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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.

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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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