DID YOU READ

Seven movies that pushed the boundaries of storytelling.

Seven movies that pushed the boundaries of storytelling. (photo)

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Something struck me when reading Cameron’s typical hubristic declarations in his conversation with Peter Jackson over at Slate. He said “Filmmaking is not going to ever fundamentally change… It’s about those actors somehow saying the words and playing the moment in a way that gets in contact with the audience’s hearts. I don’t think that changes. I don’t think that’s changed in the last century… [The studios have] also lost the courage to make, frankly, a movie like ‘Avatar,’ which is a blockbuster-scaled movie not based on prior arc.”

But just because a film’s not part of a franchise doesn’t mean it’s a radical break with the hero-cycle past. And Cameron is way out there if he really thinks “Avatar” is all that different, when it comes to plot freshness, from the “Transformers” and “Harry Potter”s of the world. Leaving aside the avant-garde, there’ve been plenty of movies that re-orient how we think about narrative. Here are seven of my favorites from our waning decade:

“Borat” (2006)
I don’t need to tell you anything about this movie. Watching it opening weekend with a sold-out crowd was like remembering the shock waves Eminem sent out in 2000 or reading about the affect Richard Pryor used to have. What’s weird about it is the way it indicates what’s “real” and what’s staged: the visual quality goes way down, from near-filmic to sub-consumer-grade. I’m not sure what’s what (IMDb claim it’s all video), but — unintentionally or not — “Borat” indicates clear shifts from its narrative to its provacateur tactics by encouraging the public to pay attention to the quality of the film stock. That’s new.

“Code Unknown” (2000)
On the surface, this movie looks like another son of “Short Cuts”: multiple characters, intersecting and overlapping at odd moments without even realizing it, a trick done by everything from “Pulp Fiction” and “Magnolia” to (rock bottom) “Sin City” and “Crash.” But it isn’t: it’s about the failure of communication, and not all of its characters connect, or even realize the potential ramifications of what’s happening. Which is perfect for a movie about communication breakdown (see: the title), and also unexpected from a movie by Michael “Master of Didacticism” Haneke. It re-orients your expectations: you keep waiting for things to come together and converge on a focal point. And they never do.

“Donnie Darko” (2001)
All of Richard Kelly’s films have the starting assumption that you’ve read as much Stephen Hawking as he has and can fill in the narrative gaps accordingly. The original version of “Donnie Darko” is pretty incomprehensible, David Lynch in the suburbs, but sucked you in stylistically even if you couldn’t put together the pieces. (The director’s cut, ironically, ruined everything, spelling out what was elided — wormholes! alternate universes!) Either it’s something you can piece together with a decent knowledge of dumbed-down quantum physics (something Kelly forced me to investigate) or it’s something else: science as a way of filling in the emotional/plot gaps. Forget the Hot Topic t-shirts; that’s as radical as it gets.

“Irreversible” (2002)
It’s not so much that Gaspar Noé made a movie that goes from ending to beginning; if that was all it took, I’d have “Memento” here. But I’m not a “Memento” fan, and I do (with caveats) like this one. Noé prefers controversy to reasonableness (which has proven his major marketing hook), so many viewers were understandably distracted by, say, the opening, featuring a man getting his head bashed in with a fire hydrant, or the infamous extended rape sequence.

What “Irreversible” is trying to do, though, is go from the end to the beginning to suggest nothing less than the entire arc of “2001” (referenced in a shot of its poster) in a way more literal way, going from corruption and despair to innocence and rebirth (doomed from the outset) in under 100 minutes. It’s both literally and metaphorically a summary of human experience and how “time destroys everything,” as the opening line puts itt. This may or may not be stupid (it’s kind of both), but it is unprecedented, even when triangulated by its own reference points.

“No Rest for the Brave” (2003)
There are plenty of movies that operate on dream logic (the entire “Nightmare on Elm Street” series, for starters), but none quite like Alain Guiraudie’s first feature, a movie that more than earns Buñuel comparisons. This is a movie which opens with a guy rambling about how something called Faftao-Laoupo (which he may or may not have seen in his dreams) will kill him if he ever sleeps again. 20 minutes in, everyone dies. Cut to: sheep, someone talking about how being a shepherd, all things considered, is just fine. I’m not sure this movie makes sense, but I watched it twice within 24 hours, and I can safely say nothing else has even come close to blurring the lines of dream and narrative. Even “Mulholland Drive” is easier to parse.

The clip below doesn’t have subtitles, but there’s only one line, which is “I can’t believe how bored I am.”

“Primer” (2004)
Shane Carruth’s bold opening salvo (his only film to date) is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It’s a movie shot for $7,000, the same budget, inflation-unadjusted, as Robert Rodriguez’s 1993 “El Mariachi,” but used for way more aesthetically impressive results. It’s about Texan engineers inventing a time-travel machine that works — so successfully, in fact, that the movie, without giving a hint of what it’s doing, simply adopts the branching timelines and alternate universes opened up once the engineers step inside “The Box.”

According to this timeline, there may be as many as nine branching universes knocking around in there. What “Primer” does best, though, is suck you in stylistically, then leave you to sort out the scientific (logical, but nearly impenetrable) mess. You don’t need to understand what’s happening to love it, just to know that it works. Black box magic indeed.

“Tropical Malady” (2004)
Splitting a film down the middle isn’t necessarily a radical trick — Korean director Hong Sang-soo does it as regularly as Michael Bay zooms in for the big gas explosion — but Thai visionary Apichatpong Weerasethakul not only attempts it pretty much every time out, he’s made it absolutely unreplicable. Suffice it to say no one else could’ve made a movie that showed a love story twice — once as a straightforward gay romance, again as man vs. jaguar. No one else out there is blending art-school strategy, visceral warmth and Thai folklore — not that I can imagine who else could.

[Photo: “Donnie Darko,” 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, 2001]

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SO EXCITED!!!

Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”

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IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?


Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!


Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.


Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 

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IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.

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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.