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“Walker,” “The Draughtsman’s Contract”

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By Michael Atkinson

British cinema would’ve been a far more dire prospect in the Reagan-Thatcher years if it hadn’t been for Alex Cox and Peter Greenaway, two wildly disparate but brilliantly rebellious and, you could say, slightly insane independents — insofar as you could categorize them as filmmakers working in some kind of English tradition. Mostly, you couldn’t — Cox, for his part, always considered himself more of a punk without a country than a British voice; only his second film, the magisterial “Sid & Nancy” (1986), is set in the U.K. His quick arc after the tireless indie success of “Repo Man” (1984) is a study in the punk-artist paradigm — first, drop your pants at the establishment, then get brought into the system, then quickly reveal yourself to be an ungovernable brat, and get dumped like a sizzling isotope. Cox’s moment of truth was “Walker” (1987), one of most viciously prankish and politically outrageous fireballs ever to hurl out of Hollywood. It was only Cox’s fourth feature and it summarily ended his ascension in even semi-mainstream cinema. (In interviews, Cox remembers being astonished that he didn’t receive a single call or offer after the film was released.) Needless to say, it’s a movie that demands our respect and reverence.

For all of his snot-nosed impishness and drunken élan, Cox is a die-hard leftist, and “Walker” is his wickedest, angriest rocket launch, a historical “drama” documenting the late career of William Walker, a polymathic doctor, writer, adventurer and filibuster who, in the mid-1850s, was sent to take over Nicaragua by Cornelius Vanderbilt (played like Nero by Peter Boyle). Which he did — Walker ruled the tiny, colonialism-beset country as a dictator for two years until he went completely mad, revoked Nicaragua’s progressive abolitionist laws, fought for his throne with a coalition of other Central American armies (and Vanderbilt’s forces), and was eventually executed in Honduras in 1860. Tiny as his niche in history is, Walker has always served as a striding, bellowing symbol of American corporate imperialism (Gillo Pontecorvo’s “Burn!,” with Marlon Brando, was a loose version of the story). At first, Cox and screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer treat Walker’s saga as merely tongue-in-cheek history, but gradually the film descends into madness itself, crazed with genre movie allusions, boozy slapstick, meticulous period flavor, satiric anachronisms (the film climaxes with a helicopter drop of ’80s-era Marines), moments of raw Grand Guignol and a pervasive sense of lysergic mayhem.

A toked-up fusion of Godard, Altman, Peckinpah (remembered here on a gravestone) and Monty Python, “Walker” doesn’t in the end have the weight and wisdom we’d like to have in our dreams, but at the same time, it’s as close as any major ’80s film came to Ionesco. Of course, Cox’s sights were actually set on the Reagan administration and its expansive program of destruction in Central America. (The film was shot in Nicaragua during the period when the Iran-Contra Affair was becoming news and just as the Tower Commission Report came out — with the full cooperation of the Sandinistas.) Cox always had an eye for the revelatory iconic, and his movie seethes with mysterious signifiers, from Ed Harris’s bright-eyed performance as Walker to Joe Strummer’s hilariously satiric score to moments of “Wild Bunch”-ian slo-mo and fascinating prophecy. (“We were welcomed as liberators!” Walker intones, when in fact they weren’t welcomed at all.) The Criterion edition comes with a plethora of predictably irreverent video documents, commentaries and interviews, and a beguilingly period-appropriate booklet full of documents and a new essay by Graham Fuller.


Peter Greenaway, on the other hand, is very British from toe to nose, but there may not be another filmmaker in the U.K. as defiantly untraditional and perversely idiosyncratic. A hyper-structuralist of the old school (on whatever planet that old school might be), Greenaway is a cinema-maker intoxicated by patterns, tableaux, narratives based on theoretical systems, and mythical histories — in other words, he’s always wanted to be God. Greenaway’s long passage through his own formal obsessions — his amazingly homogenous career began in the ’60s — has taken him to some odd and repulsive regions of late, but his first feature, “The Draughtsman’s Contract” (1982), stills hums with high wit and delirious pleasure in its fusion of pop-baroque music (Michael Nyman’s score is a head-shaking triumph), lavishly composed imagery, fecund Brit-speak and the farcical yet accurate reinvention of the 17th century. The bounce of intellectual game-playing never ceases, from the first bon mot-clotted frieze to the active engagement of the story, which has the wife and daughter of a repellent landowner, while he’s supposedly away, persuade a draughtsman (Anthony Higgins) to draw the estate in 12 careful sketches, a process that involves sexual intrigue and, in a “Blow-Up”-esque twist, the recorded evidence of a murder plot. Greenaway lent the film a uniquely waxen quality, arranging his ludicrously bewigged, candle-lit cast in flat art history tableaux and filling their mouths with absurdly thick Thackerayan verbiage, all of it so arch and masterfully delivered that the very idea of a British aristocratic tradition begins to feel like a sour joke. It’s not a movie likely to be savored by your average miseducated new release-renting trog, but for those with the palates and background, it’s a banquet.

“Walker” (Criterion Collection) and “The Draughtsman’s Contract” (Zeitgeist Films) are now available on DVD.

[Photos: Bruce Anderson, Richard Zobel, John Diehl in “Walker,” Criterion Collection; ]



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.