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When Mixed Martial Arts Meet the Movies

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05012008_redbelt1.jpgBy R. Emmet Sweeney

Mixed martial arts (MMA) have come a bloody long way since John McCain legendarily dubbed the sport “human cockfighting” in 1996. Its flagship organization, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), aired eight of the top 15 pay-per-view programs in 2007 (boxing had four), while two smaller outfits (Strikeforce and EliteXC) have recently inked deals to air events on NBC and CBS. With major media outlets slowly offering more coverage and the sport’s popularity continuing to crest, it was only a matter of time before Hollywood got its opportunistic hands on those tantalizing cauliflower ears… right?

Uncharacteristic of the movie business, producers are showing restraint in capitalizing on the fad, perhaps still haunted by McCain’s “cock” slam. David Mamet encountered fierce resistance to his new MMA influenced film, “Redbelt,” as he tells Sam Alipour of “Everybody in Hollywood passed on it. One of the things I talked about (in the pitch) was the demographics of UFC. Look at who goes to these fights. Look at how many follow on TV. It’s huge among young males, exactly the demographic studios are trying to reach. You’re wondering how you can get these people to see a film? Well, this is your answer. The reaction was baffling.”

Much of the reason still lies in the sport’s “barbaric” reputation, a holdover from the early days of the UFC, when they advertised, “There are no rules!” and trumpeted supposed mismatches between heavyweights and lightweights. Editorials are regularly churned out about the “bestial” nature of the sport (shockingly, Don King and Bill O’Reilly have joined the chorus), despite the UFC’s relatively clean bill of health (no life-threatening injuries to date), at least in comparison to pro boxing’s spotty history. After McCain virtually bankrupted the business by encouraging governors to outlaw the fights (which 36 states obliged), the UFC was bought out in 2001 by the marketing-savvy company Zuffa. Although the UFC had already instituted a series of new regulations (no blows to the back of the head, etc.) that cleared them to hold an event in New Jersey in 2000, the new owners claimed to be innovators of the sport, and started to convince regulatory commissions, state by state, that they were safe enough to be allowed into their fair cities. In other words, they were no longer barbarians, but could still get fans to pay at the gate. Now even McCain says that “the sport has grown up,” and most states have legalized it.

05012008_neverbackdown.jpgAnother reason for Hollywood’s reluctant embrace of MMA is the question of whether these fighting styles can even translate effectively to the screen. Mamet brings this up in a 2006 Playboy piece he wrote about the sport — how do you film the jiu-jitsu fights themselves? He claims that the form never broke into national consciousness like kung fu or karate because it is inherently uncinematic: “A fight, to be dramatic, must allow the viewer to see the combatants now coming together, now separating… Jiu-jitsu involves tying up — that is, closing the distance and keeping it closed…It is not dramatic. It is just effective.” Fights that employ this style tend to look like especially sweaty make-out sessions that go on for three rounds. “Never Back Down,” an MMA version of “High School Musical” released earlier this year, dealt with this issue by literally skipping over the foreplay, utilizing MTV-style montage to jump to the submissions, eliding the minutes of groping and intricate body contortions it takes to get there. On “Redbelt,” Mamet and cinematographer Robert Elswit (hot off of “There Will Be Blood”) take a more intimate route, employing very tight handheld framing to capture the technical skill involved in these grappling battles. These fights are not about thrills, but as the main character Mike Terry says, “I train to prevail, not to fight.” They are merely the most efficient means to an end. The main visual interest in the film, as Mamet noted in the New York Times, are the faces, which Elswit tends to shoot in profile on extreme edges of the widescreen frame, their bruised faces as purple as Mamet’s prose is lean.

The film continues Mamet’s obsession with secretive male societies on the edge of the law (gamblers in “House of Games,” security officers in “Spartan,” thieves in “Heist”). “Redbelt” follows the moral path of Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor), an ascetic jiu-jitsu instructor who intones that “competition weakens the fighter.” Mamet, a jiu-jitsu student for over five years, treats the martial art more as a philosophy than a physical skill, a conduit for self-discipline and moral purity. Terry is like a masterless samurai planted into modern day L.A, his codes of honor ridiculous to the more practical-minded citizens (and viewers) around him. Terry’s refusal to compromise on the ethics of fighting leads him on a collision course with the market economy that’s dying to exploit both his mind and body. Mamet’s Manichean setup can be overwrought at times, but it’s the necessary backdrop for his passionate defense of martial values. It ends in an improbable PPV fantasy, an alternate floodlit universe where the old samurai ways triumph for a night and momentarily silence the bloodthirsty bleatings of the marketplace.

In other words, not good tie-in material for the UFC, which is still too busy trying to land a cable deal with HBO or Showtime to concern themselves with the movie business yet. But at this point it seems inevitable that an MMA movie genre will shortly work itself out, likely plotting a middle road between the populist street fights of “Never Back Down” and the angsty existential battles of “Redbelt.” The visual grammar of MMA is in its infancy, but I hope the Mamet film provides the template: an economic, unobtrusive style seems appropriate for such brutally efficient fighting — a science more salty than sweet.

[Photo: “Redbelt,” Sony Pictures Classics, 2008; “Never Back Down,” Summit Entertainment, 2008]

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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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