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Interview: Viggo Mortensen on “Good”

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12312008_good1.jpgBy Aaron Hillis

Poet. Painter. Photographer. Political activist. Man of the world. Sure, the first sight of actor Viggo Mortensen’s cleft chin may instantly recall a marauding horde of Orcs or a naked knifefight in a Russian bathhouse, but he’s too smart and impassioned an artist to be written off as just another Hollywood leading man. His latest film is “Good,” directed by Vicente Amorim and based on the C.P. Taylor play of the same name. Set in 1933 Germany, the film finds Mortensen plays liberal Berlin professor John Halder, a reasonable yet silent detractor of the upswing of national socialism, who finds himself unwittingly swept up by the Nazi party after writing a novel about assisted suicide that becomes a Führer fave. I sat down with Mortensen before the holidays to gab about the film, traveling and contemporary politics — about which he has wonderfully fervent opinions.

“Good” is one of six Holocaust-related films that have come out this fall. I recently spoke to “The Reader” director Stephen Daldry, and I’d like to get a reaction from you to a quote I read to him. Film critic Stuart Klawans recently requested “a moratorium on Holocaust films. By continually replaying and reframing and reinventing the past, these movies are starting to cloud the very history they claim to commemorate.”

Any recollection is going to be different than what really happened, and every recollection about the same event is going to be different depending on whose recollection it is. After World War II, there was a well-known writer who said that after the Holocaust, poetry can no longer be written. It’s a grand, quotable statement, but it’s a load of nonsense, and so is what the gentleman says about the movies. People not only have a right to make them, but they will make them. It’s an interesting period of history. There are a lot of unresolved issues, probably more than there are about Vietnam or the Iraqi war, you know? It’s just a fact that people are interested in telling, seeing and reading stories about it.

How does your film stand apart?

“Good” is different than, not only the movies that are coming out this season about that period, but almost all movies about Germans in the ’30s and ’40s. It’s not told with the benefit, crutch or escape hatch of hindsight, knowing where we got to. Nor does it let the audience off the hook, or benefit from the grand heroic gesture, the big tragic moment, characters descending into complete villainy, or saving a few people and being brought down in a hail of machine gun fire. It’s a story that ends, but [not] like any movie that I like watching or being in. When it ends, it’s just a stop, and you continue telling the story one way or another: discussions you have with people, using your imagination. Yes, we know what happened to Germany after the screen goes black in “Good,” but we don’t know what John Halder did any more than we know what the family in “A History of Violence” did after that dinner. We don’t know what happened to Nikolai in “Eastern Promises,” either. I like stories that leave you wanting more, leave you wondering, but don’t tell you everything.

12312008_good2.jpgWhat do you hope people will glean from its open-endedness?

Just the title itself, which is the title of the play it’s based on: it’s not “Good” in quotes, it’s not “Good…,” it’s not “Good??” It’s just “Good,” not even a period. What does that mean? Well, that’s up to you. How much does John Halder know, how much doesn’t he know, and how much is he denying and when, about being on the wrong path? Only you yourself know if you’re making too many compromises, if by trying to pick your battles, go along, get along, make ends meet, make a different from within, or however you want to justify inaction, indecision, compromise. When have you gone too far? When have you crossed some personal line? It’s subtle. It respects the audience’s intelligence. It doesn’t try to give you some cathartic conclusion so that you can disengage, look at it as something in a time capsule. “Oh yeah, the period details were nice, and those crazy Germans,” or whatever.

But does subtlety work in this cultural landscape, as these final days of Bush-era America wind down?

What doesn’t work is voting and then checking out for four years. We keep learning that. I say that because no matter how democratic an administration is, how well-intended it seems to be or actually is, how great a candidate is… elected officials, and governments overall, have surviving as their primary objective. Staying in power. Whether they do so for what they think is the common good or not, it doesn’t really matter. Pinochet and Barack Obama both have the same primary goal, and that’s to be president and stay president as long as allowed. One of the main ways that leadership stays in power is by, in various ways, convincing people that they should just let those who are in government govern: “Trust us. Trust me. Just let us take care of things. Stay out of it.” Your opinions don’t really matter. You are isolated. You are insignificant.

Whether it’s directly stated or not, that’s really how you feel in society a lot of times, whether it’s Germany in the ’30s or the United States in 2008. It’s more important than ever, even more important than under Bush, for people to keep an eye on who is president and what the government is made up of. It’s only by the efforts made by those who elected Barack Obama that he will feel his conscience is pricked, that he will be egged on to do certain things. Otherwise, he’ll fall back into, as I think he’s doing by the people he’s appointing, playing it safer and safer. People say, “Well, let him get started.” No, you have to start now, and keep it up continually. Once he settles in, six months or a year from now, then he’s in that pattern, and those are the people he works with and that’s the access you have. Insist on having more access now than we’ve had for a long time as citizens, and you’ll have that. It’ll be part of the deal. Bobby Kennedy wasn’t against the Vietnam War initially. It was the movement that he inspired that drove him to see that it was politically expedient and right to speak his conscience, which was: “It’s not right to be there.”

12312008_good3.jpgSo you’re wary that now that Obama’s been elected, people have breathed that collective sigh of relief and gone back to apathy?

Yeah, I do to some degree. Some people are like: “Come on, lighten up. When will you liberals be happy? You got what you wanted.” My overriding concern is for any nation that takes for itself the mantle of imperialist power, which is what we are, economically and militarily — a different model than, say, Spain or France, but nonetheless, that’s what it’s about. This idea that even Obama speaks about: “If I feel we need to, we’ll just attack Pakistan, Iran, Venezuela or wherever the hell we think we need to protect our interests in.” Our particular idea of democracy and quote-unquote “freedom,” that’s no different from Clinton, Bush or Nixon… or Kennedy! [laughs] Since World War II, our aims and actions have been imperialist as far as our government, no matter how democratic we may have seemed to be at home, and I don’t see that changing in a big way: the way the military is used, the ridiculous expenditure on weapons, and the lack of real universal health care, something that [Dennis] Kucinich was calling for; not what Clinton or Obama was calling for, that’s not really universal health care. But that doesn’t mean you don’t keep trying, any more than under Bush change seemed impossible.

Another thing that I think is really important is that Bush, Cheney, all those people, they need to be held morally accountable. By doing nothing, the way [Nancy] Pelosi and others have done nothing, it’s always going to be a black mark on our history: the obvious international and federal crimes, acts of treason, human rights violations and environmental crimes. Even though they’ll probably get pardoned or just get off, they need to stand there and answer for these things.

When I say that, people say: “Oh come on, just let it go. They’re out.” I say that’s the same argument, and it’s not an exaggeration, in the early ’50s when people said, “Let’s heal the wounds. Let’s just move on. They’re shouldn’t be Nuremburg trials.” There were some people who thought: “Leave it.” Germans, and other people too, who said: “Do we have to drag these people through this?” Well, yeah!

You were born in the U.S., but you’ve grown up in various places all over the world since childhood. I was thinking about the John Halder character, who is so specific to his time and place, while wondering: How do you identify yourself, culturally, and keep up with all your sociopolitical interests?

Well, first of all, I think it’s that unwritten rule of art that to tell a universal story, you have to do it with specifics, whether it be place, time, the look of a character, all that. There are certain places, either where I was born, New York City, or where I was raised — Argentina, Bartley, the United States — and many other places where I’ve worked, lived, seen landscapes, that I have a nostalgia for. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from traveling, it’s that it is definitely more important how you are than where you are. You can say, “Oh, I hate X city, I hate that country, or I prefer this city,” but it’s a little bit up to you to find some kind of happiness.

12312008_good4.jpgIt’s just like movies. People say, “What’s your favorite movie?” or “What characters do you not like?” There’s no character I’ve played that I don’t like, and there’s no shoot that I’ve been on, regardless of how the movie turned out, that I didn’t learn, make one friend, or see something interesting. I’m not really answering your question: where do I feel like I’m from? I’m from lots of places, and I think I’m capable of learning to feel at home in places that I haven’t been to yet. Traveling is probably the number one most effective anti-war weapon there is. I’ve been to Tehran, for example. I happened to go to the city park there, and played a game of pick-up soccer with some Iranian men. I saw the sun come up and go down in Tehran, I saw the mountains, old people, dogs, pigeons, hospitals, things you can find anywhere in the world. It’s much less likely that you’re going to convince me that they are just this thing, that we must bomb Iran. I probably wouldn’t agree that we should bomb anyplace, but those are people. Those are plants, those are animals. The weather changes there. People get up, they eat, they live, they die. It’s much less likely when you know a place, you know?

You’ve gained fans and critical acclaim of your painting, photography and poetry. Does it hurt or help your other creative interests to be most well known as Viggo Mortensen the movie star?

It works both ways. You could make an argument that being in the movies probably makes people not take the painting and photography as seriously. On the other hand, people go because of the movies, and then they get there and can judge for themselves. It’s all kind of connected. I don’t really worry about it. It’s what I enjoy doing, and whether people like it or not, I’m satisfying myself and trying to do it as honestly and thoroughly as I can. If you don’t like “Good,” or a painting I made, and decide it’s not ready enough to show, or a poem I’ve written and read, that’s up to you. To each his own, but I’m doing it first and foremost because I’m learning something. It’s my way of communicating, not just with other people, but with myself. It’s my paying attention, filtering and responding to the world I’m in. It’s my way of participating in life.

“Good” is now open in limited release.

[Photos: Viggo Mortensen in “Good,” THINKfilm, 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.