jackson to terrorize the concert crowd in 3D, are nothing if not the artist’s personal demons, resurrected more or less intact from their first appearance in 1982 — when, it must be said, they appeared a helluva lot fresher. Supernatural energy he had, indeed, but the vision of nostalgia MJ mustered for his comeback shows looks exceedingly tired. No wonder his other notable metaphor — issued as an instruction to his keyboardist — likens the obligatory opening of “The Way You Make Me Feel” to “dragging yourself out of bed.”

So yeah, despite its salutary intentions, “This Is It” works plenty well as a psychological study of a pop star at or near the end of his microphone cord. The film’s unmistakable high point — it gave me goose bumps, to be honest — is MJ’s pained falsetto on a rough run-through of “Human Nature”: The singing is unspeakably beautiful, for starters, added to which is the poignancy of the lyrics, as human nature is obviously something the perfectionist performer often found difficult or impossible to emulate.

Beyond that haunting passage, no longer than a minute or two, “This Is It” generously accommodates one’s desire to view Jackson’s self-described “final curtain call” as, well, overwhelmingly pathetic — weird but never kinky, downright tacky in conception as well as costuming, and, above all, extremely familiar. Reprising even Bob Giraldi’s line-dance choreography for the “Beat It” video, Jackson seems to want to have shown that, at 50, he could do it exactly the same as he did it at 25 — as if art is an exercise in taxidermic (or surgical) preservation rather than a natural evolution, what you and I would consider human nature.

10272009_thisisit2.jpgIn all fairness to Ortega (or maybe it’s an insult, I don’t know), it should be said that his work on “This” had largely been done even before he entered the editing room. If Entertainment Weekly‘s recent curtain-peeling cover story is to be believed, a “team of editors” (or lawyers?) selected Ortega’s usable material from a whopping 120 hours of footage. A countless number of radically dissimilar films could’ve been sculpted out of that mountain; one can only fantasize about, say, Nick Broomfield’s brilliantly bottom-feeding cut, wherein the fans camped outside L.A.’s Staples Center are somehow implicated in the “murder.”

Maybe it’s even fairer to say that the great MJ documentary had already been made more than a decade ago — that is, “Living With Michael Jackson,” the prime-time network special-cum-all-access shocker that Martin Bashir amazingly delivered with at least some degree of his subject’s consent. The ultimate measure of Jackson’s combustible mix of vulnerability and control, resolved only through his death, “Living With Michael Jackson” (check the Internet for “showtimes”) stands as a pricelessly rare rebuttal of the formula by which celebrity docs amount to little more than products of carefully controlled PR. Maybe MJ, in that screening room in the sky, could begin to forgive Bashir for his guerrilla infiltration of Neverland and see “Living” as something valuably closer than “This” to the real deal.

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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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