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“Everything else is pure theory”: What-if Movies

“Everything else is pure theory”: What-if Movies (photo)

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A coin flip splits the new movie “Uncertainty” in two. That’s how a young couple (played by Lynn Collins and Joseph Gordon-Levitt) at a turning point in their relationship decide which way to go on the Brooklyn Bridge. Who picks heads over tails ultimately isn’t important, because the film follows both paths — in one storyline, the two head to Manhattan, find a cell phone in a cab and become embroiled in a thriller, while in the other, they go to a family barbecue in Brooklyn and navigate more personal dramas. Which reality is the “real” one? The title should give you a clue.

“Uncertainty”‘s not the first film to explore those what-if musings we’ve all indulged in, the ones that every holiday season drive George Bailey to an angelic vision of what the world would be like if he’d never existed. But it is one of a select group of movies to be structured around that idea of forking paths, of returning to a certain point and trying things another way, or in another setting, or just another frame of mind. Here are a few more films built around alternate realities.

11122009_slidingdoors.jpg“Sliding Doors” (1998)
Directed by Peter Howitt

A girl steps in front of Helen Quilley (Gwyneth Paltrow) as she’s running down the stairs and she misses her subway. Then, as chimes twinkle on the soundtrack, the film rewinds before our eyes, the girl is pulled out of Helen’s way, and she narrowly makes it onto the train. Missing a train doesn’t seem like that big a deal, but it is in “Sliding Doors,” where that split second has enormous and even fatal consequences for Helen. To borrow the train metaphor, from that moment, Helen’s life travels down two diverging tracks. In one, she arrives home in time to find her boyfriend Gerry (John Lynch) cheating on her, which leads to her move out and start a relationship with a man she met on the Tube named James (John Hannah). In the other, she’s mugged and gets home too late to discover Gerry’s affair, so she continues the relationship with him instead of James. Director Peter Howitt cuts back and forth between the two Helens, contrasting the one who makes the train and lives a romantic life with a new job, a new man and a new haircut with the one who doesn’t and leads a sad life supporting a man she doesn’t realize is unfaithful. Though he plays with symmetries, Howitt gives the two Helens’ stories wildly different outcomes; suddenly, the seemingly “unhappy” timeline becomes the more desirable one. Such an ending would be dramatically unsatisfying in a traditional movie, but in one about the random nature of life, the deus ex machina feels entirely appropriate.

11122009_memyselfi.jpg“Me Myself I” (1999)
Directed by Pip Karmel

It’s an old relationship that Pamela Drury (Rachel Griffiths) can’t forget in Pip Karmel’s Australian comedy, or maybe just the possibilities that come with it. Lonely, successful and thirtysomething (like so many a rom-com heroine!), Pamela finds herself wondering what her life would have been like if she’d married Robert Dickson (David Roberts), the man she dated over a decade ago. That could-have-been universe comes (literally) crashing into hers in the form of another Pamela (also played by Griffiths) who, it turns out, did marry Robert and has three kids with him, and who swaps places with our tragic singleton, dumping her into a world of housework, conjugal relations and the expected fish-out-of-water hijinks. “Me Myself I” may offer its main character a look into another world, but it doesn’t offer much insight into its own. There’s no explanation for the existence of Alt Pamela — which is fine, and comfortably within the bounds of movie whimsy. Not fine is the fact that both its portrayals of married and single life are hopelessly cliché-ridden. But Griffiths is and has always been an immensely watchable actress. She manages to bring more shades of gray to this film than it really deserves.

11122009_blindchance.jpg“Blind Chance” (1987)
Directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski

“Sliding Doors”‘ concept and structure obviously owe a debt to Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “Blind Chance,” another film about the variety of directions life might take based on the simple act of either catching or missing a train. In “Blind Chance,” though, the protagonist follows three distinct paths instead of “Sliding Doors”‘ two, and the stories are played consecutively instead of simultaneously. In the first and longest sequence, a med school dropout named Witek (Boguslaw Linda) catches his train. While on it, he encounters an old Communist, and eventually decides to join the Party. In the second sequence, he narrowly misses the train and knocks over a policeman in the process. Sent to jail, he meets members of the anti-Communist underground and eventually decides to join their group. In the third and shortest sequence, he misses the train by a wider margin, and finds Olga (Monika Gozdzik) looking for him on the platform. They begin an affair and Witek decides to return to school, become a doctor, and start a family. “Sliding Doors” examines how luck affects our romantic destinies; “Blind Chance” explores its impact on our politics. Witek’s three lives represent three political alternatives: either action on one side or the other or complete abstention from the process. The fact that such an inconsequential event propels Witek toward such radically different outcomes suggests that for Kieslowski, belief, like life in general, is based as much as chance and proximity to others as it is on careful consideration or debate.

11122009_melindaandmelinda.jpg“Melinda and Melinda” (2004)
Directed by Woody Allen

Woody Allen is a celebrated atheist, but he does believe in God, at least in his fiction. On the surface, Woody Allen’s multiverse movie “Melinda and Melinda” is about a couple of playwrights debating the nature of existence by using the same set-up — a troubled woman crashes a dinner party — to tell two different stories. Really, what they’re doing though is playing God with the life of Melinda (Radha Mitchell), tossing her from one calamity to the next. The playwrights argue whether life is inherently comic or tragic and try to prove their point through their individual interpretations of Melinda’s life. In doing so, we see how God might behave if He were working out of a sense of humor or a sense of sadism. Though “Melinda”‘s competing fictions only share one character, many events, locations and even lines of dialogue reoccur. In both, someone craves a single malt scotch. In both, someone tries to commit suicide by jumping out a window. So does that make life funny or sad? Wallace Shawn, who plays the comedy writer, gets the final word: “Comic or tragic, the most important thing to do is to enjoy life while you can,” he says, “because we only go around once and when it’s over, it’s over.” Here is Allen the atheist, telling us exactly what the doctor told a young and depressed Alvy Singer in “Annie Hall.” But then Shawn continues, “When you least expect it, it could end like that!” With a snap of Shawn’s fingers, the movie is abruptly ended. Here is Allen, the believer, saying that when you make a movie, you get to play God, at least for a little while.

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Give Back

Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.

Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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GIFs via Giphy

Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.


Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…


IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.


IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).


IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.


IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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