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Sidney Lumet: A YouTube Primer

Sidney Lumet: A YouTube Primer (photo)

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When I was in in grad school, getting a degree in cinema studies, Sidney Lumet was a tough director to love. If I brought his name up in conversations about great filmmakers, I was shouted down by my colleagues. They’d say his best movies were adapted from plays, or that that he often sublimated his own artistic impulses to great writers who became the true authors of their collaborations.

Maybe they were right. But there’s no shame in turning a good play into a better movie, or allowing a marvelous screenplay to take center stage. Lumet’s unfussy, economical approach was born from years cutting his teeth in the fast-paced world of early television production. His apprenticeship in television taught him that the flashiest way was not always the best way to tell a story. There doesn’t appear to be a lot going on visually in a film like “12 Angry Men,” a movie adapted from a play and set entirely inside a jury deliberation room. But you watch closely and you see how Lumet subtly raises the tension by shooting with shorter and shorter lenses, shrinking the room, increasing the sense of claustrophobia.

Lumet’s work illustrates the difference between good direction and big direction. Any filmmaker would love to have a movie as good as “Network” or “Dog Day Afternoon” or “The Verdict” or “12 Angry Men” on their resume. Lumet had them all. A filmography as long and impressive as his doesn’t just happen by accident. Neither do the performances that actors like Al Pacino, Henry Fonda, Paul Newman, John Cazale, and Faye Dunaway gave in his movies.

Thinking about Lumet over the weekend I found myself repeatedly heading to YouTube to watch my favorite scenes from his work. If you don’t know these movies, this post is no replacement for actually watching them. But if these samples give you the desire to go out and see them in their entirety, it will have done its job.

Let’s start with maybe the most famous scene from his most famous movie, “Network.” As I wrote just a few weeks ago, during the height of the Charlie Sheen madness, the film, about the media consolidation and degradation, is as timely now as it was back in 1976. Just listen to Howard Beale (Peter Finch) here. Beale has been fired from his broadcast news show for low ratings. It’s driven him completely insane. But in insane times, an insane man sees things more clearly. And the speech he gives, written by Paddy Chayefsky, about how bad things are getting in society (“It’s a depression! Everybody’s out of work or scared of losing their job…banks are going bust…”) could have been penned last month.

By the way, incredible as that rant is, my favorite scene from “Network,” isn’t Beale’s “mad as hell” speech; it’s Ned Beatty explaining to Beale how he has “meddled with the primal forces of nature” in corporate controlled America. That scene is viewable on YouTube, but not embeddable.

“I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it anymore!” wasn’t the only time a moment from one of Lumet’s films became larger than the movie itself. It’s a pretty safe bet that anyone who knows the word “Attica!” today knows it as something Al Pacino yells in Lumet’s “Dog Day Afternoon” and not as a notorious prison riot, which is why Pacino yells it in the first place. Here is that riveting scene:

Two years before “Dog Day Afternoon,” Lumet directed Pacino in another classic, the undercover cop drama “Serpico.” People often note that Pacino’s acting has gotten bigger and bigger (and worse and worse) over the years, and put all the blame on Pacino himself. But maybe the fact that Pacino worked less and less with great directors like Lumet played a big part. Here’s a scene from “Serpico” where Pacino goes big, but not over the top. With Lumet, he knew exactly the right note to hit.

Lumet made all sorts of films, but many of his most well-known movies are set in the American legal system. Here Lumet himself shares his thoughts on what makes a good courtroom drama:

And here are some of those theories in action, in Paul Newman’s closing argument from “The Verdict.” Note the similar camera movement from Howard Beale’s big speech in “Network,” the high, wide angle slowly moving tighter and tighter, a Lumet signature. Though there aren’t any specifics of “The Verdict”‘s plot in Newman’s speech, it is the big emotional climax of the movie. So consider this your SPOILER WARNING.

Last and definitely not least, more legal thrills from my favorite Lumet film — and of my all-time favorite movies, period — “12 Angry Men.” In this scene, Fonda’s character, the one voice of reason(able doubt) in a deliberation room ready to send a boy to his death, begins to chip away at the certainty of his fellow jurors. Because Lumet’s direction is so controlled, even small moments of action have a huge impact, like someone slamming a knife down into a table.

Again, if you don’t know the movies of Sidney Lumet, you are missing out on some of the greatest films ever made in and about this country. Seek his work out.

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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.

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Get Physical

DVDs are the new Vinyl

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available On Disc.

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In this crazy digital age, sometimes all we really want is to reach out and touch something. Maybe that’s why so many of us are still gung-ho about owning stuff on DVD. It’s tangible. It’s real. It’s tech from a bygone era that still feels relevant, yet also kitschy and retro. It’s basically vinyl for people born after 1990.

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Inevitably we all have that friend whose love of the disc is so absolutely repellent that he makes the technology less appealing. “The resolution, man. The colors. You can’t get latitude like that on a download.” Go to hell, Tim.

Yes, Tim sucks, and you don’t want to be like Tim, but maybe he’s onto something and DVD is still the future. Here are some benefits that go beyond touch.

It’s Decor and Decorum

With DVDs and a handsome bookshelf you can show off your great taste in film and television without showing off your search history. Good for first dates, dinner parties, family reunions, etc.

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Forget Public Wifi

Warm up that optical drive. No more awkwardly streaming episodes on shady free wifi!

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Inter-not

Internet service goes down. It happens all the time. It could happen right now. Then what? Without a DVD on hand you’ll be forced to make eye contact with your friends and family. Or worse – conversation.

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Self Defense

You can’t throw a download like a ninja star. Think about it.

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If you’d like to experience the benefits DVD ownership yourself, Portlandia Season 7 is now available on DVD and Blue-Ray.