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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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Hard Out

Comedy From The Closet

Janice and Jeffrey Available Now On IFC's Comedy Crib

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She’s been referred to as “the love child of Amy Sedaris and Tracy Ullman,” and he’s a self-described “Italian who knows how to cook a great spaghetti alla carbonara.” They’re Mollie Merkel and Matteo Lane, prolific indie comedians who blended their robust creative juices to bring us the new Comedy Crib series Janice and Jeffrey. Mollie and Matteo took time to answer our probing questions about their series and themselves. Here’s a taste.

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IFC: How would you describe Janice and Jeffrey to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Mollie & Matteo: Janice and Jeffrey is about a married couple experiencing intimacy issues but who don’t have a clue it’s because they are gay. Their oblivion makes them even more endearing.  Their total lack of awareness provides for a buffet of comedy.

IFC: What’s your origin story? How did you two people meet and how long have you been working together?

Mollie: We met at a dive bar in Wrigley Field Chicago. It was a show called Entertaining Julie… It was a cool variety scene with lots of talented people. I was doing Janice one night and Matteo was doing an impression of Liza Minnelli. We sort of just fell in love with each other’s… ACT! Matteo made the first move and told me how much he loved Janice and I drove home feeling like I just met someone really special.

IFC: How would Janice describe Jeffrey?

Mollie: “He can paint, cook homemade Bolognese, and sing Opera. Not to mention he has a great body. He makes me feel empowered and free. He doesn’t suffocate me with attention so our love has room to breath.”

IFC: How would Jeffrey describe Janice?

Matteo: “Like a Ford. Built to last.”

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Mollie & Matteo: Our current political world is mirroring and reflecting this belief that homosexuality is wrong. So what better time for satire. Everyone is so pro gay and equal rights, which is of course what we want, too. But no one is looking at middle America and people actually in the closet. No one is saying, hey this is really painful and tragic, and sitting with that. Having compassion but providing the desperate relief of laughter…This seemed like the healthiest, best way to “fight” the gay rights “fight”.

IFC: Hummus is hilarious. Why is it so funny?

Mollie: It just seems like something people take really seriously, which is funny to me. I started to see it in a lot of lesbians’ refrigerators at a time. It’s like observing a lesbian in a comfortable shoe. It’s a language we speak. Pass the Hummus. Turn on the Indigo Girls would ya?

See the whole season of Janice and Jeffrey right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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Die Hard Dads

Inspiration For Die Hard Dads

Die Hard is on IFC all Father's Day Long

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection, GIPHY

Yippee ki-yay, everybody! It’s time to celebrate the those most literal of mother-effers: dads!

And just in case the title of this post left anything to the imagination, IFC is giving dads balls-to-the-wall ’80s treatment with a glorious marathon of action trailblazer Die Hard.

There are so many things we could say about Die Hard. We could talk about how it was comedian Bruce Willis’s first foray into action flicks, or Alan Rickman’s big screen debut. But dads don’t give a sh!t about that stuff.

No, dads just want to fantasize that they could be deathproof quip factory John McClane in their own mundane lives. So while you celebrate the fathers in your life, consider how John McClane would respond to these traditional “dad” moments…

Wedding Toasts

Dads always struggle to find the right words of welcome to extend to new family. John McClane, on the other hand, is the master of inclusivity.
Die Hard wedding

Using Public Restrooms

While nine out of ten dads would rather die than use a disgusting public bathroom, McClane isn’t bothered one bit. So long as he can fit a bloody foot in the sink, he’s G2G.
Die Hard restroom

Awkward Dancing

Because every dad needs a signature move.
Die Hard dance

Writing Thank You Notes

It can be hard for dads to express gratitude. Not only can McClane articulate his thanks, he makes it feel personal.
Die Hard thank you

Valentine’s Day

How would John McClane say “I heart you” in a way that ain’t cliche? The image speaks for itself.
Die Hard valentines

Shopping

The only thing most dads hate more than shopping is fielding eleventh-hour phone calls with additional items for the list. But does McClane throw a typical man-tantrum? Nope. He finds the words to express his feelings like a goddam adult.
Die Hard thank you

Last Minute Errands

John McClane knows when a fight isn’t worth fighting.
Die Hard errands

Sneaking Out Of The Office Early

What is this, high school? Make a real exit, dads.
Die Hard office

Think you or your dad could stand to be more like Bruce? Role model fodder abounds in the Die Hard marathon all Father’s Day long on IFC.

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Founding Farters

Know Your Nerd History

Revenge of the Nerds is on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection, GIFs via Giphy

That we live in the heyday of nerds is no hot secret. Scientists are celebrities, musicians are robots and late night hosts can recite every word of the Silmarillion. It’s too easy to think that it’s always been this way. But the truth is we owe much to our nerd forebearers who toiled through the jock-filled ’80s so that we might take over the world.

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Our humble beginnings are perhaps best captured in iconic ’80s romp Revenge of the Nerds. Like the founding fathers of our Country, the titular nerds rose above their circumstances to culturally pave the way for every Colbert and deGrasse Tyson that we know and love today.

To make sure you’re in the know about our very important cultural roots, here’s a quick download of the vengeful nerds without whom our shameful stereotypes might never have evolved.

Lewis Skolnick

The George Washington of nerds whose unflappable optimism – even in the face of humiliating self-awareness – basically gave birth to the Geek Pride movement.

Gilbert Lowe

OK, this guy is wet blanket, but an important wet blanket. Think Aaron Burr to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. His glass-mostly-empty attitude is a galvanizing force for Lewis. Who knows if Lewis could have kept up his optimism without Lowe’s Debbie-Downer outlook?

Arnold Poindexter

A music nerd who, after a soft start (inside joke, you’ll get it later), came out of his shell and let his passion lead instead of his anxiety. If you played an instrument (specifically, electric violin), and you were a nerd, this was your patron saint.

Booger

A sex-loving, blunt-smoking, nose-picking guitar hero. If you don’t think he sounds like a classic nerd, you’re absolutely right. And that’s the whole point. Along with Lamar, he simultaneously expanded the definition of nerd and gave pre-existing nerds a twisted sort of cred by association.

Lamar Latrell

Black, gay, and a crazy good breakdancer. In other words, a total groundbreaker. He proved to the world that nerds don’t have a single mold, but are simply outcasts waiting for their moment.

Ogre

Exceedingly stupid, this dumbass was monumental because he (in a sequel) leaves the jocks to become a nerd. Totally unheard of back then. Now all jocks are basically nerds.

Well, there they are. Never forget that we stand on their shoulders.

Revenge of the Nerds is on IFC all month long.

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