Two Documentaries, Sorta

Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon  

Directed by Douglas Triola

Immediately following President Obama’s stemwinder hour-long peroration justifying his and John Kerry’s fantasy nuclear-containment deal with Iran, Rush Limbaugh went on air to liken the implicit threats in Mr. Obama’s  GOP-bashing, “non-partisan” justification and rationalization of a seriously flawed agreement to the iconic National Lampoon cover that was a signal  point of humor and contention when it came out. The cover was a dog with a gun pointed at its head. The headline declared: “If you don’t buy this magazine, we’ll kill this dog.”

The heyday of the Lampoon, which followed its birthname of Harvard Lampoon in April 1970, was notable for a period of years after that. The Lampoon, a product of pre-360-nerdiness, high-IQ geekiness, frat boy mentality, and fever-swamp sexual yearnings, appealed to campus freaks, ‘high’-minded druggies, and rebels, and all the reflexive “cool” guys who considered actual work discipline beneath them or somewhere far from their basement hideout.

But seeing this interesting if solipsistic doc on the etiology of the parody that at one time ran the show of most treasured under-the-covers In mag, like MAD mag before it, was notably deficient in appeal to females. Or, of course, actual adults. It spawned a few comedies (National Lampoon’s Vacation, 1983), and was infamous for that hard sell ‘death’ cover that, next to a frightened-looking beagle, had that gun pointed at the dog’s head with the warning stated in the first paragraph, above. They mocked “the bug,” the Volkswagen “think small” ad that was, in Mad Ave circles, a sacred symbol of turnaround psychology. All their graphics were like R Crumb in presenting females as either hideous trolls or, more usually, uber-voluptuary curves below doll-like faces and vacant expressions suitable for inserting whatever men wanted to think of them.

Most foundering magazines at the time took notice of this tactic to gin up sales, as they copied many another satirical meme of the pass-along hoot.

Seeing the art direction (notably, Art Gross) and the trajectory in general, a woman feels isolated and invisible, except of course as vessels of teen lust and imaginary proportions. The men responsible for its often shocking (by the standards of the day) coverage and imaginings seem to have been, by all accounts, brilliant in their range and breadth of knowledge, and fastfooted about putting out the cleverest parodies of the day, whether they were shocking or taboo or whatever. Curiously, some of the staffers appeared to be highly anti-social, preferring to hole up away from even their super-sharp compadres. One editor walked out one day, never to reappear. He had just had his fill and wanted out.

Money was always a problem, as despite the initial issues being considered prized trophies, few companies laid out the coin for advertising. Without ads, magazines sink, never to rise above the horizon, no matter how startling their editorial and graphics.

They didn’t really start to make gelt, however, until many issues down the pike. That was to be expected, since parody is a hard dinnerware set with which to grace any table, and the culture was becoming more debased and self-parodying as the issues rolled out -- so less and less shocked or surprised the sub list.

It is now, despite the currency of its debut in 2015, clearly a museum curio. Vulgar. Routinely sexist. Unappealing to regular folk. And ultimately smelly, like yesterday’s gridiron socks stashed forgotten under the bed.

UNITY

Directed by Shaun Monson

At the other end of the seriousness spectrum from Lampoon, UNITY comes to unwary audiences by way of a false-valor appeal to those who favor real documentaries.

There’s a beginning section on the cosmos and our tiny speckness in that galaxy of worlds and stars and planets as yet unexplored. I wondered why there was a veritable firmament of celebrities (a major point of sale in the press release for the film), each narrating perhaps two or three sentences, yet the obvious choice for the space chunk ought to have been Neil deGrasse Tyson. But (probably reading the script) he was nowhere.

The screed advances to PETA-sponsored bashing of those who would be so unwise and cruel as to eat animals, who have souls, and whose mothers follow their abducted calves or chicks or whatever. We are told that animals are healthy, unlike all the fatty, unwholesome human messes we see under brilliant lights and scalpels in ORs. The film shows Bambi and mischievous monkeys and other adorable animals gnawing on grass and bananas. But, as we questioned Monson in the Skype Q & A following the screening, carnivores and all megafauna eat other animals. Only a few of the animal kingdom can make do on dandelions and eucalyptus. Monson did, slowly, acknowledge that to be true, but had to “make choices.”

Another long segment -- the film is almost 2 hours, and would benefit from excising at least an hour -- came in about how we are all “one,” thus “unity” -- a segment of the “universe,” which means all of us together or something. We see how seals slosh out their young, how humans deliver and nourish their young for many years. How we should thus love all -- quick flashes of Hindus on the ground, worshipping, terrorists in their Humvees and black flags (really), Jews praying in synagogue, glaciers calving into frozen waters, and a shelf of other types to admire and “love.” At the Q & A, I asked, as a corollary of this love one another mantra, “Does that mean you are arguing against abortion, as that is the destruction of a precious life?”

Uh, no… he explained, like Hillary or Mr. Obama respond to questions they wish you hadn’t asked. In the end, he did not come down on the pro-life side. Surprise.

The audience was curiously full of millennials and apparent radicals who at various points called for women to run the country, if not the world. One woman demurred: Women had been mean to her, too. Capitalism was slammed. (Nothing else was offered as substitute.) All the apparent Dem talking points were earnestly extolled by the audience, after the sneaky interpolations of the director had indicated we are all responsible for the wreckage of the planet and the polluting of our seas and air and earth. They mentioned slavery as a sign of how ‘bad’ the U.S. was. I mentioned as a string around their evidently unaware heads that there is currently slavery in the multimillions in states run by Arabs and Muslims. Oh? Yeah, well…

The major focus of UNITY is war. War is awful-terrible-bad, and the film goes on and on about how we ought not cooperate in it. No word on the fact that it is not a one-sided affair, and the soldiers who march -- shots of armies of about 20 countries, reducing them all to bellicose and nasty brutes, even ours -- do not do so out of animus and stupidity, not defense or need to hold one’s land inviolate. War is a no-no, folks: Did you know?

Mindful that this odd, overlong non-documentary has a short tether inasmuch as  real audiences go, it will be shown at “select venues” and perhaps on iTunes (!) or another of the many “unusual venues” the LA-based director suggested are being used to launch films. (Not major films, Mr. Monson; they still debut in the time-honored fashion we have come to expect.)

The music is lovely, many indeed delicate yoga-type touchy-feely melodic airs. The photography is often so graphic on the hideousness of war, horribleness of maltreating animals or people, close-ups of injured, diseased, and amputees that I could not keep eyes on the screen throughout the 2 hours. I laughed one time, though. A cute lamb falls down.

A serious problem with the doc, additionally, in addition to its haranguing and polemic infiltration of our souls, is that every one of the 100 celebrities who narrate have a name and their thumbnail photo at the bottom of the picture frame, every time they speak, so you are  divided in focus from attending to the onscreen events and pictorial, versus noting Marcia Gay Harden’s va-va-va-voom headshot, or Geoffrey Rush’s stentor, Susan Sarandon’s nasality, Kevin Spacey’s arrogance, Jeff Goldblum’s portentousness, or Dr. Dre’s muzzy articulation, plus pix, and you forget what you’re watching.

If you aren’t a fan of this sort of stealth partisan positioning, you notice that none of the narrators are people who will be pulling the lever on the elephant-red side, come November.