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“They Live By Night” and fellow noirs, “Zodiac”

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By Michael Atkinson

IFC News

[Photo: Farley Granger in “They Live By Night,” RKO Radio Pictures, 1948]

To sing the song of noir — it’s not as easy as it once was, when critics like Raymond Durgnat and Paul Schrader were busy cataloging and specimen-boxing the genre as if it were a breed of black butterfly that had long lived on our streets and yet escaped our notice. In terms of utilizing the genre ourselves, nowadays we’re somewhere near post-retro-neo-meta-noir; the original tropes are no longer recyclable even as TV commercials, and the Jim Thompson-rediscovery school is garnering yawns on the straight-to-video indie shelf. “Sin City” — please. But the original noirs remain, despite formidable culture-rehash odds, the coolest and most resonant school of movie to have ever emerged in America — a half-century or more after the fact, the then-disregarded classics of the genre sit high on our trophy shelf while the huge hits of the ’45-’60 period — think “Forever Amber” (1947), “Jolson Sings Again” (1949), “The Robe” (1953), “White Christmas” (1954), “Guys and Dolls” (1955), “Around the World in 80 Days” (1956), etc. — are forgotten like the blundering, uninsightful trash they were. Further proof arrives almost monthly in the form of high-profile, reverent DVDs — noirs represent a huge, profitable percentage of today’s archive releases, while the expensive films listed above and dozens like them lay dormant in the vault.

The new Warner megabox — including no less than ten films on five discs, from RKO, MGM and Monogram in addition to Warner — is a bustin’ example, a veritable Belgian block of postwar alienation and all-American hardcore doom. The predominant world-beater in the mix is undoubtedly auteur-god Nicholas Ray’s disquieting debut “They Live by Night” (1948); it’s DVDization is an event. Not so well remembered today, Ray was once the “Cahiers du cinéma” crowd’s most sanctifiable discovery, Godard’s personal Star of Bethlehem (“Henceforth there is cinema. And the cinema is Nicholas Ray.”), and the auteur theory’s prototype: the irascible Hollywood pro who turned studio formula into quizzical masterpieces of pain, rue and struggle. “They Live by Night,” adapted from Edward Anderson’s “Thieves Like Us,” is prototypical noir: a decent-hearted but despairing portrait of the American ideal gone sour, with central characters (luckless crook-on-the-lam Farley Granger, his hapless girl Cathy O’Donnell) driven toward one dead end after another by impulse and fate.

Moody, subtle and emotional vulnerable, it’s one of the greatest debuts in film history, and you’d think the film would overshadow the rest of the set. But there are key works of powerful mistrust here, especially Anthony Mann’s Manhattan-tale thumper “Side Street” (1950), also with Granger and O’Donnell; Don Siegel’s flirtatious hoot “The Big Steal” (1949); John Farrow’s remarkable, long-take-beautiful “Where Danger Lives” (1950), in which a concussion-plagued Robert Mitchum finds himself woozily on the run for the border with bipolar slut Faith Domergue; and Fred Zinnemann’s thorny “Act of Violence” (1948), in which a vengeful Robert Ryan is, astonishingly, upstaged by Van Heflin’s meltdown suburban dad (discovered to be a POW camp informant), and Mary Astor, just seven years after “The Maltese Falcon,” appears as noir’s most convincing barroom whore. Each and every movie comes with audio commentaries (noir scholars, James Ellroy, aging stars) and exegetical featurettes.

If noir has a future and not merely a vivid, unforgettable past, it might lie with frustrating, cold-eyed, inconclusive docudrama epics like David Fincher’s “Zodiac,” a rangy historical tapestry, shot in the thoughtful-yet-overwrought way that Fincher has made his own, about an unsolved serial killer case that remains, guess what, unsolved. So the film isn’t about the crime or the criminal so much as society as it is ill-equipped to confront, not a genius mastermind, but simply a homicidal nobody who refuses to play by social rules and also refuses to leave himself obviously vulnerable the way psychopaths ordinarily do in films and in reality. In other words, it’s a careful, astute portrait of postwar America attempting to control the uncontrollable, a mere single individual who will not behave according to established norms. An anxious sense of reverse vulnerability is palpable — giving me plenty of good cause to think of 9/11 as well, another not terribly brilliant criminal scenario that succeeded merely because we never guessed anyone would ever do such a thing. Fincher’s film focuses on four investigators (cops Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards, journalist Robert Downey Jr., obsessed cartoonist Jake Gyllenhaal), all of whom get waylaid along the way by other social demands. And the killer skates. Tragic conclusion? Not really — the film makes no final statement, save perhaps this: we may smugly, nervously construct our civilization around control, safety and security. But there’ll always be ghosts in the machine.

“Film Noir Classic Collection, Vol. 4” (Warner Home Video) and “Zodiac” (Paramount) are now available on DVD.



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.