5/13/16

National Lampoon Documentary Captures Its Perverse Pleasures

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DRUNK STONED BRILLIANT DEAD: THE STORY OF NATIONAL LAMPOOM (2015)
Directed by Douglas Tirola
4th Row Films/Magnolia Pictures, 98 minutes, R (nudity, drugs, language)
* * * *

Welcome to a rarity: a National Lampoon product that bombed. This documentary on the inner workings of the Lampoon empire raked in less than $65k at the box office, a flop on par with the magazine’s disastrous 1978 TV venture Disco Beavers in Outer Space. You should not mistake the two—the film is hysterical and superbly crafted.

It must be said that, like Lampoon editors and writers, I am dismissive of the squeamish PC crowd that cries, “That’s not funny; it’s mean.” If it’s not transgressive, it’s not comedy—there is always a butt, or there is no joke. Sometimes we try to hide comedy’s ‘meanness’ by universalizing, generalizing, or personalizing, but this is subterfuge, not substance. The brilliance of National Lampoon was that it never played nice. Hand writers such as Doug Kenney, Henry Beard, Michael O’Donoghue, or Tony Hendra a sacred cow and they’d give you back bestiality, religion, and poop jokes—probably with a blood-covered, bare-breasted butcher serving beef barbecue to unsuspecting Hindus. Looking for boundaries? Don’t. Like Lenny Bruce a generation before, the Lampoon staff told black jokes to call attention to racism, used hate speech to stick issues in your face, and pretty much made fun of every oppressed group you can imagine: gays, disabled, Jews, Latinos, the mentally challenged (Remember Stork from Animal House?)….  Was it “mean” to pick on such targets, or was it a reminder that these folks were amidst us? No one—and I mean no one—took it on the chin as badly as the Establishment; National Lampoon was a raised middle finger to those who yearned for propriety and decorum.

Does this make you uncomfortable? Get over yourself. As Doug Triola’s amazing film reminds, National Lampoon redefined American comedy—even visually. Think of iconic images such as Rick Meyerowitz’s Mona Gorilla cover, or Ed Bluestone’s high concept cover with a gun, a distressed pooch, and the tag line, “If you don’t buy this magazine, we’ll shoot this dog.” What is more standard in American comedy than the parody of mass culture? NatLamp perfected that form; in fact, it morphed from the Harvard Lampoon to a national mag in 1970 when it was—get this!—asked by Cosmopolitan to do a send-up of that publication. For five insane years, National Lampoon was the world’s best-selling humor magazine, and it was fueled by sex, drugs, and rock and roll. The crew that gathered around magazine heads Kenney, Beard, and Rob Hoffman were as transgressive as their material in those early days, yet the suits lined up to throw money at them, which is the ultimate irony of Lampoon: every criticism aimed at it is an indirect slam against advanced capitalism. The magazine lasted until 1998, but it became (and still is) a marketing juggernaut. In addition to the monthly, NatLamp spawned 14 books, 4 theater productions, 12 comedy albums, 30 anthologies, 7 tie-in films (including the entire Vacation oeuvre), and myriad imitators. It also produced two enormously popular radio shows that anticipated satellite radio, and cranked out writers that created, among others: Caddyshack, The Simpsons, Ghostbusters, Second City TV, and Saturday Night Live. Especially SNL, which poached O’Donoghue and Anne Beatts from NatLamp and then signed a cast that producer Matt Simmons neglected to put on retainer: Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, Gilda Radner, Chevy Chase, and the brilliant John Belushi. The footage of Belushi alone makes this doc must-see viewing! And let’s round out Lampoon’s influence with a short list of those whose careers it helped launch: all of the aforementioned plus Judd Aptow, Kevin Bacon, John Candy, Beverly D’Angelo, John Goodman, Christopher Guest, Tim Matheson, Billy Bob Thornton, and directors John Hughes and John Landis.

That Tirola can sum such a complex story in an hour and a half is its own testimony to the film’s quality, but also check out the superb editing of Joseph Hrings and G. Jesse Martinez. The cuts between still images is amazing and they take place to a rock soundtrack. I couldn’t help but think that Ken Burns and the producers of MTV ought to apprentice themselves to Hrings and Martinez to learn how you can make stills leap off the screen.

Can we be critical of this film? Sure. I can’t fathom why the saccharine Ivan Reitman is on camera so much. More substantively, although Tirola never portrays his subjects as saints and highlights their pettiness as well as their intellect, there are three glaring things he soft peddles: drugs, politics, and sexism. There is a tendency to view the first as a sort of extended college party scene, which is true to a point, but drugs probably played a role in Doug Kenney’s death in 1980 (and may have exacerbated clinical depression) and they certainly killed Belushi two years later. Re: politics, we know that writer/editor P. J. O’Rourke is (very) conservative, which is never mentioned. Maybe that’s fine, but one can’t help but ponder the heartfelt views of those who supped at anti-authority tables. Moreover, the under representation of clothed women at NatLamp suggests a young boys’ network not willing to confront its own gender privilege. Call these reviewer observations, though. This is a truly magnificent documentary. It might make you cringe, but if it doesn’t make you laugh, you simply don’t get comedy.
Rob Weir   

5/11/16

The Ragbirds Score Big with New Release

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THE RAGBIRDS
The Threshold and the Hearth
Rock Ridge Music
* * * *

It’s hardly late-breaking news that musical genres are collapsing at the speed of a North Korean housing development. It’s musical succotash these days, though far too many musicians mash things simply because they can, and in ways as aurally bland as lima beans and canned corn. Thank goodness there are bands like The Ragbirds that add tasty ingredients. This Ann Arbor-based quintet is an indie pop/folk rock/world music hybrid and its fifth album, The Threshold and the Hearth, is its best yet.

Evocations of Paul Simon and Peter Gabriel spring to mind, though its anchor is the dulcet-toned Erin Zindle, who wields fiddles, mandolins, and accordions to provide fiery contrast to her calming voice. The Ragbirds are unusual in that they are percussion heavy. Erin’s brother, T. J. Zindle, provides acoustic and electric guitar but her husband, Randall Moore, lays down doumbek, tabla, and other percussion; Jon Brown adds a conventional drum kit, and Dan Jones is on bass—whenever he too isn’t playing some sort of drum. Songs such as “Cosmos,” “The Bottomless Heart,” and “TheCurse of Finger Pointing” have definite West African influences—both in their sunny, exuberant feel and in Zindle’s fingerstyling. (Many West African rhythms now played on guitar are derived from the kora.)

Optimism reigns on this album, no matter what musical traditions The Ragbirds mine. And they mine many. The aforementioned “Cosmos,” for example, also sports some Zindle fiddle work that is both jazzy and quasi-Celtic. She switches to the squeeze box for “Good Time to be Born,” in which her goes-down-easy voice moves us from bleakness—“There’s a stranger with a cart full of useless stuff”—to universal themes of shared humanity: “My own shopping cart is full of compromise/There is always peace, there is always war/But beauty’s always being born.” Considered arrangement of material also keeps us on our toes and in touch with our better angels. Check out the way the last eight tracks roll. In “Sometimes Honestly,” Zindle admits that constant honesty is its own burden and intones, “Luck is just a choice you make.” This is followed by the harder edged “Alleyway Saints” in which T.J.’s electric guitar is fluid but edgy; then it’s introspective piano for “Strange Weather,” Erin’s slow, personal exploration of how a couple negotiates everyday life, with changeable weather the central metaphor. “Tough Love” is a natural follow up with its splashes of energetic mando, its clipped pacing, and a soulful chorus.

That emotional/musical pattern is followed again for the next four songs, my favorites of which were “We Carry This Place,” which felt like a contemplative update of themes Joni Mitchell explored in “Circle Game;” and “Little Ties,” which is folky, vaguely Appalachian, has a sing-along feel, and a fiddle part that’s what you’d get if you put some hand jive to strings. Most of the album’s songs are about renewal and I felt refreshed from listening. They call themselves The Ragbirds, but there’s nothing shabby about them. –Rob Weir

5/9/16

A Man Called Ove a Brilliant Debut

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A MAN CALLED OVE  (2014/15)
By Fredrik Backman
Washington Square Press, 368 pp.
* * * * *

Is there a more clich├ęd line in the history of reviewing than: “I laughed, I cried?” I don’t care how hackneyed it sounds; my experience of reading A Man Called Ove was exactly that. It would be woefully inadequate to say I liked this book; I LOVED this book.

Swedish blogger Fredrik Backman’s debut novel introduces us to Ove, the greatest crank/eccentric since Ignatius J. Reilly in A Confederacy of Dunces. Ove is a brooding man of few words, until it comes to the principles that are at the core of his being. He’s out place in a world of computers, but he has opinions about them. You certainly don’t want to get him started on what he thinks of the kind of person who doesn’t know how to bleed a radiator, hang a proper hook, fix a bicycle, back up a van, or—horror of horrors—would drive a Volvo instead of a Saab. Things that have no purpose have no place in Ove’s world and he’s had it up to his eyeteeth in the “stupidity” that assaults him daily. And there is the special contempt he holds for the “white shirts,” their petty regulations, their impracticality, their big schemes, their haughty demeanor, and their amoral ways. If you have to ask Ove if he’s honest, you’re exactly the sort of person with whom it’s a waste of time to converse.

We meet Ove as he’s on his daily and highly regimented rounds around the neighborhood. He’s 59 and has recently been forcibly retired by a group of white shirts who think they’ve acted in his best interest. Harrumph! As if they’d know what a man like Ove needs! I found myself bursting into laughter at Ove’s ever-growing list of what’s wrong with the world that he assembles from his morning perambulations. If a bicycle chained to a sign sets him off, imagine what happens when someone takes a vehicle into an unauthorized area. In Backman’s lithe prose, we can easily conjure neck veins on the verge of bursting. Ove ponders the question of who needs to be part of such an idiotic world and concludes that he certainly doesn’t.

Backman chooses an unusual comedy of errors setup for his novel. Each time Ove vows that today will be his last, some “annoyance” occurs that interrupts his suicide plans. Among them: a man named Patrik (“the lanky one”) who backs over the non-flowers in Ove’s non-flower bed; Patrik's pregnant wife Parvaneh, an Iranian immigrant who already has two bothersome young daughters; a heavyset neighbor named Jimmy; a teenager who wants to fix a bike; an outlaw mailman named Adrian; a man who falls on the railway tracks; a nosy reporter; a dementia-suffering neighbor named Rune who is both Ove’s best friend and someone to whom he sometimes didn’t speak for years; and a mangy half-frozen moggy Ove calls Cat Annoyance.

Ove’s rants are first-rate comedy, but I reserve my own outburst for “idiots” (an Ove word) who’ve reviewed this book and said they didn’t like it because Ove was “unlikable.” What stupidity! (Another Ove word.) About the time you think Ove is like Ignatius J. Reilly; that is, a mildly demented misanthrope, small parts of his life are slowly unspooled and these will tear out your heart and stomp it into the Swedish snows. There’s a moment in the book where Ove breaks character to punch a man who has blamed Ove for his own misdeeds. It’s against his principles to fight, but Ove reasons, “A time like this comes for all men, when they choose what sort of man they want to be.” That line is, in many ways, the theme of the book and you should not assume that Ove is that man. What if he had become the man he wanted to be, but that life was taken from him? How would you cope if the things that gave your life “purpose” (yes—another Ove word), joy, and sense were wrenched from you? We glibly use phrases such as “time to move on,” but do we ask, “Why?” Or “How?”

This book is sometimes compared to another small gem, The Unlikely Voyage of Harold Fry, which is apt in sentiment, though A Man Named Ove is much funnier. Read it. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry.  Rob Weir