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Your Early Work: “Fear, Anxiety & Depression”

Your Early Work: “Fear, Anxiety & Depression” (photo)

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Some directors burst out of the gate with fully formed visions and debuts that set Sundance aflame. Others take longer to firm up their perspectives and filmmaking identity. (And, of course, many, many others don’t get going at all.) “Your Early Work” is an occasional feature in which we’ll take a look at an established auteur’s first movie and how it fits in with or foreshadows the ones he or she made down the line.

First up, Todd Solondz, whose new film “Life During Wartime” opened on Friday.

“Fear, Anxiety & Depression” (1989)
Directed by Todd Solondz

These days, it’s almost inconceivable to picture Todd Solondz, the premiere ’90s maestro of deadpan misery, putting himself front and center on screen. For Solondz to subject himself to the same unflinching (if non-judgmental) gaze he’s centered on countless characters, not to mention the humiliations, awkwardness and despair which make up their day-to-day, would seem to require a sense of self-loathing that would make any resulting feature intolerable.

07262010_fearanxiety2.jpgBut back when he was getting started, Solondz did star in his own 1985 short “Schatt’s Last Shot,” appeared as a musician in another by Cédric Klapisch called “In Transit,” and had a cameo in Jonathan Demme’s “Married to the Mob.” And in 1989, he played the lead role in his first film, “Fear, Anxiety & Depression.” as Ira Ellis, a would-be serious playwright barely scraping by in downtown New York. The unpleasantness of his experiences with the studio while making the film so soured him on the process that he quit filmmaking for years, finally coaxed back by a friend who helped finance 1995’s “Welcome to the Dollhouse.”

“Fear, Anxiety & Depression” isn’t a disaster so much as it’s a cultural oddity. If it weren’t for Solondz’ involvement, it’d come across as an unremarkable late ’80s indie made by someone really into Woody Allen. But not only does Solondz appear in almost every scene, he also dabbles in moments of physical comedy and wrote the lyrics for plot song “A Neat Kind of Guy.” It makes watching the movie a unique experience, akin to finding photos of your goth cousin from her ponytailed student council days.

The film opens with Ira writing a letter to his idol Samuel Beckett (who would pass away later that year) to accompany a copy of his own play “Despair,” expressing his admiration for Beckett’s work and desire to someday collaborate. “Although I do not think that I, personally, am waiting for Godot, I do have some very good friends who are,” he muses. Those friends include aspiring painter Jack (Max Cantor), who disparages everyone else behind their backs while feeling certain his work is destined for the Whitney Biennial, his aspiring actress/waitress girlfriend Sylvia (Anne De Salvo) and Sharon (Jill Wisoff), who doesn’t aspire to anything except being Ira’s girlfriend.

07262010_fearanxiety1.jpgThere’s no doubting Ira’s ambitions, but his aptitude is another matter. He sinks all of his money into a production of “Despair” that reveals the play to be a befuddling avant garde shambles involving a Greek chorus and someone running back and forth between platforms shouting “Life! Life! Life! Death! Death! Death!”

Ira’s parents, who are supporting him financially, try to be encouraging, but would prefer he move home and join the family business. His romantic outlook’s no better — he becomes enamored of a cynical performance artist named Junk (Jane Hamper, working variations on a punk “Bride of Frankenstein” look) who has no interest in him, and gets entangled with Sylvia when Jack leaves her, but only wants to shake off the needy, girlish Sharon, who actually loves him.

Solondz, with his frizzy halo of hair and nasal affect, isn’t a natural screen presence — he looks pained all the time, whether his character’s situation calls for it or not. But the main problem with “Fear, Anxiety & Depression” isn’t his performance, it’s the overall focus of the film, which, as a downtown satire, is wan and obvious. There’s a reason Solondz headed to the suburbs after this — there, his films were freed from the burdens of skewering a specific time and place and became more universal. At their best, they’re meditations on humanity at its most unvarnished, most vulnerable and most cruel.

This isn’t to say there aren’t a few flickers of that promise in “Fear, Anxiety & Depression.” In Junk and Jack there are shades of Lara Flynn Boyle’s reptilian, self-obsessed, successful author in “Happiness” (played by Ally Sheedy in “Life During Wartime”). But it’s really the sad-sack Sharon who provides the film’s main (and darkest) laughs and any lingering resonance.

07262010_fearanxiety4.jpgOn a date — in one of a few musical interludes! — Sharon reveals to an inattentive Ira that she was molested as a child, was once a pill-popper and is on the verge of getting evicted, while he pays no mind. She gets mugged on the subway platform as Ira, not noticing in the foreground, ponders how suffering only makes you a better artist.

She downs pills and whiskey and has to be rushed to the hospital, slurring and clutching a stuffed animal, as Ira tries to get her drink some water. And when it seems she’s finally, really gotten his attention and his devotion, he runs into Junk on the street and never makes it to visit her in the hospital.

That Sharon gets the closest thing the film has to a happy ending is seriously tempered by the fact that it comes courtesy of Donny (Stanley Tucci, memorable in an early role), a classmate of Ira’s who’s effortlessly stumbled into financial and artistic triumphs. As his latest acquisition, she seems doomed to be toyed with and then discarded — except you can’t really wish her back with Ira, since he hardly treated her any better. Some people are just doomed to be taken advantage of, it seems. Now that’s the Todd Solondz we all know and love.

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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…

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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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 IFC.com 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….

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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.

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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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