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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 C├ędric 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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Thank Azaria

Best. Characters. Ever.

Our favorite Hank Azaria characters.

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GIFs via Giphy

Hank Azaria may well be the most prolific voice and character actor of our time. The work he’s done for The Simpsons alone has earned him a permanent place in the pop culture zeitgeist. And now he’s bringing another character to the mainstream: a washed-up sports announcer named Jim Brockmire, in the aptly titled new series Brockmire.

We’re looking forward to it. So much so that we want to look backward, too, with a short-but-sweet retrospective of some of Azaria’s important characters. Shall we begin?

Half The Recurring Simpsons Characters

He’s Comic Book Guy. He’s Chief Wiggum. He’s Apu. He’s Cletus. He’s Snake. He’s Superintendent Chalmers. He’s the Sea Captain. He’s Kurt “Can I Borrow A Feeling” Van Houten. He’s Professor Frink. He’s Carl. And he’s many more. But most importantly he’s Moe Szyslak, the staple character Azaria has voiced since his very first audition for The Simpsons.

Oh, and He’s Frank Grimes

For all the regular Simpsons characters Azaria has played over the years, his most brilliant performance may have been a one-off: Frank Grimes, the scrappy bootstrapper who worked tirelessly all his life for honest, incremental, and easily-undermined success. Azaria’s portrayal of this character was nuanced, emotional, and simply magical.

Patches O’Houlihan

Dodgeball is a “sport of violence, exclusion and degradation.” as Hank Azaria generously points out in his brief but crucial cameo in Dodgeball. That’s sage wisdom. Try applying his “five D’s” to your life on and off the court and enjoy the results.

Harold Zoid

Of Futurama fame. The crazy uncle of Dr. Zoidberg, Harold Zoid was once a lion (or lobster) of the silver screen until Smell-o-vision forced him into retirement.

Agador

The Birdcage was significant for many reasons, and the comic genius of Hank Azaria’s character “Agador” sits somewhere towards the top of that list. If you haven’t seen this movie, shame on you.

Gargamel

Nobody else could make a live-action Gargamel possible.

Ed Cochran

From Ray Donovan. Great character, great last name [editorial note: the author of this article may be bias].

Kahmunra, The Thinker, Abe Lincoln

All in the Night At The Museum: Battle Of The Smithsonian, a file that let Azaria flex his voice acting and live-action muscles in one fell swoop.

The Blue Raja

Mystery Men has everything, including a fatal case of Smash Mouth. Azaria’s iconic superhero makes the shortlist of redeemable qualities, though.

Dr. Huff

Huff put Azaria in a leading role, and it was good. So good that there is no good gif of it. Internet? More like Inter-not.

Learn more about Hank Azaria’s newest claim to fame right here, and don’t miss the premiere of Brockmire April 5 at 10P on IFC.

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Flame Out

Brockmire and Other Public Implosions

Brockmire Premieres April 5 at 10P on IFC.

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There’s less than a month until the Brockmire premiere, and to say we’re excited would be an insulting understatement. It’s not just that it stars Hank Azaria, who can do no wrong (and yes, that’s including Mystery Men, which is only cringeworthy because of Smash Mouth). It’s that the whole backstory of the titular character, Jim Brockmire, is the stuff of legends. A one-time iconic sportscaster who won the hearts of fans and players alike, he fell from grace after an unfortunate personal event triggered a seriously public meltdown. See for yourself in the NSFW Funny or Die digital short that spawned the IFC series:

See? NSFW and spectacularly catastrophic in a way that could almost be real. Which got us thinking: What are some real-life sports fails that have nothing to do with botched athletics and everything to do with going tragically off script? The internet is a dark and dirty place, friends, but these three examples are pretty special and mostly safe for work…

Disgruntled Sports Reporter

His co-anchor went offsides and he called it like he saw it.

Jim Rome vs Jim “Not Chris” Everett

You just don’t heckle a professional athlete when you’re within striking distance. Common sense.

Carl Lewis’s National Anthem

He killed it! As in murdered. It’s dead.

To see more moments just like these, we recommend spending a day in your pajamas combing through the muckiness of the internet. But to see something that’s Brockmire-level funny without having to clear your browser history, check out the sneak peeks and extras here.

Don’t miss the premiere of Brockmire April 5 at 10P on IFC.

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Mirror, Mirror

Portlandia Season 7 In Hindsight

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available Online and on the IFC App.

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Another season of Portlandia is behind us, and oh what a season it was. We laughed. We cried. And we chuckled uncomfortably while glancing nervously around the room. Like every season before it, the latest Portlandia has held a mirror up to ridiculousness of modern American life, but more than ever that same mirror has reflected our social reality in ways that are at once hysterical and sneakily thought-provoking. Here are just a few of the issues they tackled:

Nationalism

So long, America, Portland is out! And yes, the idea of Portland seceding is still less ludicrous than building a wall.

Men’s Rights

We all saw this coming. Exit gracefully, dudes.

Protests

Whatever you stand for, stand for it together. Or with at least one other person.

Free Love

No matter who we are or how we love, deep down we all have the ability to get stalky.

Social Status

Modern self-esteem basically hinges on likes, so this isn’t really a stretch at all.

These moments are just the tip of the iceberg, and much more can be found in the full seventh season of #Portlandia, available right now #online and on the #IFC app.

via GIPHY

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