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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.

Soap tv show

As the Spoof Turns

15 Hilarious Soap Opera Parodies

Catch the classic sitcom Soap Saturday mornings on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Columbia Pictures Television

The soap opera is the indestructible core of television fandom. We celebrate modern series like The Wire and Breaking Bad with their ongoing storylines, but soap operas have been tangling more plot threads than a quilt for decades. Which is why pop culture enjoys parodying them so much.

Check out some of the funniest soap opera parodies below, and be sure to catch Soap Saturday mornings on IFC.

1. Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman

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Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman was a cult hit soap parody from the mind of Norman Lear that poked daily fun at the genre with epic twists and WTF moments. The first season culminated in a perfect satire of ratings stunts, with Mary being both confined to a psychiatric facility and chosen to be part of a Nielsen ratings family.


2. IKEA Heights

ikea heights

IKEA Heights proves that the soap opera is alive and well, even if it has to be filmed undercover at a ready-to-assemble furniture store totally unaware of what’s happening. This unique webseries brought the classic formula to a new medium. Even IKEA saw the funny side — but has asked that future filmmakers apply through proper channels.


3. Fresno

fresno

When you’re parodying ’80s nighttime soaps like Dallas and Dynasty , everything about your show has to equally sumptuous. The 1986 CBS miniseries Fresno delivered with a high-powered cast (Carol Burnett, Teri Garr and more in haute couture clothes!) locked in the struggle for the survival of a raisin cartel.


4. Soap

soap

Soap was the nighttime response to daytime soap operas: a primetime skewering of everything both silly and satisfying about the source material. Plots including demonic possession and alien abduction made it a cult favorite, and necessitated the first televised “viewer discretion” disclaimer. It also broke ground for featuring one of the first gay characters on television in the form of Billy Crystal’s Jodie Dallas. Revisit (or discover for the first time) this classic sitcom every Saturday morning on IFC.


5. Too Many Cooks

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Possibly the most perfect viral video ever made, Too Many Cooks distilled almost every style of television in a single intro sequence. The soap opera elements are maybe the most hilarious, with more characters and sudden shocking twists in an intro than most TV scribes manage in an entire season.


6. Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace

darkplace

Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace was more mockery than any one medium could handle. The endless complications of Darkplace Hospital are presented as an ongoing horror soap opera with behind-the-scenes anecdotes from writer, director, star, and self-described “dreamweaver visionary” Garth Marenghi and astoundingly incompetent actor/producer Dean Learner.


7. “Attitudes and Feelings, Both Desirable and Sometimes Secretive,” MadTV

attitudes

Soap opera connoisseurs know that the most melodramatic plots are found in Korea. MADtv‘s parody Tae Do  (translation: Attitudes and Feelings, Both Desirable and Sometimes Secretive) features the struggles of mild-mannered characters with far more feelings than their souls, or subtitles, could ever cope with.


8. Twin Peaks

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Twin Peaks, the twisted parody of small town soaps like Peyton Place whose own creator repeatedly insists is not a parody, has endured through pop culture since it changed television forever when it debuted in 1990. The show even had it’s own soap within in a soap called…


9. “Invitation to Love,” Twin Peaks

invitation

Twin Peaks didn’t just parody soap operas — it parodied itself parodying soap operas with the in-universe show Invitation to Love. That’s more layers of deceit and drama than most televised love triangles.


10. “As The Stomach Turns,” The Carol Burnett Show

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The Carol Burnett Show poked fun at soaps with this enduring take on As The World Turns. In a case of life imitating art, one story involving demonic possession would go on to happen for “real” on Days of Our Lives.


11. Days of our Lives (Friends Edition)

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Still airing today, Days of Our Lives is one of the most famous soap operas of all time. They’re also excellent sports, as they allowed Friends star Joey Tribbiani to star as Dr Drake Ramoray, the only doctor to date his own stalker (while pretending to be his own evil twin). And then return after a brain-transplant.

And let’s not forget the greatest soap opera parody line ever written: “Come on Joey, you’re going up against a guy who survived his own cremation!”


12. Acorn Antiques

acorn

First appearing on the BBC sketch comedy series Victoria Wood As Seen on TV, Acorn Antiques combines almost every low-budget soap opera trope into one amazing whole. The staff of a small town antique store suffer a disproportional number of amnesiac love-triangles, while entire storylines suddenly appear and disappear without warning or resolution. Acorn Antiques was so popular, it went on to become a hit West End musical.


13. “Point Place,” That 70s Show

pointplace

In a memorable That ’70s Show episode, an unemployed Red is reduced to watching soaps all day. He becomes obsessed despite the usual Red common-sense objections (like complaining that it’s impossible to fall in love with someone in a coma). His dreams render his own life as Point Place, a melodramatic nightmare where Kitty leaves him because he’s unemployed. (Click here to see all airings of That ’70s Show on IFC.)


14. The Spoils of Babylon

spoils

Bursting from the minds of Will Ferrell and creators Andrew Steele and Matt Piedmont, The Spoils of Babylon was a spectacular parody of soap operas and epic mini-series like The Thorn Birds. Taking the parody even further, Ferrell himself played Eric Jonrosh, the author of the book on which the series was based. Jonrosh returned in The Spoils Before Dying, a jazzy murder mystery with its own share of soapy twists and turns.

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15. All My Children Finale, SNL

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SNL‘s final celebration of one of the biggest soaps of all time is interrupted by a relentless series of revelations from stage managers, lighting designers, make-up artists, and more. All of whom seem to have been married to or murdered by (or both) each other.

Todd Solondz’s Latest War

Todd Solondz’s Latest War (photo)

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“Exploitative,” “mean-spirited” and “misanthropic” are just three of the many severe adjectives that tend to pepper discussions about the acidic work of Todd Solondz. The New Jersey-born indie filmmaker arrived on the scene in 1995 with the bitterly funny “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” courted critical accolades and controversy with 1998’s sharp-fanged “Happiness,” and further established, with 2001’s “Storytelling” and 2004’s “Palindromes,” his status as one of American cinema’s most idiosyncratic voices.

This week, he returns to theaters with “Life During Wartime,” a featured selection at 2009’s New York Film Festival which revisits the characters of “Happiness” using an all-new cast. The film’s less a true follow-up than a quasi-sequel in which Solondz, employing a more melancholy, elegiac tone, twists and bends his familiar characters in new and unexpected ways. It’s a meditation on man’s capacity for change and forgiveness, defined by the director’s trademark blend of the caustic and the compassionate. I got a chance to talk with him about the reasons behind using new actors for established roles, the difficulty of getting movies like his funded in the current economic climate, and why O.J. Simpson fled to Florida.

Like “Palindromes,” “Life During Wartime” features different actors playing characters already established by other performers in “Happiness.” What drove this casting device?

Recasting the movie gave me the freedom to not be so beholden to the literalness of what had been established earlier. I could take more liberties in playing with the storylines, and find new meanings and shading and colorings with what different actors could bring.

For example, Paul Reubens, like Jon Lovitz, I love. He’s a very funny actor, but he also has a kind of history that the audience is well aware of, and that lends a certain pathos and poignancy, a sorrow to his performance that I don’t think would otherwise be possible. Also, it was exciting for me to be able to share with an audience what Paul Reubens is even capable of doing. I think that it may surprise people, what he’s capable of.

(more…)

Why Dysfunctional Families Make for Good Movies

Why Dysfunctional Families Make for Good Movies (photo)

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As Tolstoy didn’t quite write, “Happy families are all alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own movie.”

Inspired by “Dogtooth,” the new, critically acclaimed Greek film featuring what has to be a record-breakingly dysfunctional familial unit, this week’s IFC News podcast is all about the movies’ fondness for troubled, messed-up, maladjusted and flat-out non-functioning families, from “Five Easy Pieces” to “Happiness.”

Download: MP3, 55:59 minutes, 51.3 MB

Subscribe to the podcast: [iTunes] [XML]

This week’s keyword game giveaway is a DVD of Lukas Moodysson’s “Mammoth,” starring Michelle Williams and Gael García Bernal.

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