Monday, August 22, 2016

Very Semi-Serious

Year 8, Day 235 - 8/22/16 - Movie #2,429

BEFORE: The start of a three-part look at cartooning and illustration - I'm waiving my usual linking process during documentary week, because, really, what are the chances that these docs are going to be interviewing the same people?  It's more important this week that I stay on a more thematic track, and then at the end I'll link out of the topic back through a particular actor. 

THE PLOT:  The film follows cartoon editor Bob Mankoff as he sifts through hundreds of submissions and pitches every week to bring readers a carefully curated selection of insightful and humorous work.

AFTER: From one dying industry, record stores, I move to another one, publishing.  Although most magazines and newspapers still around seem to have successfully made the transition to the modern age by adding a digital version, yet still some people insist on having the dead-tree version delivered every week.  The reason is simple for NYC residents - there's just no wi-fi while you're between stations on the subway.  

The articles and fiction in The New Yorker magazine have been adapted into films like "Meet Me in St. Louis", "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty", "In Cold Blood", and more recently, "Boys Don't Cry", "Adaptation", "Everything Is Illuminated", "The Hours" and "Brokeback Mountain".  But most of that seems rather dark and depressing - did you know that the magazine also features funny cartoons?  
The main problem with humor, of course, is that it's largely (OK, totally) subjective.   What one person finds funny, another may not.  What's funny to a New Yorker may not play as well in another city.  Who has to sift through all of the possible jokes, topical references and slanted views on modern life presented by hundreds of cartoonists, in order to select the few one-panel drawings that will entertain the maximum number of city-dwellers?  

The answer, for the most part, is Bob Mankoff, who started submitting cartoons himself back in the mid-1970's (first one published in 1977) and then took over from Lee Lorenz as the magazine's cartoon editor in 1998.  He runs the cartoons that he finds funny past the magazine's editor, David Remnick, and one other person.  Then it's up to another person to decide when each cartoon will run, ideally when it relates to a specific article or when it is deemed particularly topical. 

The first step is a sort of "open call" where Mankoff meets each Tuesday with a long line of regulars, however there's nothing preventing newcomers from also taking their shot, and yep, sure enough I recognized one person I knew in that line.  I work in the world of animation, not illustration, but there was bound to be some overlap.  And these prospective cartoonists range from people who've had just one or two cartoons published, to people who've had several thousand in the magazine.  At $500 paid per cartoon, you've got to figure it's worth lining up each week and taking their shot.  But with 1,000 cartoons submitted each week, and only 15 making the cut, they'd probably get better odds, and bigger payouts, from buying scratch-off tickets.

The film strays a little bit from the process in order to focus a little on Mankoff's home life, the publication of his memoir, and two separate moves - moving with his wife to a new house after a family tragedy, and then moving the New Yorker (Conde Nast) office from Times Square down to 1 World Trade Center (adjacent to the site of a national tragedy).  But this merely emphasizes why we need cartoons and comedy in the first place, because we all need something to stand in contrast to life's little tragedies, and the bigger ones too.  The film takes some time to point out that the edition of the New Yorker immediately following 9/11 didn't plan to feature any cartoons at all, because nobody knew at the time when it would be appropriate to laugh at anything again.  But one particularly poignant cartoon ended up making the cut for that issue.  

But then the film strays a little more, to profile a number of the budding cartoonists who wait in line to see Bob each Tuesday - Emily Flake, Liana Flick, Farley Katz and Ed Steed seem to be the relative newcomers on the scene, while Roz Chast, Mort Gerberg and Sam Gross also appear as the veteran submitters.  I think the more cartoonists you get to know, the more you begin to realize that they're quite a wacky bunch, and that often it's the weirder people, the ones who look at life a little differently, who are really cut out for that lifestyle.  And the ones who can handle a little (OK, a lot of) rejection.  

My main problem with the film was that several of the captions were hard to read.  Either they just didn't focus the camera well, or perhaps I need new glasses.  Maybe it's just that arty italic font that made some of the punchlines very hard to read - I get that it's the magazine's signature font style, but it just didn't translate well to film.  They should have spent a few bucks and reprinted the captions in a better (or at least larger) font for the folks at home.

Most of the time, examining comedy also manages to negate it, this is one of those rare instances where the power of comedy shines through and persists, even after a peek behind the curtain.  
RATING: 6 out of 10 rejection letters

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