The Year of Apolitical Cinema?

The Year of Apolitical Cinema? (photo)

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In 1989, Spike Lee picked up a trashcan and hurled it into the front window of Sal’s Pizzeria, stirring chaos in Bed-Stuy and sending movie audiences into a tizzy about race relations in America. That same year, Oliver Stone and Brian De Palma were reopening heated debates about Vietnam (“Born on the Fourth of July,” “Casualties of War”), while Steven Soderbergh and Peter Greenaway were making us squirm by challenging conventional moral codes (“sex, lies and videotape,” “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover”). Jump ahead 20 years: today’s watercooler cinema holds nary an ounce of subversive content. On the contrary, the most talked-about upscale American films of the year uphold such conservative myths as the sanctity of family and community.

Much has already been written about the reactionary elements of Lee Daniels’ “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire,” which, despite its confrontational scenes of rape, parental abuse and fried pig’s feet, ultimately ends up just another triumphant afterschool story of social uplift and the power of a benevolent society. As New York Times critic A.O. Scott recently wrote, the conclusion of “Precious,” “fills the audience with a sense of hard-won redemption,” allowing them to ignore “the failures of institutions, programs and collective will that leave so many other Preciouses unrescued.”

Now comes Jason Reitman’s “Up in the Air,” entering the conversation with similar buzz, following its rapturous reception at this fall’s Toronto International Film Festival. The “Juno” director manages the same clever ideological reversal as in his previous cinema: Take an edgy character, insert crisis of conscience and watch all that anti-establishment chutzpah fall away into a reification of all-American suburban ideals.

For all its cynical sheen, “Up in the Air” is actually another Capra-esque journey of one man who learns close personal relationships are worth more than frequent flyer miles. The film’s potentially strong political subtext — about the ravages of unemployment, shown in heartbreaking interstitial sequences that feature interviews with real-life folks from Detroit and St. Louis who’ve lost their jobs — is easily swept away so we can feel sorry for George Clooney, an adrift bachelor longing for the permanence of hearth and home.

Even this year’s war films — “The Hurt Locker,” “The Messenger,” “Brothers” — avoid the tainted whiff of politics and instead emphasize the psychological, going out of their way to eschew the wider ramifications of American imperialism. Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker” displaces any serious consideration of wartime trauma on U.S. soldiers or their adversaries with testosterone-fueled thrills and one-upmanship masculinity. As critic David Sterritt observed in the online newsletter Counterpunch in July, the movie’s “politics are worrisome — not because they’re wrong, but because there are no politics in a film about the most politically fraught conflict in recent memory.”

12032009_themessenger6.jpgIn comparison, “The Messenger” is far more cognizant of its political context than the others, and may be the best movie of the three because of it. The angry tirades of dead soldiers’ next of kin shatters any sense of complacency in the lives of the film’s lead characters, and the viewing audience. But even so, the movie distinctly plays to the middle in its milieu and filmmaking style — like the others — making sure not to challenge viewers too much or offend the pro-war demographic by more forcefully questioning America’s militaristic escapades. Does this signal a new era of all-embracing nonpartisan cinema? Sophisticated movies for red and blue states, alike? Or has the cinema of mavericks gone soft?

That’s not to suggest the agit-pop screeds of Michael Moore — yes, he was back this year, too, with “Capitalism: A Love Story,” his biggest box office disappointment since 1997’s “The Big One” — are preferable. But it’s a reminder that the forceful, provocative cinema of Spike Lee, John Sayles, Todd Haynes or Gregg Araki has been replaced by the bourgeois niceties of Jason Reitman and Marc Webb — director of this year’s indie sleeper “(500) Days of Summer.” (As for the latter’s tagline, “It’s official, I’m in love with Summer,” Fox Searchlight VP of marketing Stephanie Allen told Variety it was “perfect.” “It’s really inclusive,” she said. “Who’s not in love with summer?”)


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…


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.


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 ’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?”


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).



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.


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


Get Physical

DVDs are the new Vinyl

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available On Disc.

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GIFs via Giffy

In this crazy digital age, sometimes all we really want is to reach out and touch something. Maybe that’s why so many of us are still gung-ho about owning stuff on DVD. It’s tangible. It’s real. It’s tech from a bygone era that still feels relevant, yet also kitschy and retro. It’s basically vinyl for people born after 1990.


Inevitably we all have that friend whose love of the disc is so absolutely repellent that he makes the technology less appealing. “The resolution, man. The colors. You can’t get latitude like that on a download.” Go to hell, Tim.

Yes, Tim sucks, and you don’t want to be like Tim, but maybe he’s onto something and DVD is still the future. Here are some benefits that go beyond touch.

It’s Decor and Decorum

With DVDs and a handsome bookshelf you can show off your great taste in film and television without showing off your search history. Good for first dates, dinner parties, family reunions, etc.


Forget Public Wifi

Warm up that optical drive. No more awkwardly streaming episodes on shady free wifi!



Internet service goes down. It happens all the time. It could happen right now. Then what? Without a DVD on hand you’ll be forced to make eye contact with your friends and family. Or worse – conversation.


Self Defense

You can’t throw a download like a ninja star. Think about it.


If you’d like to experience the benefits DVD ownership yourself, Portlandia Season 7 is now available on DVD and Blue-Ray.