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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]

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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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