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The Naughts: The Film of the ’00s

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

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I’m not sure if “Adaptation” is emblematic of the American-film ’00s — I’m afraid that the real culprit might be one blockbuster or another, exemplifying at this stage our fears instead of our hopes — but it’s certainly an endlessly resonating high-water mark, a mirror-hall launch that Godard could’ve loved, and which preemptively folded all commentary about it, positive or negative, into its self-knowing structure. Director Spike Jonze never dropped the ball, and Nicolas Cage was surpassingly brilliant, but it’s Charlie Kaufman’s bomb test, successful enough to establish him, in a stroke, as the most original and fecund screenwriting talent this country has seen since, possibly, ever.

A kind of perpetual motion machine, Kaufman’s screenplay might be the most subversive filmmaking act in Hollywood since 1960, when Alfred Hitchcock turned the star of “Psycho” into bathtub carrion only 40-odd minutes into the film, essentially leaving it protagonist-free and the audience unmoored in a lawless cinematic frontier. Kaufman tortures the sacraments of orthodox moviemaking in a much more outlandish manner: he is his own protagonist, and the movie we’re watching is one he cannot write, until he does, sort of, with the help of a twin brother he doesn’t have, but the screenplay doesn’t actually get written as far we know, but of course it did in reality, with fictional brother Donald’s name on it, eventually spiraling the movie into exactly the preposterous mainstream idiocy the film’s Charlie Kaufman abhors, which is not to say that Kaufman himself abhors the same, because while he mocked and subverted the Robert McKee-mandated flowchart for screenwriting success, he also followed it perfectly, out of derision or desperation or insecurity or ambition or…

It was not uncommon in the New York screening rooms of 2002 to hear the dimmer but often high-circulation critics kvetch about how the film “just went downhill” in its last, rippingly farcical third act, a position you’d hope they’ve had the sense and shame to modify in the years since. But in a sense it’s hard to blame them — Hollywood was built and is sustained by the placid rewards of “invisible” filmmaking and plot-work guilelessness.

12112009_Adaptation2.jpgMass audiences do not have a history of enjoying challenges to their semi-subconscious moviegoing experience, while it is exactly that passive semi-subconsciousness that could be said to be responsible for so much damage. (You could start with D.W. Griffith, and his refinement of classic syntax extolling the virtues of the Klan to unschooled millions, inciting decades of renewed racial violence.) Subversion, even if it’s not political, is more than sport — it’s awareness of the world we’ve built ourselves, not merely awareness of its many mirrors.

“Adaptation”‘s version of this attack has as many layers as a Dobos torte. As we have seen since, Kaufman never meta-fiction he didn’t like, and the film is best taken, with aspirin, as a hyper-Godardian ruse (the film’s closest cousin might be Godard’s “King Lear”), a neurotic essay on creation posing as a self-analytical failure to evolve into an ordinary cinematic chronicle of action and feeling. Call it the most thoroughly reasoned, and slyest, example of what might be called the “Duck Amuck” paradox, in which the film proper never “becomes,” but inexplicably “is” anyway, because we’re watching it (aren’t we?), as it unfolds its drama of abortive composition.

This may be a mutant form of Brechtian “distanciation,” but we’re never far — watching the movie we acquire a fierce intimacy with movie-ness itself, as a process and as an experience. How can we not? This is realist cinema, admitting at every step that movies are sandcastles, voluminous lies, protracted jokes on the idea of seeing and believing. For McKee, a film script may be a matter of preordained, formulaic manipulations, but for Kaufman, it’s as tempestuous and enigmatic as life.

For all of that, Kaufman’s keyhole trick is to actually invest in the characters we’re not supposed to think are genuine, giving them woeful humiliations and random ailments and loneliness and self-defeating habits and, regularly, moments of old-fashioned sympathetic catharsis. Like Godard at his ’60s peak, Kaufman wants to have his self-reflexive cake and to throw it, too, and have us eat it and be moved.

If you write movies like this — my editor of the erstwhile Village Voice critics’ poll, in explaining why Kaufman came out on top that year, shrugged and said, “Just look what he did” — they will come. True to his aesthetic, Jonze was focused, rough-&-ready, on his characters, not on the camera, and the cast all brought their impish game faces, and though Chris Cooper won something of a character-actor career Oscar for his ropey hick gamester (transformed, as the movie progresses toward Donald Kaufman’s hackwork, into a hunky villain), Cage outdid even Jeremy Irons in limning the space between two conflicting halves (conflicting, mostly, over their ideas of what “artist” and “screenplay” mean), and all the while manifesting the bleeding heart inherent in Kaufman’s work, a desire to live to make movies as if they mattered, and mattered not merely to the viscera, but to the mind.

12112009_adaptation4.jpgThe ’00s so far have been a gift of Kaufmania, from “Adaptation”‘s ouroboros (imagine, a Hollywood movie that had the elitist temerity, flaunting Brechtianism and familiarity with ancient Greek, to actually use the word) to “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”‘s movie-as-memory literalism, to “Synecdoche, New York”‘s apocalyptic world-within-a-world-within-a-world. The decade was not a dull one, if you knew where to look — my choice for the ’00s’ global big dog would be Peter Watkins’ “La Commune (de Paris, 1871),” another mongrel that busted the paradigm in a mess of ways, and suffered far worse in its struggle to find eyes. But “Adaptation” has been our Tristram Shandy of Bush-era cinema, and we may have only begun to appreciate it.

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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