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Documentary rehab.

Documentary rehab. (photo)

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Writing about the upcoming documentary “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work,” Jeffrey Wells notes that the film — a loving profile — has rehabilitated Rivers in his mind from “‘uh-huh, whatever’ status” to someone who’s a “highly admirable paragon of toughness and tenacity. Plus the doc deepens and saddens our understanding of who Rivers is, was and continues to be.”

That’s a win-win scenario for anyone who sets out to rehabilitate a person who’s become a punchline — or worse — in the public imagination, something that happens less often than you’d expect in an era when the unlikeliest people can be reclaimed from the pop-cultural dustbowl (say, Rick Astley’s transformation from ’80s artefact to YouTube “rickrolling” phenomenon and winner of “Best Act Ever” at the MTV Europe Music Awards 2008).

Many quality documentary profiles choose to take either a highly ambivalent take on their subjects (because it makes for good drama) or even an attack-dog one — a tricky act to pull off when you need the cooperation of your interview subject, but it can be done. Witness Barbet Schroeder’s “Terror’s Advocate,” in which interviewee Jacques Vergès doesn’t seem to understand that the more he explains his reasons for defending Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie, the deeper the hole he’s digging becomes. Schroeder’s a past master at hanging with morally objectionable people and letting them hang themselves (see also his documentary on the late Ugandan dictator Idi Amin); why people cooperate to let themselves be hung is unfathomable, but good for him.

A more ambivalent — and shockingly persuasive — example came in the form of “The Fog of War,” in which Errol Morris performed the unlikely task of letting Vietnam policy mastermind Robert McNamara plausibly present himself as a person who actually feels guilty about his past policy work rather than as the cold-blooded architect of one of America’s great traumas. It’s a tough-minded but oddly generous balancing act.

04082010_eyes.jpgFor straight-up celebration, though, politicians are almost impossibly problematic. It’s safer to stick to pop cultural figures, like Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato’s unlikely celebration of Tammy Faye Bakker, “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” — from fraudulent televangelist to gay icon — or “Anvil! The Story of Anvil.” In both cases, a too-easy pop cultural punchline (the latter long-forgotten) is given their dignity back, a kind of mutual-interest collaboration which is easier to do without crossing ethical boundaries when no serious moral offenses have been committed.

But here’s an example of a political figure given an unlikely rehabilitation, at least for 23 minutes. Ernesto Samper is the controversial 37th president of Columbia, who was investigated for having drug cartel money donated to his campaign — a scandal never definitively resolved, but which (among other things) led to his visitation visa for the US being revoked, effectively banning his presence.

In this hilarious short, which you should watch if you have 23 minutes to spare (and, with taxes due in a week, who doesn’t), Samper simply sits there and watches TV with running commentary — Fox News first, but then he starts channel-surfing out of sheer boredom, which is when things get fun. At one point, watching a telenovela, he groans “This is awful! And I’m responsible! I privatized TV!”

[Photos: “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work,” IFC Films, 2010; “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” Lions Gate Films, 2000]

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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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