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“Woman on the Beach,” “Operation Filmmaker”

“Woman on the Beach,” “Operation Filmmaker” (photo)

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As the Korean New Wave fades and dissipates, from a throng of cultural force fields to a mere battery of individual filmographies, ambitious or withering or otherwise, one director stands as the most passionately embraced and steadily distributed in the tradition of imported art films. Strangely, it’s Hong Sang-soo, not Park Chan-wook or Bong Joon-ho, both of whose pulpy trajectories have stalled and didn’t, in any event, summon the English-speaking world’s eyeballs expected for their psychodramatic hyperbole. Hong’s films are not crowd-pleasers, but measured, often uncomfortable meditations on Korean urbanites and their lives of power-boozing, disconnection and romantic failure. Up to now, Hong’s great modernist trope was (tellingly, for a Korean) the bifurcation of perspectives. His elusive masterpiece “The Power of Kangwon Province” (1998) is so sneaky about its doubled-up narrative and its delivery of emotional haymakers that you might not realize that it’s all about the residue of a failed romance between a college student and a married teacher until the movie’s two-thirds through. A grim, cerebral follow-up, “Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors” (2000) ruminates on a quietly unhappy trio of would-be lovers in a multi-chaptered relay that doubles back midway through and recounts itself as a ribbon of conflicting outlooks and revealed betrayals. (Critic Chuck Stephens has characterized Hong’s films as being “deeply suspicious of reunifications of any sort.”) “Woman Is the Future of Man” (2004) is less structuralist, but still divided, character-wise, over the possibility of love, and still craftily duplicitous about narrative — you can hardly grip the shape of the entire film until the halfway marker. When you do, the tragedy of soured lives is beyond the point of no return.

“Woman on the Beach” (2006) is less severe than Hong’s earlier films; it has a comic tone, and a bouncy rom-com score, and even indulges in medium close-ups and reckless zooms (which seem more interested in excluding things than emphasizing others). The two-guys-one-girl set-up remains, but the doppelgänging recyclings are only suggestive. It’s Hong at his simplest and most trusting; suddenly, simply letting the characters control the tale, à la Rohmer, is sufficient for him. The trio — a neurotic, womanizing director, his schoolmate-cum-set designer, and the married set designer’s “girlfriend” — head out to an off-season seaside resort to finish a screenplay. They can’t get rooms, but then they do; the men volley for the woman’s affections, but she’s sarcastic and self-assured, and gives neither of them much leeway. The relationships begin to collapse, under sexual pressure, betrayal and drunkenness. Eventually, the three go separate ways, and we stay with the director, who returns to the resort town and ropes in another woman, under the pretense that she resembles the other (she doesn’t), and haphazardly begins to relive the first dalliance all over again. And then the first woman returns…

12302008_womanonthebeach2.jpgHong’s long scenes here are nearly theatrical in shape, like Resnais’ “Mélo,” and the actors are healthily free range — as the director, Kim Seung-woo is such an irritating, cretinous, moist-eyed mess that he’s at times difficult to watch, and it’s hard not to wonder if, given Hong’s patterns and recurring concerns, there isn’t a little autobiographical chili in the kimchi. But “Woman on the Beach” is Hong’s warmest movie, by far — the women emerge unscarred, and there even lingers a sense of hope for the men, who are usually just a step up from self-pitying rapists in Hong’s universe. The movie is not named after a 1947 Jean Renoir romance-noir, involving two men and two women and a seaside, for nothing — although Hong’s infatuation with titular French-ness (his previous two films were named with quotes from Louis Aragon and Marcel Duchamp) may be less significant than just whimsical.

Nina Davenport’s “Operation Filmmaker” (2007) is also shaped in a downward spiral. The set-up is famous by now: as the production of the Liev Schreiber-directed film “Everything Is Illuminated” gets underway in 2004, MTV airs a news piece about a young Iraqi film student, Muthana Mohmed, whose school had been bombed to smithereens. Magnanimously, Schreiber invites him to come to Prague as an intern on the film — and asks Davenport, a New York doc-maker and cinematographer, to film the young Arab’s salvation out from the war zone and into the embrace of Hollywood. The resulting doc, Davenport’s fourth feature, doesn’t head in that direction at all, of course, because Mohmed is Mohmed, not merely a thankful Third-Worlder gracefully receiving the largesse of Tinseltown liberalism. The kid reveals himself to be thankless, in fact, and chronically manipulative, dishonest, self-righteous and even classically anti-Semitic. He’s instantly embittered about his intern work (“Snacks!” he seethes), and seems, slyly, to be gaming Davenport (behind the camera), to control how he’s portrayed in her film, and to get her into bed. Eventually, Mohmed’s odyssey becomes a struggle to get his work visa renewed countless times, a self-interested run of schemes that involves a good deal of out-of-pocket cash for Davenport, and even blackmail: Mohmed steals exposed stock and equipment from her, and at one point demands $10,000 for any further appearances he will make in her film.

12302008_operationfilmmaker.jpgMohmed is clearly empowered by Davenport’s camera; how his nascent career might’ve played out without having his narcissism fueled by being continually filmed is an interesting point to consider. At any rate, the travails do not cease even after Mohmed lands a job on the set of “Doom,” where the piles of fake zombie corpses provide queasy counterpoint to the real dead lying in the streets of Fallujah and Baghdad. (Rather brilliantly, Davenport sent cameras to Mohmed’s film school friends in Iraq, for their real-time considerations of life at home.) “Operation Filmmaker” is modest in its particulars — Davenport herself is as unassuming an auteur as we get nowadays — but it blooms in your head when you place it alongside virtually any instance, from charity to “nation-building” and war, when Western cultures attempt to appease their privileged guilt by imposing a “correction scenario” to a crisis from above. Often, like Mohmed, they have their own ideas about what should happen.

“Woman on the Beach” (New Yorker Video) and “Operation Filmmaker” (Icarus Films) are now available on DVD.

[Additional photos: “Woman on the Beach,” New Yorker, 2007; “Operation Filmmaker,” Icarus Films, 2007]

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SO EXCITED!!!

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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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.”

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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. 

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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.

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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…

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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.

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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-Craft

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?”

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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).

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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.

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And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.