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The Dark Backward: The Secret of George Clooney’s Success

The Dark Backward: The Secret of George Clooney’s Success (photo)

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You gotta wonder, in our pimply-faced, iCarly-ed, CGI-stoned, giant-fucking-robots-&-superheroes teenage CandyLand, where the millions of dollars “young adults” somehow obtain to spend on everything overrule the rest of us and Hollywood movies rarely get made if they do not beg for a pubertal audience, what the deal is with George Clooney. Just skill, intelligence, good looks and the lust factor of middle-aged filmgoing women can’t fully explain his power and prominence. His movies, good or bad (mostly pretty damned good), coming usually two per year, are always aimed at educated, discriminating adults, a chunk of society normally as valuable to Hollywood as Papuan cannibals.

“The American” provides a clue, or rather, I should say, “The American”‘s ad art does — the composition and graphics are deliberately retro, deliberately 40 years out of date, evoking more acutely the posters for “The Quiller Memorandum” or “The Mackintosh Man” than any film made this millennium. But it’s not a marketing designer’s inspired fluke — it fits Clooney’s entire persona like a silk suit, because Clooney is not Of the Present but a deft, carefully engineered manifestation of the ultracool past. There’s nobody else that does this; he is our only retro-icon movie star, a vital cultural presence strangely and exhilaratingly connected to yesteryear.

Nostalgia is a dirty word, for good sociopolitical reasons, but it’s also a pleasure. For one thing, the past is beautiful. History is beautiful. Michael Chabon, admitting in an essay in “Maps and Legends” to suffering “intensely from bouts, at times almost disabling, of a limitless, all-encompassing nostalgia, extending well back into the years before I was born,” makes a concise claim toward the impulse’s reevaluation:

The mass synthesis, marketing, and distribution of versions and simulacra of an artificial past over the last thirty years or so, has ruined the reputation and driven a fatal stake through the heart of nostalgia. Those of us who cannot make it from one end of a street to another without being momentarily upended by some fragment of outmoded typography, curve of chrome fender or whiff of lavender hair oil from the pate of a semiretired neighbor are compelled by the disrepute into which nostalgia has fallen to mourn secretly the passing of a million marvelous quotidian things.

09022010_clooney3.jpgI’d be as happy as the next guy to blame the situation on rampaging commodification, as Chabon does, though I suspect a good many cultural pressures are responsible collectively. Whatever — if you belong to this tribe, Chabon provides you with an anthem in the next paragraph:

We are not, as our critics would claim, necessarily convinced that things were once better than they are now, nor that we ourselves our parents, or our grandparents were happier ‘back then.’ We are simply like those savants in the Borges story who stumble upon certain objects and totems that turn out to be the random emanations and proofs of existence of Tlon. The past is another planet; anyone ought to wonder, as we do, at any traces of it that turn up on this one.

Here, here. George Clooney would probably agree, because his career choices have routinely harbored forgotten DNA in them: the neo-Sinatra heist films, the menopausal dramas (so popular in the American New Wave), the love of old time broadcasting, the history-drenched political voyages, even rash experiments like Soderbergh’s “The Good German” and Clooney’s own “Leatherheads,” both of them misdirected attempts at literally reincarnating Golden Age genres. I’d even suggest that the Coen films Clooney’s starred in are closer in spirit to the Peter Sellers films of the Johnson-Nixon years than contemporary comedies. But the way Clooney is marketed and framed, even for films not inherently nostalgic, still recalls the day and age when Clooney was a boy hanging with his dad in Midwestern TV station newsrooms.

There are two factors at work, and one is simply the seductive power of nostalgia in general, which I’m surprised is not more prevalent now. (Think about it: nostalgia for the previous decade or two was a rampaging cultural blight ever since “Happy Days,” but right now we seem only interested in the next five minutes. Meaning, frankly, that I am a little nostalgic for when nostalgia was cool and ubiquitous.)

09022010_clooney2.jpgBut there’s also this, on behalf of Clooney’s audience: he’s a man. There’s no mistaking him for a cute-teen-idol-turned-baby-faced-semi-adult, a la the Depps and DiCaprios and Pitts of the world. This is something remarkable in and of itself these days, now that Harrison Ford has aged out, and most leading men otherwise seem like earnest, protein-shake-swilling lacrosse players. This is not how it used to be: going back to the ’30s, movie stars always seemed like fully grown, savvy, experienced adults, even when they were in their 20s.

No one then or now would confuse Clark Gable or Cary Grant or Humphrey Bogart for post-teen hunks, and neither would we, come the ’60s and ’70s, wonder when Steve McQueen or Sean Connery or Charles Bronson were going to start playing believable adults. Things began to change quickly with Star Wars and the Reagan Administration, two successive forms of cultural infantilization — suddenly, adolescence was the new adulthood, and movie stars who would resemble teenagers deep into their 40s gained eminence.

Clooney is a throwback in this way most of all, to the bulk of the 20th century and movie history, to the days when male movie stars had lines in their faces and needed to shave every day. Over three-quarters of Americans are old enough to legally buy whiskey, and Clooney is for us, the undertargeted majority who do not spend days playing “Halo,” do not read graphic novels regularly, and do not know or care to know who Ke$ha is. At least for now (Clooney will be 50 next year), he’s the one-man living proof in theaters that the world is not owned by tenth-graders.

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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.

via GIPHY

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…

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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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