DID YOU READ

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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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…

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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.

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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-Craft

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?”

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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).

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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.

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

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Get Physical

DVDs are the new Vinyl

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available On Disc.

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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.

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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.

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Forget Public Wifi

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

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Inter-not

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.

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Self Defense

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

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