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Knocked Down, Then Dragged Out

Knocked Down, Then Dragged Out (photo)

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Despite all the terrible publicity Mike Tyson has gotten over the years, I’ve never forgotten seeing him nearly two decades ago on “The Arsenio Hall Show,” walking out to surprise Muhammad Ali. When Hall asked who’d win if they got into the ring, Ali pointed to Tyson. Tyson, shaking his head said, “I know I’m great. But here all heads must bow and all tongues must confess that this is the greatest of all time.” Every bit of scandal since has made me wonder what happened to the generosity and lyricism I saw that night.

James Toback’s documentary “Tyson” gives voice to a man who’s been regarded as an animal, a thug, a dimwitted brute. Often by his own actions. Talking to Toback’s camera in that curiously soft lisping voice, his head shaved and a Maori tattoo encircling his left eye, Tyson, 40 when the film was made, comes off as serious and thoughtful, a tormented man trying to find some peace, both sympathetic and, at times, frightening.

There was reason to fear that Tyson would serve the same function for Toback that Jim Brown did: a repository for the director’s fantasies about black masculinity. Toback had already lived with Jim Brown and written a book about the football great before casting the him in “Fingers.” For Toback, Brown was the superspade stud unapologetically in touch with his dominant sexuality in a way that mocked the timidity and aroused the envy of white men.

Toback’s fascination with Tyson here feels unencumbered by the baggage of racial fantasy. And though it’s not made explicit, it also feel informed by a realization of how Tyson has been used to feed racial fears. Tyson can be very scary, as in footage of a news conference when he reels off vicious homophobic threats against someone who has angered him. But it’s one thing to be scary and another to presented as the Scary Black Man.

Tyson talks about growing up rough in Brooklyn, changing from a bullied kid to one sticking up drug dealers. He got so good that when the police picked him up at 12, he had $1500 in his pocket. A succession of stints in juvie lead to a longer stretch where the prison’s boxing instructor brought the young Tyson to the attention of the great trainer Cus D’Amato, who became Tyson’s legal guardian. D’Amato lived to see Tyson make his professional debut but not to become the champion D’Amato believed he could be.

Your heart goes out to Tyson as you watch and listen to him talk about D’Amato. Speaking in a seized whisper, he clears his throat harshly, trying to get the tears out of his voice. The depth of that attachment makes it clear how lost he must have felt after D’Amato’s death. When, as Tyson admits, you don’t trust anyone and find yourself trusting the last person you expected, an old white man who takes you into his home and devotes himself to your training, that loss must make all the old suspicion and fear return with a vengeance.

04212009_Tyson3.jpgTyson’s life and career have been so mired in scandal that it’s easy to forget what an amazing fighter he was. Not only was he, at 20, the youngest heavyweight champ, he was the only one to unify the title, being recognized as such by all three major boxing organizations (the WBA, WBC and IBF). Toback sections off footage of the young Tyson in training so we can concentrate on the lightness and fluidity of his footwork. At around 215, often shorter than his opponents, Tyson was small for a heavyweight. Part of his deadly effectiveness was that he had the speed and agility of a boxer in a lower weight class. Watching him winning his first title fight against Trevor Berbick in 1986, you’re amazed not just by the unhesitating ferocity with which Tyson comes out of the corner, but the flawless timing that allows him to duck Berbick’s roundhouse punches, and the devastating grace of Tyson’s uppercuts which (the use of freeze frame allows us to see) often end with his gloved fist in a perfect sky-reaching vertical.

I wish Toback focused the same attention on the fights that followed Tyson’s 1995 release from prison after serving three years of a rape conviction. We register that Tyson, who admits he was not training seriously, has grown thicker, and that his power is no longer accompanied by speed. But there’s a frustrating sense of apprehending this in flashes.

This slapdash approach really plays against the movie when it gets to the 1997 rematch between Tyson and Evander Holyfield, in which Tyson bit his opponent on both ears. (Tyson was disqualified, fined $3 million, and lost his license to fight for a year.) Tyson claims that he was being headbutted by Holyfield, and in fact this rematch came about because Holyfield had been accused of the same thing in the match he had won against Tyson the previous year. In their rematch, we do see Tyson repeatedly trying to get the referee to intercede, and something that, when we notice it, seems very odd: Holyfield, who’s much taller than Tyson, keeps his head at the level of Tyson’s shoulder. But what we can see isn’t complete enough to allow us to draw any conclusions.

Despite Tyson’s candor, you’d have to be naïve to believe we’re getting the full story here. The fighter was the only one Toback interviewed for the film. And Tyson is listed among the executive producers, as are documentary filmmakers Nicholas and Henry Jarecki, the former of whom directed the 2006 portrait of Toback, “The Outsider.” That’s a cozy tangle of interests.

You’re very conscious of what you’re not hearing in the sections on Tyson’s dealings with women. Tyson refers to Desiree Washington, the Miss Black America contestant he raped, as “that wretched swine of a woman.” But we hear nothing of her side. At one point, he tells the story of following a woman he met at a fancy New York party into a bathroom and, he says confusingly, beginning “fellatio” on her. This sounds like an incident reported in Ben Rogers’ biography of the British philosopher A.J. Ayer, who interceded at a New York party in 1987 when Tyson was attempting to rape Naomi Campbell.

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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…

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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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 IFC.com and the IFC app.

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G.I. Jeez

Stomach Bugs and Prom Dates

E.Coli High is in your gut and on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Brothers-in-law Kevin Barker and Ben Miller have just made the mother of all Comedy Crib series, in the sense that their Comedy Crib series is a big deal and features a hot mom. Animated, funny, and full of horrible bacteria, the series juxtaposes timeless teen dilemmas and gut-busting GI infections to create a bite-sized narrative that’s both sketchy and captivating. The two sat down, possibly in the same house, to answer some questions for us about the series. Let’s dig in….

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IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

BEN: Hi ummm uhh hi ok well its like umm (gets really nervous and blows it)…

KB: It’s like the Super Bowl meets the Oscars.

IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

BEN: Oh wow, she’s really cute isn’t she? I’d definitely blow that too.

KB: It’s a cartoon that is happening inside your stomach RIGHT NOW, that’s why you feel like you need to throw up.

IFC: What was the genesis of E.Coli High?

KB: I had the idea for years, and when Ben (my brother-in-law, who is a special needs teacher in Philly) began drawing hilarious comics, I recruited him to design characters, animate the series, and do some writing. I’m glad I did, because Ben rules!

BEN: Kevin told me about it in a park and I was like yeah that’s a pretty good idea, but I was just being nice. I thought it was dumb at the time.

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IFC: What makes going to proms and dating moms such timeless and oddly-relatable subject matter?

BEN: Since the dawn of time everyone has had at least one friend with a hot mom. It is physically impossible to not at least make a comment about that hot mom.

KB: Who among us hasn’t dated their friend’s mom and levitated tables at a prom?

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

BEN: There’s a lot of content now. I don’t think anyone will even notice, but it’d be cool if they did.

KB: A show about talking food poisoning bacteria is basically the same as just watching the news these days TBH.

Watch E.Coli High below and discover more NYTVF selections from years past on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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