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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 Cédric 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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Final Countdown

The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at IFC.com

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Rev Up

Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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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…