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Cult classic: Elizabeth Olsen breaks from the pack in “Martha Marcy May Marlene”

Cult classic: Elizabeth Olsen breaks from the pack in “Martha Marcy May Marlene” (photo)

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Cult movies are nothing new to the film world. From “Rosemary’s Baby” to “Children of the Corn” to “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” to even “Hot Fuzz,” there’s no shortage of the portrayals of brainwashed people. But usually, the cults in question are fantastic and outlandish – they perform human sacrifice! They kill all the adults! They worship Satan! – and hardly anyone seems particularly eager to leave, other than the outsiders. It seems like a complete fantasy.

So when real life people come forward and say they were in a cult – and perhaps even committed atrocities in the name of said cult – our predominant examples are from the extremes, either from film or history. The Manson Family. Jim Jones. David Koresh. But what “Martha Marcy May Marlene” does is take the hysteria down a notch, and give a realistic portrayal of what it’s like to be in a cult, what it’s like to leave, and how difficult it is to readjust to everyday life in the immediate aftermath, through the eyes of a character whose name changes according to her environment, played by Elizabeth Olsen.

“It’s fun to forget about societal norms and just create within the world that was provided in the script,” Olsen told IFC.

“The word ‘cult’ is loaded,” said John Hawkes, who plays the cult leader. “I’ve never been a fan of cults. There’s a Manson movie they keep trying to make, I’ve been asked to be a part of it, and that’s not a story I’m interested in being a part of. But this story is more interesting to me because it’s not told through the leader’s eyes, but through a young woman and her struggle.”

“It’s that first two weeks after someone gets out of a situation, when it’s completely alive for them,” said actor Hugh Dancy, who plays Martha’s brother-in-law. “What you might call a flashback [in the movie] is much more than a flashback, because it’s happening in her mind simultaneously. She’s still kind of living through this experience, and she doesn’t understand it. She’s kind of fractured.”

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First-time director Sean Durkin was aided in his script by a friend who had escaped a cult herself, and shared her experience with him. “The film isn’t about her,” he said, “but she shared her emotional journey, and what it was like after she left, so I could understand what she was going through. It was also about the tactics that they used to induct her and keep her there: the re-naming, the eating habits, the way when something happens that’s bad, someone’s there to tell you it’s OK.”

For instance, in the cult Martha joins – where she becomes Marcy May and sometimes Marlene – only one meal a day is served, and at that meal, the men eat first, and only after they’re done can the women eat. “There’s this strange sense of hierarchy and rigidity within their apparent liberal lifestyle,” Dancy observed.

Quarters are tight, so people sleep in sex-segregated rooms, sharing beds and mattresses – save for orgy night, when sleeping arrangements are a free for all. Consequently, when she leaves the cult, Martha has a bit of confusion about eating in front of the opposite sex, sleeping alone, and when nudity is appropriate (or not). At one point, she crawls into her sister’s bed – while the sister is having sex with her husband – with no idea that they might have a problem with her behavior.

“It’s kind of humorous, because he’s incredibly pissed off, which seems entirely reasonable!” Dancy laughed. “This is his sister-in-law who he’s only known for a few days, and she’s crawling into the marital bed, while it’s in use?”

“We accept a lot of things as fact,” Olsen said, “but you know, just eating breakfast in the morning in front of a man? Those were different things that she wasn’t used to, for years. I thought of it like how when people go live in a foreign country, and they come back with all these new habits. This is an extreme case of that. That’s what clashes, the challenges within those different, everyday aspects.”

“All this stuff that we consider normal has been beaten out of her,” Dancy explained. “Not literally, but she has been taught to question everything that she might take for granted, and to question anybody who shows her what we would consider normal affection.”

How does that even happen in the first place? And why would any reasonably intelligent person allow any form of mind control happen to them, one might ask? Yet the way Martha’s portrayed, she’s no idiot.

“What kind of people join cults?” Durkin said. “All kinds of people, at all stages of their lives, from all different backgrounds. I didn’t want people to say she got into it because she’s weak, because it’s not like that. I felt really strongly about that.”

“I think the idea that people can be manipulated and controlled and preyed upon in that way is unsettling, not least because it doesn’t happen just to the marginalized,” Dancy said. “It happens to people who are intelligent and apparently in the mainstream. They’re in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

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Certainly, the fact that sociologists haven’t been able to pinpoint a specific personality type likely to fall victim to a cult suggests that all people are vulnerable, especially when warmth, acceptance, and a new “family” are offered. Later on, it’s suggested that you should sever ties from your real family, friends, and other relationships, because they’re a waste of energy.

“There are certain people who know how to take advantage of the chinks in our armor,” Dancy said, “when we’re not quite sure of ourselves and wanting to be loved. And part of that is introducing doubt about everybody. That is a form of control.”

The cult leaders encourage dependence on the group – sharing – to minimize independence and break down former identities – hence Martha’s renaming to Marcy May. And the group usually lives in an isolated area, to operate out of view of society, which is why the cult scenes in the film take place in the Catskills.

“We were really isolated up there,” Olsen said. “No internet, no cell phones.”

“There was one landline,” Hawkes said. “Every day during the van ride back to the hotel, at one point in the journey – the same point every time – we’d hear all this buzzing and beeping as everyone’s electronics suddenly came to life. The isolation made it really easy for us to imagine what it would be like to live there.”

All of those conditions – the isolation, the new identity, the severing of ties – takes place before any real abuses begin. In Martha/Marcy May’s case, she’s initiated into a sexual practice where each girl is drugged and then made to have sex with the cult leader Patrick in a strange ritual. “Lizzie and I had some very intense scenes,” Hawkes said. “Every time, after every take, when the director called ‘Cut!’ we would just check in with each other: ‘How are you feeling?’ To Lizzie’s credit, she was very game, very brave.”

Eventually, Martha/Marcy May is so controlled by the cult that she helps another young girl get “initiated” by Patrick, without seeming to remember her own experience as a bad one. It isn’t until the cult turns violent that she realizes she’s got to escape – and the film “Martha Marcy May Marlene” begins.

Will you be checking out Elizabeth Olsen’s buzzed-about performance in “Martha Marcy May Marlene? Let us know below or on Facebook or Twitter.

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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.