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We liked you better when you were a dissident.

We liked you better when you were a dissident. (photo)

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Once upon a time, it was much simpler to pick out the important world auteurs. For example, it was a good sign if someone was a dissident. Pretty much all of the post-’30s Soviet directors worth a damn — Andrei Tarkovsky, Sergei Parajanov, Kira Muratova — got banned, and the correlative relationship between the outlaw and the great artist made things easier to parse.

These days it’s trickier. Abbas Kiarostami, one of the undisputed masters of Iranian cinema, seemed to issue nothing less than a direct challenge to Iran’s rulers, complete with a woman with her head-scarf off, in 2002’s “Ten.” But lately, he’s emerged as a bit of a toady, lambasting countrymen Bahman Ghobadi and Ja’far Panahi for the social critiques embedded in their films.

Jia Zhangke, once an underground filmmaker, is now a director whose movies at least one person I know refuses to watch because of how he responded to the Uighur problem. Jia, a Sixth Generation filmmaker parallel to the Fifth Generation’s Zhang Yimou, is, just like Zhang, transitioning from a righteous aesthetic/political force to a filmmaker potentially compromised on both fronts.

Even five years ago, Zhang’s trajectory from frequently banned filmmaker to state artist still gave us some great art. “Hero” is arguably propaganda for “strong leadership,” but it’s also propaganda that translates gorgeously (and, without context, seemingly apolitically) from China to the rest of the world. Now his “Blood Simple” remake “A Woman, A Gun and a Noodle Shop” is being condemned for representing (as Marie-Pierre Duhamel puts it) “more the goals of the official industry than the more creative trends of Chinese cinema.”

02192010_tenkiarostami.jpgKiarostami, Zhang and Jia’s active cozying up to the regimes in question unnerves me, but not half as much as the efforts to castigate them. For one thing, we’re all operating through half-verifiable information; for another, we all have our political prejudices. Mine are as predictably lefty as they come. This makes me distrust everyone. History’s treatment of filmmakers who settled on the wrong side of the ideological line has generally been kind if they came through aesthetically — we’re still studying “Triumph of the Will” and D.W. Griffith.

But in the past, most admired directors also happened to be on the “right” side of things politically — in many cases, they were entangled in situations that earned them the equal admiration of the left and right. Such is indeed the case of Kiarostami, Zhang and Jia: once dissidents who’ve cooled down and continued working at the same level of aesthetic rareification (or, in Zhang’s case, literally using the state’s resources towards an overwhelming goal, culminating in the 2008 Beijing Olympics’ opening ceremony). Now Kiarostami is condemning his successors for no obvious reason, Jia’s playing ball with the state, and Zhang appears to have lost interest in having all of his movies banned (and the reviews for “A Woman” remake are wretched to boot). And what of someone like Alexei Balabanov, the Russian director whose past work has included some undeniable racism, yet whose formal skill is seductive to anyone prone to being sucked in by that kind of thing?

It was once an axiom that fascism can’t produce great work. Well, maybe not, but repressive regimes can produce great art (Zhang’s “House of Flying Daggers” is major to me, though some prefer “Hero”; Balabanov’s “Cargo 200” is brilliant, but also xenophobically nationalist and unthinking in a way suited to its era) in a way that was less clear in the 20th century. So now what? How we can judge and (possibly) condemn filmmakers whose accommodations to pragmatism we can’t possibly understand is becoming a harder question by the day.

[Photos: “A Woman, A Gun And A Noodle Shop,” Sony Pictures Classics, 2010; “Ten,” Zeitgeist Films, 2002]

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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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