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Mitchell Lichtenstein on “Teeth”

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By Aaron Hillis

IFC News

[Photos: Left, John Hensley and Jess Weixler in “Teeth”; below, Mitchell Lichtenstein on set, Roadside Attractions, 2008]

Indie film journalists can be just as lazy as mainstream consumer reporters, as evidenced by some of the reductive shorthand overheard at festivals in recent years to describe more provocative fare: “Have you seen the Ellen Page torture movie yet?” “How awful was that Dakota Fanning rape movie?” “That Romanian abortion movie just won Cannes.” If anyone’s particularly tired of this, it has to be Mitchell Lichtenstein — a Spirit Award-nominated actor who’s worked with Robert Altman, Louis Malle and Ang Lee (and who is the son of Pop Art icon Roy!) — whose disturbing directorial debut “Teeth” has been simply known as “the vagina dentata movie” since its Sundance ’07 premiere. Up-and-comer Jess Weixler stars as prudish high school student Dawn, whose advocacy in a local abstinence group makes psychological sense as she comes to fully realize that, unlike herself, not all girls are born with vicious teeth under their chastity belts. It’s a comic-horror coming-of-age riff on a mythic story that’s been passed down from several ancient cultures, but it’s most decidedly not for the squeamish; while pretty much every male character deserves their onscreen punishment for their misogynistic misdeeds, what winds up in the mouth of a snarling dog alone will turn faces as white as a new set of veneers. I spoke with Lichtenstein about the film and his intentions in addressing real world issues, as some of the best genre films do.

During the writing process, did you set any goals for yourself in how best to craft a story around the idea of vaginal chompers?

I wanted to both use and expose this myth. I knew about it from years ago, but when I began to research it, I saw how, in many ancient cultures, it was pretty pervasive. Then I thought the best horror movies deal with a deep-seated primal fear, and this is pretty primal. [laughs] I also knew that in the end, I didn’t want to perpetuate the gynophobia, so I’d turn it on its [ear]. The myth always has the hero conquering the woman, and destroying the teeth. I knew the woman would always be the hero and should never be conquered. I see her as a superhero with this power in the same way that Superman can leap tall buildings in a single bound.

To me, the film seems thematically bifurcated by Dawn’s sexual awakening, when she realizes she can control her abnormality as a weapon against predators. Up until that point, I had been expecting a social satire on sexual politics, but everything suddenly shifts into a straight revenge fantasy. Were you concerned that this might be too tonally jarring for audiences or distributors?

Well, that’s the thing. I luckily wasn’t obligated to channel it into one particular genre. I think most movies are obligated at some point or another to do that, and I was really just trying to tell the story in the way that made the most sense. There is a time when it clicks into this other genre, because that’s what her character arc really calls for there. I knew that the concept alone might be a hard sell, but beyond that, taking from different genres would be another hurdle. If it works, then hopefully audiences will appreciate that it doesn’t follow exactly the same course as other movies.

Expectations should be subverted, I agree. But I’m thinking about the film’s early statements on modern puritanical behavior, such as the state-enforced sticker covering up a diagram of female genitalia in Dawn’s sex ed textbook. These fall away when she comes to terms with her “gift,” after which she abandons her sexual ideals entirely. She’s suddenly the empowered vigilante in Abel Ferrara’s “Ms. 45,” but with a killer libido instead of a gun. Isn’t that almost a bait and switch?

I don’t know. None of that came up for me, so it wasn’t really an issue. I see the sticker — which did happen in at least one school, where the female anatomy was covered but not the male — in a way, that attitude created the vagina dentata, that attitude of whether it’s maintaining mystery about women or subjugation. That’s the same kind of fear that would come up with such a myth. So I think they are very connected that then results in what you see in the end. I just never really looked at the script from the outside and said “There should be more of this or that.” I think it’s clear that my intentions are not misogynistic.

So any real-life correlations were more for passing reference than anything you wanted to proactively address about sexual politics or the culture wars?

Well, only to reference them to the degree that they are addressed. It’s not a treatise or anything. I think since you notice that [the textbook censorship] has happened, a lot of people wonder, “Well, is that a real thing?” Then you find out, yeah, at least for a time it was a real thing, and what does that mean? It’s just something in passing, but there is a connection between that and this ridiculous invention that presumably men invented about women’s anatomy.

In all the talk of abstinence in the film, it felt to me that you were tiptoeing around religion. Was this intentional?

Abstinence is usually God or Jesus-related, but I didn’t want to [come off] like I was Christian-bashing. I thought it was enough without, and you don’t really need God in there to discuss this whole abstinence thing — I didn’t want to add that to the pile; it’s not my current concern. I have nothing against people choosing abstinence, and my only gripe with the abstinence groups is that often information is withheld. It leads to limiting sex education and pretending condoms don’t work. I think kids need to be completely informed about everything, make their decision about it, and have support groups if that’s what they’re doing, [as long as no one] twists scientific evidence. I think all the studies done in those groups show that they don’t delay sexual activity except maybe for a few months, and then when kids do ultimately fall off the wagon, they’re less informed, less likely to use birth control, and more likely to get pregnant. It doesn’t actually appear to work.

Has the film had different reactions from men and women?

There are often guys who storm out at some point in the movie, which I usually find satisfying. We were at a film festival recently, and I came back for the last 15 minutes. After the dog incident, these two guys stood up and walked out, saying, “Thanks for that.” It was really funny that they would last that long, and then five minutes before the end, that was the last straw and they couldn’t take it anymore. Men react differently to certain parts of the movie more viscerally than women do, and I’ve heard about men who were disturbed about just how into the movie their girlfriends were. [laughs]

“Teeth” opens in limited release January 18th.

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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.

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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…

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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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 IFC.com and the IFC app.

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