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The Rise of the Fanumentary

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By Dan Persons

IFC News

[Photo: “95 Miles to Go,” ThinkFilm, 2006]

Halfway through a screening of “95 Miles to Go,” the video diary of comedian Ray Romano’s performance tour through the south, I thought I saw the future of documentary filmmaking, and it scared the shit out of me. I saw comedians, rock stars, actors — anyone with the self-possession to offer themselves up to the spotlight and the inclination to jam a camcorder into a subordinate’s hands — capturing the tiniest minutiae of their lives for the camera. I saw distributors, motivated by star names and low, low budgets, snapping up 90-minute draughts of real-life esoterica better fit for the bonus features of a concert DVD. I saw a new breed of vanity filmmaking gone mobile: Every Holiday Inn a studio! Every personal assistant a de facto documentarian! And I steeled myself for the tide of ego-fueled effluvia that I felt was sure to come.

It hasn’t gotten that bad, but the threat still looms. “95 Miles to Go” should be the cautionary lesson that puts filmgoers on their guard. Much as I enjoy Ray Romano’s comedy, a hour and fifteen minutes of him whining about hotel rooms and rest-stops is certainly more than anyone should be asked to endure (imagine what the full, eight-day journey was like). This is pack-yer-camcorder filmmaking at its most basic, and most tedious. Watching it, you get the sense that the biggest difference between such road-documentaries and your average home movie is the amount of Velcro mounting material that gets packed.

Ray Romano is not the only target of filmmakers who seem to think the world spins on their subject’s merest breath. Take, for instance, “The Outsider,” Nicholas Jarecki’s adoring profile of gadfly director James Toback. As the brother of nonfiction helmers Eugene and Andrew Jarecki and the author of “Breaking In: How 20 Film Directors Got Their Start,” Jarecki’s managed his own break-in by corralling a who’s who of cinematic talent — Woody Allen, Barry Levinson, and Robert Towne amongst them — to sing Toback’s praises. And for about 45 minutes, it sort of works. There’s a certain, perverse fun in watching Toback ply his craft (the sum of his direction to model Bridget Hall is, “You are yourself, and you stop me and tell me you’re fascinated by my book”). The more you observe, though, the more you may be reminded that, while some regard Toback’s work as masterpieces of free-form filmmaking, others see only formless rehashings of his obsessions with desperate gamblers and two-on-one sex. By the time Jarecki starts sitting Toback down in the same frame with the people who are supposed to be talking about him — always a bad idea — the mutual stroking becomes as oppressive as the knowledge that any twenty-something actress in a Toback film will inevitably wind up naked in a clinch with Robert Downey Jr.

There’s even more star-power in Sidney Pollack’s “Sketches of Frank Gehry,” but of a distinctly Forbesian pedigree: Michael Eisner, Barry Diller, Mike Ovitz, Philip Johnson. They’re all here to bear witness to the architect’s inarguable genius, yet what may lodge most indelibly in your mind is not their testimony, nor the shots of Gehry’s mammoth, undulating structures, but the sight of Pollack wielding a camcorder as he interviews the man. The prevalence of such footage is curious — it’s as if the Hollywood stalwart wanted as much to immortalize his own embrace of new media as to celebrate the work of his subject. (The self-consciousness becomes all the more conspicuous when you realize that Pollack’s gone to the trouble of having another cameraperson there to record his foray into film-it-yourself production.) It doesn’t work, of course — much as Pollack wants to display his blossoming as an indie filmmaker, the industry roots still show (viz those mover-and-shaker interviews). But at least he brings in critic Hal Foster for an opposing viewpoint, and, since I seriously doubt I’ll ever set foot in Bilbao, I have to welcome any opportunity to explore Gehry’s dazzling, radical style in this kind of detail.

As for the celebrity list of “Wrestling with Angels,” how about Meryl Streep, Mike Nichols, and Marcia Gay Harden? The plus side here is that these stars feel more in proportion to the real world, maybe because the film’s subject, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner, feels rather grounded himself. I only wish director Freida Lee Mock had taken her stylistic tip less from Kushner’s down-to-earth personality and more from the bold imagery of such plays as “Angels in America” — her straightforward treatment pays off in such moments as when Kushner visits his Louisiana home, but devolves into something like a succession of making-of videos while the film catalogues the creation of some of Kushner’s recent work (a sense only emphasized as Maurice Sendak, through no fault of his own, briefly wrests the spotlight away from the film’s putative subject). Still, the passion and social concern of the man overcomes the bland treatment — any person who can create a piece in which Laura Bush reads “The Brothers Karamazov” to a group of dead Iraqi children has earned, in my estimation, whatever adulation falls his way.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…


IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.


IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).


IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.


IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.


IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.



IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on and the IFC app.

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G.I. Jeez

Stomach Bugs and Prom Dates

E.Coli High is in your gut and on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Brothers-in-law Kevin Barker and Ben Miller have just made the mother of all Comedy Crib series, in the sense that their Comedy Crib series is a big deal and features a hot mom. Animated, funny, and full of horrible bacteria, the series juxtaposes timeless teen dilemmas and gut-busting GI infections to create a bite-sized narrative that’s both sketchy and captivating. The two sat down, possibly in the same house, to answer some questions for us about the series. Let’s dig in….


IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

BEN: Hi ummm uhh hi ok well its like umm (gets really nervous and blows it)…

KB: It’s like the Super Bowl meets the Oscars.

IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

BEN: Oh wow, she’s really cute isn’t she? I’d definitely blow that too.

KB: It’s a cartoon that is happening inside your stomach RIGHT NOW, that’s why you feel like you need to throw up.

IFC: What was the genesis of E.Coli High?

KB: I had the idea for years, and when Ben (my brother-in-law, who is a special needs teacher in Philly) began drawing hilarious comics, I recruited him to design characters, animate the series, and do some writing. I’m glad I did, because Ben rules!

BEN: Kevin told me about it in a park and I was like yeah that’s a pretty good idea, but I was just being nice. I thought it was dumb at the time.


IFC: What makes going to proms and dating moms such timeless and oddly-relatable subject matter?

BEN: Since the dawn of time everyone has had at least one friend with a hot mom. It is physically impossible to not at least make a comment about that hot mom.

KB: Who among us hasn’t dated their friend’s mom and levitated tables at a prom?

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

BEN: There’s a lot of content now. I don’t think anyone will even notice, but it’d be cool if they did.

KB: A show about talking food poisoning bacteria is basically the same as just watching the news these days TBH.

Watch E.Coli High below and discover more NYTVF selections from years past on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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