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Small Town Noir

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By Matt Singer and Alison Willmore

IFC News

[Photo: “Fargo,” Gramercy Pictures, 1996]

Kansas City might not be an obvious place to set a heist film, but Scott Frank’s “The Lookout” makes atmospheric use of the wide spaces at its outskirts and surrounding farms to tell a compellingly neo-noir tale of an unusual recruit in a bank robbery. Film noir may have been born in an urban world (Los Angeles, perhaps, with a few childhood visits to San Francisco and New York) and defined by the look of a labyrinth of seedy bars, dark alleys, mansions in the hills, crowded lunch counters and broad sidewalks, but modern noir is just as likely to be found in Midwestern suburbs as in your pick of America’s big, bad cities. There may in fact be more punch in seeing the less expected suspects of a small town get pulled in to dark intrigues. In “Out of the Past,” Robert Mitchum’s Jeff fled to far away Bridgeport, CA to escape his misdeeds and lead a quiet life, only to have the city find him. These days, small town life is no more benign than downtown New York — here’s a look at films noir both old and new that venture further along down the highway.

“Blood Simple” (1984)

Directed by Joel Coen

There are no blind alleys or rain-soaked trenchcoats, and the private detective isn’t a dashing, square-jawed matinee idol, he’s doughy, sweat-stained M. Emmet Walsh. To be sure, “Blood Simple” does not look like film noir. Much of the action takes place on a run-of-the-mill suburban street; there’s even a gag at the expense of one of the characters when he peels out dramatically without realizing he’s headed down into a cul-de-sac and has to turn around and drive back. But even plucked out of the genre’s requisite surroundings, there’s no denying the noir that seeps through the characters’ heinous acts of adultery, deception, jealousy and violence. In true noir everyone, including the nominal hero, is flawed or crooked. True to that ethos, there is no innocence by the end of “Blood Simple,” just varying degrees of villainy. Either you’ve cheated on your husband, or you’ve betrayed your boss, or you’ve assaulted your wife, or you’ve been hired to kill someone, or actually killed someone. No one’s hands are clean, not even Frances McDormand’s, who may be the sweetest femme fatale in history, and also one of the most efficient. She looks nice, but think about this: how many of the men in her life are alive by movie’s end?

“Fargo” (1996)

Directed by Joel Coen

It’s hard to get over the accents — the joke is so ubiquitous (and more than a little cheap) that on first viewing, it’s all you remember: “You betcha!” The Coen brothers grew up in a suburb of Minneapolis, which makes them as entitled as anyone to poke fun of the area — they’re certainly well-versed in the quotidian details of midwinter Minnesota life. There are no great masterminds behind “Fargo”‘s central kidnapping crime; everyone involved, from William H. Macy’s amusingly discontented car salesman turned instigator Jerry Lundegaard to Steve Buscemi’s weaselly low-rent hood Carl Showalter, is deeply incompetent. Then again, no one in the Brainerd area seems suited to crime or criminality — Lundegaard’s plan may have started crumbling before he ever set it in action, but witnesses can’t even manage to describe Showalter as more than “funny looking.” Into this mix comes Frances McDormand’s infinitely sensible police chief Marge Gunderson, who, seven months pregnant, relentlessly cheery and equipped with a hat with ear flaps, is in all ways the opposite of a noir hero. All ways except in her competence — an awkward figure padding out into the snow, she patiently unwinds the events that led to a set of roadside murders. The film’s famous reveal — the woodchipper! — is both funny and shockingly violent, but it’s Marge’s chiding talk with an apprehended criminal afterward that sticks in your gullet, as she greets his actions not with cynicism or jaded curiosity but with genuine incomprehension: “And here ya are, and it’s a beautiful day.”

“Gun Crazy” (1950)

Directed by Joseph H. Lewis

Before it succumbs to many of the trappings of traditional film noir, including big city bank heists and getaways (albeit ones spectacularly filmed in unforgettably long takes, courtesy of director Joseph
H. Lewis and cinematographer Russell Harlan), “Gun Crazy,” one for any all-star film noir list, is rich with small-town details. The story concerns the “thrill crazy” relationship between loves-on-the-lam
Annie (Peggy Cummins) and Bart (John Dall) who have one of the wildest and most suggestive meetings in all of the movies. She’s a trick shooter in a carnival and when they meet she’s shooting blanks — but not for long. He’s in the audience when she calls for a challenger and the two battle back and forth with their pistols, matching each other bullet for bullet. By the time they’ve each lit crowns of matches off each other’s head with their guns, the impending intercourse is pretty much a formality. “What else do you do besides shoot?” she asks when the contest is over, and it’s pretty clear she’s not talking about crochet. The seamy, smelly, elephant-poop-laden world of the traveling carnival has never been so sexy.

“The Ice Harvest” (2005)

Directed by Harold Ramis

“As Wichita falls… so falls Wichita Falls,” or so reads the enigmatic graffiti that greets John Cusack’s crooked lawyer Charlie several times over the course of the wretched Christmas Eve charted in Harold Ramis’ pitch black comedy noir. Wichita, KS, battened down in the grip of an alarming ice storm, has never looked so terrible — not that there are many instances of it appearing on film with which to make a comparison. “The Ice Harvest” isn’t really about Wichita anyway, at least not in the sense that there’s any local flavor. Wichita — hardly, in real life, a small town — stands in for any out-of-the-way nook someone doesn’t want to be trapped in. Most of the film’s characters, including Connie Nielsen’s femme fatale Renata, who appears to have been dropped into Kansas straight from the embrace of a 40s noir film, are so eager to cut ties with the town that they double-cross and messily murder each other without hesitation or much experience. The film is remarkable for its misanthropy — Charlie and his untrustworthy partner Vic (a very funny Billy Bob Thornton) are dislikable people, but then so is everyone else, including Charlie’s ex-wife, now married to his best friend Pete (Oliver Platt). In her fixed smile during an agonizing holiday dinner scene, we catch a glimpse of a whole other world of respectable misery the film only brushes by on its way to a violent end.

“Shadow of a Doubt” (1943)

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

With its closely cropped lawns, sun-drenched streets and its very own traffic directing cop (who is apparently on duty all day, every day), the town of Santa Rosa, California, the picturesque setting for Alfred Hitchcock’s familial film noir “Shadow of a Doubt,” could legally change its name to Mayberry and pull it off. And of course, that’s the point (with Hitchcock, everything has a point; the setting, the clothes, even the catered lunch for the crew). “Shadow of a Doubt” is perhaps the prototype of the now endlessly mimicked and frequently parodied set-up where the seemingly idyllic suburbs hide darkness beneath their chlorophyllous exteriors. The film — often cited by Hitchcock as his personal favorite amongst his work — follows Joseph Cotton’s mysterious Uncle Charlie, who rides into Santa Rosa (on one of the most ominous pollution-spewing trains in cinema history; the symbolic exhaust from its chimney practically obliterates the midday sun) to stay with his sister’s family, but soon his behavior draws the suspicion of his beloved teenaged niece Charlie (Teresa Wright). Everything from then on is about surfaces and secrets, double meanings and duplicates from the two Charlies to the elder one’s murderous moniker (the seemingly oxymoronic “Merry Widow Murderer”). And the setting is critical; we assume people from the big city are conniving kleptomaniacs, but places like Santa Rosa are supposed to protect honesty and goodness like they were endangered species in a national park. Like he did so many times, Hitchcock shatters our hard-fought illusions with a wrecking ball.

“A Simple Plan” (1998)

Directed by Sam Raimi

No small town noir is as devastating as Sam Raimi’s first foray into serious cinema, because no other one is as determined to show fundamentally good people crumble under the weight of moral compromises. Hank Mitchell (Bill Paxton), his blundering brother and his brother’s unpredictable, heavy-drinking friend stumble onto a downed plane containing a corpse and four million dollars, and, after some bickering, come up with a plan to keep the cash. Naturally, things go wrong, and soon, very wrong — the film would seem ludicrously gothic were it not for the convincing progression of its terrible events, and the sometimes amusing bumblings of the would-be criminals. Living in the snow-covered Minnesota town in which they grew up, the characters manage to discover in themselves dissatisfactions that would never have occurred to them were the possibility of something else not dangled tantalizingly in front of their faces. Even Bridget Fonda, as Mitchell’s sweetly pregnant wife, reveals, in a memorable turn, an inner, steely Lady Macbeth.

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.


Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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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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