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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.



Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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GIFs via Giphy

Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”


IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?

Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!

Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.

Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 


IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

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

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.


New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…


IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.


IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.


The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”


Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).



Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.


And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.