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The Naughts: The Critics of the ’00s

The Naughts: The Critics of the ’00s (photo)

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Film criticism as we know it tends to fall into a handful of time-worn categories: an expression of one’s personality, politics and taste, with traces of social critique and memoir (Pauline Kael, James Agee); or a kind of performance art on the page, using individual films, actors or filmmakers as springboards for sustained riffs on art and life (Manny Farber); or a scholarly attempt to draw connections between films and film movements, rank filmmakers by aesthetic significance and put works in historical context (Andrew Sarris).

All these approaches have merit. But when you zoom out from the here-and-now and think about what cinema is — about its dazzling totality, and the characteristics that distinguish it from novels or plays or paintings or dance or music, all of which feed, and are fed by, cinema — you’re struck by how much we’re not reading about, by how much our critics either can’t see or are not inclined to look for. Critics tend to fixate on content, as if film criticism were a book report or an op-ed piece. Form goes begging. And that’s nuts. If anything, the emphasis should be reversed. To quote Martin Scorsese, “Cinema is a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s out.”

David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson have turned Scorsese’s maxim into a career. The husband-wife team of film critics and scholars teach at the University of Wisconsin, publish books, maintain an indispensable and routinely astonishing blog, and lecture regularly at film festivals around the world. They’re strangers to the general public, but well known (if not always properly appreciated) by aficionados of film history and technique. Their great book “Film Art: An Introduction” — originally published in 1979, republished in a seventh edition in 2003 — is an indispensable primer on the history of screen composition, photography and editing, the cinema equivalent of Strunk & White’s “The Elements of Style.”

Bordwell’s 2006 book “The Way Hollywood Tells It: Story and Style in Modern Movies” is the definitive work on the evolution of English-language film storytelling. Thompson’s “Storytelling in Film and Television” (2003) is just as strong. Bordwell’s 2005 “Figures Traced in Light” — about the evolution of film acting, and directors’ attempts to frame and shape performance — is the best survey of blocking on film and all the factors (photographic process, shifting social mores, movie star egos) that affect it.

12032009_bordwell8.jpgAnd that’s just a smattering of the team’s output. Between their books and their blog, Bordwell and Thompson publish more original, engrossing, often startling work in a year than most critics manage in a lifetime. Their specialty is writing about form plus content and how one fuels the other; with mainstream film criticism as we know it being so boringly literary, at times it seems they’re just about the only accessible mainstream film writers who still care. (One conspicuous exception is Jim Emerson, who blogs on Roger Ebert’s web site).

But they aren’t boring statisticians or trivia buffs. They cut to the heart of what movies are and what they do to us. They speculate on how a filmmaker’s creative choices produce (or aim to produce) certain emotional and intellectual responses in the viewer, often using screenshots, quotes from critics and historians, and even hard scientific data to support their claims. Then they go further, writing about how the symbiotic, ever-shifting relationship between filmmakers and viewers drives the medium forward over time — and about how a movie might not have produced a certain personal response, or had a lasting cultural or artistic impact, if not for what came before that.

Bordwell and Thompson’s approach reverses the usual critical strategy of formulating a thesis — sex is the new violence, TV drama is better than movies — then looking for films and filmmakers that “prove” it. (Thompson slags off this approach in the introduction to her 1988 book “Breaking the Glass Armor”: “Preconceived methods, applied simply for demonstrative purposes, often end by reducing the complexity of films.”) Instead, Bordwell and Thompson start by looking — actually looking, with open minds — at movies. Then they think about what the movies are saying and how they’re saying it. Then they compare the perceived statement to what movies used to say and how they used to say it. Then they try to figure out what factors (in the industry, in technology, in the culture at large) might account for the shift.

This description makes Bordwell and Thompson sound overly dry and scientific, and their writing is largely bereft of the glib pop zip that’s become nearly mandatory in the post-Kael era. But their simple (but never simplistic) output is thrilling in a different way because it teaches. It gives the reader tools to arrive at his or her own understanding and then apply that understanding to the act of watching films. Their work has aspects of social observation, industry criticism and personal axe-grinding. But these aspects are subtle and they tend to emerge long after you’ve read an article — often weeks later while you’re watching a film, noticing something you hadn’t noticed before, and realizing that you wouldn’t have noticed it if Bordwell and Thompson hadn’t warned you to keep an eye out.

12042009_Transformers2.jpgBordwell’s writing on “intensified continuity” has been especially valuable. He crystallized the term in a 2002 Film Quarterly article, then elaborated on it in books, including “Poetics of Cinema.” It describes a relatively new (and now pervasive) type of storytelling with fragmented visuals and quick editing — one that that prizes “energy” over everything else and supplants classical filmmaking techniques (careful compositions and editing, purposeful and thematically apt camera movements) with what my colleague Steven Boone calls a “snatch-and-grab” approach. In films that employ intensified continuity, intense physicality is conveyed not with carefully positioned shots that capture an entire action, but in a barrage of snippets — a flurry of motion signifying that two people are shooting at each other or that somebody got hit by a car. Think Steven Spielberg vs. Michael Bay, or “Raiders of the Lost Ark” vs. “Transformers 2”; or, if you prefer, a scalpel vs. a weed-whacker.

Intensified continuity isn’t just used in action and suspense pictures, Bordwell says; it gets applied to simple exposition as well. “Conversation scenes [now] feature very little movement of actors around the set,” Bordwell writes, in a piece that shows how Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed” exemplifies the new way of making films, and compares the film unfavorably to its source material, “Infernal Affairs” and “Infernal Affairs 2.” (Just because your work evokes a Scorsese quote doesn’t mean you can’t spank Scorsese.) “Performers sit or stand and deliver their lines in isolated shots (singles) or over-the-shoulder (OTS) setups. The visual stasis is compensated for by lots of cutting, camera movements, and tight close-ups.” Not content to announce the bottom line and expect the reader to trust his accounting, Bordwell shows his math. This benign obsessive actually turned on his DVD player, sat there in front of a monitor with a stopwatch and timed the shot length in several Scorsese films made over a period of 33 years, then compiled a little chart showing how the average length of a shot in a Scorsese film has dropped from 7.7 seconds (in 1973’s “Mean Streets”) to 2.7 seconds (“The Departed,” 2006).

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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…


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.


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).


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.


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.


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.



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 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….


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.


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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