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First Impressionism

First Impressionism (photo)

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Already justly celebrated everywhere, Steve McQueen’s “Hunger” is a historical scald, a chillingly powerful portrait of state violence, a serious import about authentic political rebellion that frankly contemplates the psyches of both the oppressed and the victimizers, and one of last year’s best films by any measure. But how to write about it so that it seems like the electromagnetic experience it is, without making it sound like just another in a long line of recent elliptical art films?

Honestly, efforts to evoke McQueen’s idiosyncratic choices make them sound not so idiosyncratic at all, more or less in the wheelhouse of “Ballast,” “Still Life,” “Silent Light,” “Gomorrah,” “The Headless Woman,” “Three Monkeys,” “Lorna’s Silence,” “Tulpan,” “The Sun,” “Import/Export,” and even genre films like “The Broken,” “Vinyan,” “Grace” and “Revanche.” Which makes “Hunger” sound, gulp, derivative, which it simply ain’t.

All we need to do, I think, is stop defining all of these films by what they aren’t. From the first landings of Kiarostami in the late ’80s, and Hou and Tsai and Tarr in the ’90s, and the subsequent influx of neo-realist enigmatists like the Dardennes, Dumont, Denis, Lodge Kerrigan and, most vitally, Jia Zhangke, these rarefied movies have been categorized largely by the orthodox movie ingredients they lack — exposition, omniscience, narrative transparency, familiar structure, loads of dialogue. Tough as it may seem, these movies should be extolled to a lay audience for their own richness, not for their resistance to showbiz reflexes.

02232010_Hunger3.jpgI wouldn’t want to suggest that it’s a unified global style (not any more or less than the New Wave antics that circled the Earth in the ’60s), but insofar as it has roots in Antonioni’s rocky soil, it’s also a new vibe, one that prioritizes rawness of experience over clarity, silence over explanations, impressionistic impact over plot. Ellipses are only a means to their own discombobulating end. Can we call this Impressionism? (Cinema’s had expressionisms and modernisms and abstractionisms, but never an Impressionism.) Should we label it at all? Why not?

McQueen’s movie is a masterpiece of the movement — chronicling the life of the IRA prisoners in the Maze Prison in 1981 that led to the hunger strike led by Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender), “Hunger” is a harrowing ordeal broken up so you’re never able to anticipate how the violence and the timeline will present themselves. The details are practically odiferous, but the form of the movie is a model of cause-effect political cinema — it’s divided to three distinct sections, and the first, in which the guards brutalize the prisoners inside and out and the prisoners respond with acts of defiance that mostly entail shit and piss, is practically a movie onto itself. Then Sands, whom we’ve met only briefly, sits down with a Belfast priest (Liam Cunningham) over cigarettes and for nearly a solid half-hour (including an initial single take that lasts over 16 minutes) discusses his plans for the hunger strike. Then the strike is underway, and we see in a dreamy but distressing montage Sands waste away to a bedsore-ridden skeleton, before simply shutting down.

It may seem sparse as narrative, but not while you’re watching it, and in terms of “content,” McQueen’s film bursts with political fire, implied backstory and conviction born out of suffering and persecution. The toll taken on the human body in the Maze is serious, and perhaps the most and the least you could say about the film as an experience is that it compels you to consider the reality outside of it and investigate the knotted politics of Irish-British warfare for yourself. “Hunger” is nothing if not a movie in which every frame is meant. If our tendency as jaded cinephiles is to sniff out the bullshit in whatever we’re watching — an occupation that doesn’t interest most moviegoers, who seem to like swallowing said bullshit in large, fluorescent heaps — then McQueen’s movie comes out smelling like roses.

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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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