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The Naughts: The Documentary of the ’00s

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

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Sometimes superlatives need to be slung, such as when speaking of the richest, most ambitious and exciting decade yet for nonfiction film — and, really, what other variety could back up that boast? To nail down a single doc as the preeminent work that typifies these years is no easy task, especially since the best of the bunch attacked specific subjects with laser-like precision and idiosyncratic techniques. (Sit tight, the lede is about to be buried.)

The ’00s legitimized the allure of the “pop doc,” a trend that shoehorns potentially lackluster material into glossy narratives. Spelling bees were transformed into suspense thrillers (“Spellbound”), quadriplegic rugby players did their own stunts (“Murderball”), tangoing kids got their dance-off (“Mad Hot Ballroom”), a reckless but beautiful feat of derring-do was reenacted like a heist procedural (“Man on Wire”), and a PBS-style nature film became a blockbuster saga of familial survival (“March of the Penguins”). Who’d have thought, way back in the ’90s, that documentaries could one day hold their own at the multiplex?

In fact, one even surpassed the $100 million box office mark and became the first doc in a half-century to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes: Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11,” an unprecedented take-down of a U.S. presidency still in power. Being comfortably waist-deep in the Information Age, empowered activists, muckrakers and other truth hunters were let loose to meticulously research and address the quandaries of globalization (“The Corporation,” “Mondovino”), consumerism (“Super Size Me,” “Czech Dream”), environmental disaster (“An Inconvenient Truth,” “Darwin’s Nightmare”), the media (“Manufacturing Consent,” “Outfoxed”) and whatever else ails us. Sure, we now had Google, Wikipedia and other accessible means to quickly click and uncover how people were getting screwed, but through cinema — and often with that aforementioned pop-doc sheen — wider audiences were being reached.

12082009_Tarnation2.jpgNo topic was off limits any more, which brings us swerving back to the argument at hand: what doc could possibly define this prolific era? My personal favorite, Werner Herzog’s “Grizzly Man,” certainly took a bold new direction by discovering lyricism in troubled nature lover Timothy Treadwell’s found footage and simultaneously disagreeing with the environmentalist while mythologizing him. That eccentric profile shares one of the most fascinating and potent qualities that ran rampant this decade, which could be illustrated with a joke: How many documentarians does it take to screw in a light bulb? Four; one to hold the bulb, one to hold the camera, one to film that cameraman, and one to film himself discussing the other three.

Self-documentation was one of the defining behaviors of ’00s cinema — as was the do-it-yourself kick of indie culture — which is why Jonathan Caouette’s ingenious 2004 doc “Tarnation” should stand as the poster child for the ’00s. Infamously made for only $218, Caouette’s near-unclassifiable portrait of his schizophrenic mother Renee LeBlanc and his own tumultuous childhood sculpts powerful material with a strangely autonomous methodology. A haunting kaleidoscope of old Super-8 home movies, family photos, reenactments, teary-eyed confessionals, answering machine messages, campy underground films and all the effects that year’s version of the iMovie software had to offer, “Tarnation” alternates between poetic memoir, psychodrama and an imagined horror flick as co-directed by David Lynch, Stan Brakhage and Jack Smith. It’s an appropriately avant-garde approach to a surreal, real-life nightmare.

LeBlanc was a child model in the ’60s, but after a rooftop injury and the depression she subsequently experienced, her parents signed off on her shock therapy treatment, which the film suggests is actually what instigated her mental illness. Caouette was shuttled between abusive foster parents and his overwhelmed grandparents, came of age as a gay man in a conservative environment, developed a dissociative disorder after trying pot for the first time (unknowingly smoking two joints laced with PCP and dipped in formaldehyde), watched his mother get raped, and somehow bounced back as a young thirtysomething after his childhood spent in hell. Simply making the film and piecing together these events that shaped the director’s character must’ve been cathartic, and that feeling is heartbreakingly palpable.

12082009_Tarnation3.jpgOther successful docs this decade turned their cameras on their families and themselves (“Capturing the Friedmans,” “51 Birch Street”), but the more shameful, look-at-me narcissism of the YouTube generation could stand to learn more from Caouette’s pragmatism than his naked vulnerability. After all, does anyone really need every navel-gazing exhibitionist with issues blabbering into a webcam and trying to call it cinema? “Tarnation” embraces and outright stylizes its compromised aesthetic, so that degraded VHS recordings are mutated into the lush psychedelic images of an addled mind through fragmentation and filters, but stops shy of exploiting LeBlanc’s madness by granting her the empathy she deserves for allowing herself to be filmed. Caouette not only seems as hyper-conscious of the film’s budgetary concessions as viewers are, but then utilizes that unspoken awareness to remind us how personal and handmade the project is. A throughline could be drawn to both Harmony Korine’s art-prank “Trash Humpers” and the hugely profitable, P.T. Barnum-like fraud “Paranormal Activity.”

In short, the “Tarnation” experience is and should continue to be sampled as a gateway drug to more progressive DIY cinema in the next decade, whether they’re tales of LGBT empowerment or autobiographical reinventions and other crafty genre hybrids. This is a film that ably demonstrates how personal demons can be exorcised in the form of art, entertainment, self-analysis and kept record all at once, and for relatively no money — which is perfect considering none of us have any right now anyway.

This feature is part of the Naughts Project.

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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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