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Tribeca ’08: “Bigger, Stronger, Faster*”

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04282008_biggerstrongerfaster.jpgBy Matt Singer

[For complete coverage of the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival, check out IFC’s Tribeca page.]

On February 16, 2007, Sylvester Stallone was busted in Australia with 48 vials of the human growth hormone Jintropin. To some, this was a non-story; after all, Stallone was not “cheating” in the same way a professional athlete might be if he were caught with the same performance-enhancing drugs. Stallone is an actor, and he’s not competing against anyone. According to his lawyer, he was using Jintropin under medical supervision.

But Stallone is also the man who plays Rocky Balboa and John Rambo — in fact, he was training to play Rambo for the first time in 20 years when the seizure took place. In “Rocky IV,” murderous Russian boxer Ivan Drago is vilified for using steroids. On the other hand, Rocky trains the all-natural, old-fashioned way, with backbreaking labor. The message: Hard work and determination always triumphs over shortcuts. Hard to stomach when you know that the guy playing Rocky was probably getting some kind of liquid assistance with his training regiment of carrying enormous logs across great distances in the snow.

Christopher Bell’s clear-eyed, impassioned documentary “Bigger, Stronger, Faster*” puts this preposterous hypocrisy front and center. Narrated throughout by Bell himself, it begins with the director’s recollections of his youth, one spent idolizing hard-bodied ’80s muscle man icons such as Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger and Hulk Hogan. Bell and his two brothers became so fixated on these Herculean figures that they put themselves on the training regimens these men publicly espoused. When they didn’t see the same results, they turned to steroids. Though it’s not fair to blame those men for the Bells’ actions — I watched all those movies and wrestling matches and only took steroids when I had mono — it’s not unfair to speculate that watching them is what first sparked his and many other young men’s interest in bodybuilding. Bell’s brothers still use performance enhancers, but they have a hard time admitting it to their loving parents (though, thanks to the siblings’ collective desire for fame and stardom, they’re incredibly comfortable discussing it with a movie camera).

Bell’s approach is both micro and macro, chronicling his own family’s steroid use and the strain it puts on the family’s ethos (one that jives with that clean living over cheating one that was discussed earlier), while putting their struggles into a larger cultural context through interviews with noted physicians who’ve studied the effects of steroids and athletes whose lives have been touched by their impact. Though Bell himself considers steroid use by athletes to be unsavory, he’s open-minded enough to discuss the drugs’ positive medical benefits (an HIV-positive man speaks of how they give him a standard of life) as well as question a father who blames them for the death of his son.

Above all, what Bell portrays better than anything else is the mountain of lies buried beneath the controversy surrounding performance enhancers. He gets a professional bodybuilder and model to admit that his chiseled build is a direct result of the steroids he takes, not the dietary supplements that he pimps in magazine ads; a photographer later shows Bell how the “before” and “after” pictures in a lot of these advertisements can easily be manipulated using digital airbrushes. While Ronald Reagan was declaring a war on drugs, he was also publicly saluting actors and their on screen creations that had more to do with injections than squat thrusts.

That American myth that Reagan used Stallone and Schwarzenegger to prop up in the 1980s is one built on the idea that everyone is given equal opportunity to succeed, and that those who work hardest are the ones that ultimately accomplish the most. Telling people with aspirations of a perfectly sculpted body that you’ve accomplished things through nothing more than grit when you’ve really been given a chemical boost isn’t just immoral; it is, as Bell points out, a competitive advantage. We like to imagine that our enemies — the Ivan Dragos of the world — are the ones sticking the needles into their butts. But consider this: Captain America, the flag-draped superhero, wasn’t born with incredible talents, and he didn’t earn his great strength through years of pumping iron. He was a scrawny weakling who was given a shot of “Super-Soldier Serum.” Yes, even our nation’s greatest comic book representation is a juicer. Coming to terms with that will ultimately be the true legacy of this so-called era. Bell’s fine film may well be remembered as one of the steps on the road that got us there.

[Photo: “Bigger, Stronger, Faster*,” Magnolia Pictures, 2008]

For more on “Bigger, Faster, Stronger,” check out the official site here.



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.