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“Everything else is pure theory”: What-if Movies

“Everything else is pure theory”: What-if Movies (photo)

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A coin flip splits the new movie “Uncertainty” in two. That’s how a young couple (played by Lynn Collins and Joseph Gordon-Levitt) at a turning point in their relationship decide which way to go on the Brooklyn Bridge. Who picks heads over tails ultimately isn’t important, because the film follows both paths — in one storyline, the two head to Manhattan, find a cell phone in a cab and become embroiled in a thriller, while in the other, they go to a family barbecue in Brooklyn and navigate more personal dramas. Which reality is the “real” one? The title should give you a clue.

“Uncertainty”‘s not the first film to explore those what-if musings we’ve all indulged in, the ones that every holiday season drive George Bailey to an angelic vision of what the world would be like if he’d never existed. But it is one of a select group of movies to be structured around that idea of forking paths, of returning to a certain point and trying things another way, or in another setting, or just another frame of mind. Here are a few more films built around alternate realities.

11122009_slidingdoors.jpg“Sliding Doors” (1998)
Directed by Peter Howitt

A girl steps in front of Helen Quilley (Gwyneth Paltrow) as she’s running down the stairs and she misses her subway. Then, as chimes twinkle on the soundtrack, the film rewinds before our eyes, the girl is pulled out of Helen’s way, and she narrowly makes it onto the train. Missing a train doesn’t seem like that big a deal, but it is in “Sliding Doors,” where that split second has enormous and even fatal consequences for Helen. To borrow the train metaphor, from that moment, Helen’s life travels down two diverging tracks. In one, she arrives home in time to find her boyfriend Gerry (John Lynch) cheating on her, which leads to her move out and start a relationship with a man she met on the Tube named James (John Hannah). In the other, she’s mugged and gets home too late to discover Gerry’s affair, so she continues the relationship with him instead of James. Director Peter Howitt cuts back and forth between the two Helens, contrasting the one who makes the train and lives a romantic life with a new job, a new man and a new haircut with the one who doesn’t and leads a sad life supporting a man she doesn’t realize is unfaithful. Though he plays with symmetries, Howitt gives the two Helens’ stories wildly different outcomes; suddenly, the seemingly “unhappy” timeline becomes the more desirable one. Such an ending would be dramatically unsatisfying in a traditional movie, but in one about the random nature of life, the deus ex machina feels entirely appropriate.

11122009_memyselfi.jpg“Me Myself I” (1999)
Directed by Pip Karmel

It’s an old relationship that Pamela Drury (Rachel Griffiths) can’t forget in Pip Karmel’s Australian comedy, or maybe just the possibilities that come with it. Lonely, successful and thirtysomething (like so many a rom-com heroine!), Pamela finds herself wondering what her life would have been like if she’d married Robert Dickson (David Roberts), the man she dated over a decade ago. That could-have-been universe comes (literally) crashing into hers in the form of another Pamela (also played by Griffiths) who, it turns out, did marry Robert and has three kids with him, and who swaps places with our tragic singleton, dumping her into a world of housework, conjugal relations and the expected fish-out-of-water hijinks. “Me Myself I” may offer its main character a look into another world, but it doesn’t offer much insight into its own. There’s no explanation for the existence of Alt Pamela — which is fine, and comfortably within the bounds of movie whimsy. Not fine is the fact that both its portrayals of married and single life are hopelessly cliché-ridden. But Griffiths is and has always been an immensely watchable actress. She manages to bring more shades of gray to this film than it really deserves.

11122009_blindchance.jpg“Blind Chance” (1987)
Directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski

“Sliding Doors”‘ concept and structure obviously owe a debt to Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “Blind Chance,” another film about the variety of directions life might take based on the simple act of either catching or missing a train. In “Blind Chance,” though, the protagonist follows three distinct paths instead of “Sliding Doors”‘ two, and the stories are played consecutively instead of simultaneously. In the first and longest sequence, a med school dropout named Witek (Boguslaw Linda) catches his train. While on it, he encounters an old Communist, and eventually decides to join the Party. In the second sequence, he narrowly misses the train and knocks over a policeman in the process. Sent to jail, he meets members of the anti-Communist underground and eventually decides to join their group. In the third and shortest sequence, he misses the train by a wider margin, and finds Olga (Monika Gozdzik) looking for him on the platform. They begin an affair and Witek decides to return to school, become a doctor, and start a family. “Sliding Doors” examines how luck affects our romantic destinies; “Blind Chance” explores its impact on our politics. Witek’s three lives represent three political alternatives: either action on one side or the other or complete abstention from the process. The fact that such an inconsequential event propels Witek toward such radically different outcomes suggests that for Kieslowski, belief, like life in general, is based as much as chance and proximity to others as it is on careful consideration or debate.

11122009_melindaandmelinda.jpg“Melinda and Melinda” (2004)
Directed by Woody Allen

Woody Allen is a celebrated atheist, but he does believe in God, at least in his fiction. On the surface, Woody Allen’s multiverse movie “Melinda and Melinda” is about a couple of playwrights debating the nature of existence by using the same set-up — a troubled woman crashes a dinner party — to tell two different stories. Really, what they’re doing though is playing God with the life of Melinda (Radha Mitchell), tossing her from one calamity to the next. The playwrights argue whether life is inherently comic or tragic and try to prove their point through their individual interpretations of Melinda’s life. In doing so, we see how God might behave if He were working out of a sense of humor or a sense of sadism. Though “Melinda”‘s competing fictions only share one character, many events, locations and even lines of dialogue reoccur. In both, someone craves a single malt scotch. In both, someone tries to commit suicide by jumping out a window. So does that make life funny or sad? Wallace Shawn, who plays the comedy writer, gets the final word: “Comic or tragic, the most important thing to do is to enjoy life while you can,” he says, “because we only go around once and when it’s over, it’s over.” Here is Allen the atheist, telling us exactly what the doctor told a young and depressed Alvy Singer in “Annie Hall.” But then Shawn continues, “When you least expect it, it could end like that!” With a snap of Shawn’s fingers, the movie is abruptly ended. Here is Allen, the believer, saying that when you make a movie, you get to play God, at least for a little while.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.