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Joan Didion Remembers “The Panic in Needle Park”

Joan Didion Remembers “The Panic in Needle Park” (photo)

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Journalist, novelist, essayist and all-around elegant wordsmith Joan Didion won the National Book Award in 2005 for “The Year of Magical Thinking,” a memoir and instant classic about the year following the death of her husband John Gregory Dunne. With her late partner, Didion co-wrote such screenplays as “True Confessions,” “Up Close & Personal” and “A Star is Born” (the Babs version, naturally), as well as the best of the lot, an adaptation of James Mills’ novel “The Panic in Needle Park.” Released in 1971, director Jerry Schatzberg’s stark, moving, gorgeously photographed drama refers to the triangular Manhattan intersection at Broadway and 72nd Street — now dubbed Sherman Square, but then a hotbed for heroin junkies. A brilliant but at the time unknown Al Pacino stars as a small-time pusher who falls for smacked-out Midwesterner Kitty Winn (who won the Best Actress award at Cannes for her role), their story not so much a rise-and-fall chronicle as much as a fallen-and-fallen-further saga of love and betrayal. Ten minutes is never enough time with an interviewee as erudite as Didion, but the literary icon was kind enough to chat this past weekend in honor of the “Panic” re-release at New York City’s Film Forum.

When you read “The Panic in Needle Park” in the summer of 1967, what was it that appealed to you for a potential screenplay adaptation?

The love story. Plain and simple, that was it. It was an interesting world that we hadn’t seen on the screen in exactly that way, so I just felt as if it could work. As written by James Mills, it had a good strong narrative, you know?

At the time, what did or didn’t you know about the life of heroin junkies on Manhattan’s West Side?

I was living in California at the time. I knew a little more about other drugs because I had just [written] a long piece on the Haight-Ashbury, but heroin was not one of the drugs that was in play. What did I know about it? I didn’t know really about that life, so we did some research. We stayed at the Alamac Hotel [at Broadway and West 71st] for two or three weeks.

01292009_panicinneedlepark2.jpgBesides your experience co-writing it, does the film itself mean anything differently to you now?

I saw part of it on television one night about a year ago. Before that, I hadn’t seen it in a long time. There wasn’t a DVD of it until last year. I’d like to think it held up. [laughs] I kind of have to think that. When a picture is shooting, a lot of things seem arbitrary, or you might’ve done them differently if you thought twice about it. When we were shooting, I was overcome with what I had failed to do. Actually, when I saw it [again], I was struck by how much we did do. I can’t reconstruct exactly what. When you’re making a picture, you’re hypersensitive to everything that might be wrong with it or might not work. You don’t see what’s right quite often. It can work the other way, too, but this is one that happily worked the good way. [laughs]

It’s fascinating to me that there’s still an air of romanticism about New York of that era, as if it was more alive and creative when it was riddled with crime, drugs and sleaze.

That was a nasty part of town. I was amazed to drive back by there and see apartments on that very corner being advertised on the side of a building, starting at $1.5 million. I’m happier with the cleaned up [New York of today]. You can still find un-cleaned-up parts. [laughs] Just not at the corner of 72nd and Broadway.

In your 1973 essay “In Hollywood,” you were rather caustic towards film criticism. Do you still feel it’s a “peculiarly vaporous” occupation?

I think the phrase I used was “petit-point-on-Kleenex,” and a lot of it seemed to have that situation. But no, I think people know more about film now than they knew then. And I think critics really have a more accurate sense of how pictures are put together, and why certain things work the way they do. People know a little more about the business. There were so many great pictures in the ’70s; I think, gradually, people were looking at them in a serious way.


Hacked In

Funny or Die Is Taking Over

FOD TV comes to IFC every Saturday night.

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We’ve been fans of Funny or Die since we first met The Landlord. That enduring love makes it more than logical, then, that IFC is totally cool with FOD hijacking the airwaves every Saturday night. Yes, that’s happening.

The appropriately titled FOD TV looks like something pulled from public access television in the nineties. Like lo-fi broken-antenna reception and warped VHS tapes. Equal parts WTF and UHF.

Get ready for characters including The Shirtless Painter, Long-Haired Businessmen, and Pigeon Man. They’re aptly named, but for a better sense of what’s in store, here’s a taste of ASMR with Kelly Whispers:

Watch FOD TV every Saturday night during IFC’s regularly scheduled movies.


Wicked Good

See More Evil

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is on Hulu.

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Okay, so you missed the entire first season of Stan Against Evil. There’s no shame in that, per se. But here’s the thing: Season 2 is just around the corner and you don’t want to lag behind. After all, Season 1 had some critical character development, not to mention countless plot twists, and a breathless finale cliffhanger that’s been begging for resolution since last fall. It also had this:


The good news is that you can catch up right now on Hulu. Phew. But if you aren’t streaming yet, here’s a basic primer…

Willards Mill Is Evil

Stan spent his whole career as sheriff oblivious to the fact that his town has a nasty curse. Mostly because his recently-deceased wife was secretly killing demons and keeping Stan alive.

Demons Really Want To Kill Stan

The curse on Willards Mill stipulates that damned souls must hunt and kill each and every town sheriff, or “constable.” Oh, and these demons are shockingly creative.


They Also Want To Kill Evie

Why? Because Evie’s a sheriff too, and the curse on Willard’s Mill doesn’t have a “one at a time” clause. Bummer, Evie.

Stan and Evie Must Work Together

Beating the curse will take two, baby, but that’s easier said than done because Stan doesn’t always seem to give a damn. Damn!


Beware of Goats

It goes without saying for anyone who’s seen the show: If you know that ancient evil wants to kill you, be wary of anything that has cloven feet.


Season 2 Is Lurking

Scary new things are slouching towards Willards Mill. An impending darkness descending on Stan, Evie and their cohort – eviler evil, more demony demons, and whatnot. And if Stan wants to survive, he’ll have to get even Stanlier.

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is now streaming right now on Hulu.



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.