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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]



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.