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  • Magnolia Pictures

    It’s fair to say that most people – even those who came of age during the late 1960s and 1970s — probably have no idea how influential National Lampoon magazine was (and still is) to American comedy. Douglas Tirola’s entertaining new documentary Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead is a sort of primer for anyone who equates the Lampoon name mainly with a disparate assortment of increasingly juvenile movies.

    The fast-paced film uses lively animation and tons of vintage graphics, including iconic magazine covers, to illustrate the publication’s history, told via snippets of interviews with those who were involved with the magazine firsthand (Anne Beatts, P.J. O’Rourke) or consider it crucial to their development, comedic and otherwise (Judd Apatow, John Goodman, Billy Bob Thornton). The main focus is (understandably) National Lampoon’s heyday, from birth in the late 1960s through decline in the 1980s, with emphasis on the various characters who shaped it, especially founding editors Doug Kenney and Henry Beard, and chairman/CEO Matty Simmons.

    In the mid-1960s, the satirical student-run Harvard Lampoon (first published in 1876) fell under the stewardship of charismatic, unstable Kenney and serious, organized Beard, the dynamic duo who would go on to co-found National Lampoon in 1970. Among the film’s many enlightening bits of information is the fact that a popular parody of Mademoiselle magazine was responsible for broadening the college Lampoon’s subscription base, enabling its expansion well beyond Cambridge. The national magazine’s first official hire was the legendarily volatile Michael O’Donoghue, who brought a dark, angry tone to the publication and would later become an integral part of early Saturday Night Live.

    Magnolia Pictures

    Magnolia Pictures

    The film follows the magazine’s growing popularity, fueled by Kenney and Beard’s refusal to bow to criticism or squeamish advertisers. National Lampoon’s content was often crass, shocking, raunchy and incredibly sexist (though the latter was par for the course in those days), the result of a largely drug- and alcohol-fueled staff who were encouraged to push any and all boundaries.  “It’s the job of a satirist to make people in power really uncomfortable,” explains key contributor Tony Hendra of the publication’s tendency to outrage. Beatts was one of the few women allowed into this bad boys club, mainly because she was dating one of the writers. (She’d go on to write the infamous ad parody showing a floating VW Beetle with the tagline, “If Ted Kennedy drove a Volkswagen, he’d be President today.” Volkswagen sued.) There were illustrations from greats including Gahan Wilson and Charles Rodrigues, plus headline-grabbing covers like the renowned “If you don’t buy this magazine, we’ll shoot this dog” issue from 1973. Once advertisers were persuaded to take advantage of the mag’s young, hip demographic, NL flourished economically as well as creatively, at one point becoming the second most popular magazine on newsstands.

    Soon came a hit comedy LP, O’Donoghue and Hendra’s  Radio Dinner, which grew out of O’Donoghue’s National Lampoon Radio Hour, which itself began featuring young Second City actors Gilda Radner, Bill Murray, Harold Ramis and John Belushi, among others. Then came the hit Off-Broadway comedy show National Lampoon Lemmings, starring Chevy Chase, Belushi, and Christopher Guest, which included a musical parody of Woodstock. It’s a kick seeing youthful versions of these now seasoned (or deceased) comedy pros, especially Belushi unleashing his Joe Cocker imitation for the first time. The cast’s shaggy, devil-may-care abandon is palpable, especially in these days of over-curated, well-groomed entertainment. Lemmings would be the forerunner of Saturday Night Live, which, according to one commentator, was responsible for sucking the life out of the magazine, as the NL brand of subversive humor became available to wider audiences.

    Magnolia Pictures

    Magnolia Pictures

    The film charts both the publication’s decline and that of Kenney, whose self-destruction is mourned by his friend Chase. We see the birth of National Lampoon movies, including early blockbuster Animal House, which would become the blueprint for Hollywood college-humor flicks for decades to come; and National Lampoon Vacation, based on a John Hughes short story, which would spawn many sequels. (Another interesting tidbit: Hughes wrote some of the dirtiest stuff in the mag.) But the film doesn’t really delve into the movie franchise and its many spinoffs, sticking mainly to the magazine, which officially ceased publication in 1998, long after it ceased being relevant.

    Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead is an eye-opening look at what now seems a distant era in publishing and media in general. Hendra likens National Lampoon‘s heyday to Paris in the ’20s for writers. Though things were far from idyllic, given the instability and huge egos involved, it’s hard not to feel nostalgic for a time when anything seemed possible in comedy and entertainment in general.

    Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead is playing at the IFC Center in Manhattan.

    Marina Zogbi

  • I once had a friend ask me, “What exactly is graphic design?” The answer seemed pretty easy, as the name appears self-explanatory: design using graphics. But, truthfully, it was harder for me to get into the details of what exactly it is, even though it has been one of the most prolific and widely-used art forms in the modern era. And not unlike some other forms of modern art, there is the hackneyed response, “I could totally do that” while viewing graphic design that has been elevated to a higher status. In fact, I even heard it at the Cooper Hewitt’s long-running installation How Posters Work.

    poetry reading

    Amazing to hear that response, given the museum’s breadth of information presented about not only about the history of the medium but also contemporary approaches to it. Furthermore, the beginning of the exhibit, before really immersing the viewer in the posters themselves, contains a section attempting to relay just how graphic designers see, and how it subsequently affects how we decipher messages from images, be they subversive or overt. For example, how designers use black space, how they visualize colors to lay over each other and blend, and the ways in which they see text aligned on a poster to result in certain reading patterns. That was particularly interesting as areas of posters are darkened except one swirl-type shape, and it notes that eyes begin at the thicker portion of the illuminated swirl, and move down to the thinner part across the page. Images are placed alongside text  strategically to guide the viewer’s eye. If this sounds like manipulation, it’s because it is, and the exhibit doesn’t attempt to hide it.

    Most of the works are deeply rooted in the art of the advertisement, as posters were a major tool for mass information. Some of Cooper Hewitt’s posters (and all are from their permanent collection) take a step away from the traditional ad’s goal of capturing the essence of the subject in order to proliferate a message. Alexander Gelman’s Poetry Readings (1996) uses, as the wall text notes, an “off kilter” symbol of a sole lamp and minimalist text against a bright orange background to promote poetry readings at Biblio’s. Then there is the dramatic application of the mundane in Food is a Weapon (1943), published by the Office of War Information. It almost violently encourages people not to waste food, just like you wouldn’t waste a weapon. The implications are strongand the design fitting. And, both pieces highlight the firm connection graphic design has with the everyday, more so than other art forms.

    poster welformat ch

    What I found especially appealing is the connection graphic design has with collage in the relationship to the everyday and in technique. The museum dedicates a section of the exhibit to poster artists employing the practice of layering, just as collage artists do. A significant piece in the world of contemporary graphic design, René Put’s Poster No. 524: Focal Point (2012) is one of the first pieces on display, directly next to the vitrine’s glimpse into the different ways a graphic designer visualizes objects. Put, along with Rianne Petter, collected 523 posters from the street, decided what the focal point was for each, and cut it out in the shape of a circle. They then layered the circles on top of and against each other to create a new poster from the segments. It’s a testament to the creative process and allowing individual parts to speak both for themselves and for the whole – a crucial part of both collage and graphic design. Other works up also show the painterly aspect of creating digital layers, such as Weltformat (2013) for a festival.

    And finally, nearing the end of the show, there are radical political advertisements – some promoting funding for AIDS research, others denouncing the need for war – on a wall across from movie posters under the subsections of “doubling the meaning” and “telling a story” respectively. Yet both highlight the use of the uncanny to tell a story in essentially one frame. A movie poster for The Stepford Wives (1975) is one of the larger works. Though most of us are familiar with the story (and it’s pretty terrible remake) closer examination of the specific approach to this poster reveals all that is at work underneath the images we see on a daily basis and file away in long term memory. A wife’s face is central, yet the broken fragment from her head reveals the mannequin-aspect, as does the broken off hand laying at the foreground. Yet the face itself is utterly human, thereby posing the question to the viewer of what strangeness lies beneath, and where will this story take us? Again, the parts make up the whole yet their separate components are like the words making up a sentence – alone each has its own meaning.

    stepford

    The point of posters is to allow for pleasurable ingestion of images with the meaning right there for the taking – therefore, they are one of the most accessible works of art. What Cooper Hewitt successfully does, however, is highlight the level of mastery of the craft by these artists. In this light, the name of the exhibit is not so much about how posters work, but how their creators do. And furthermore, the show elevates the amount of craft and drafting required to create one truly successful popular image. To bring up another hackneyed expression, “they make it look easy.”

  • Talk about ‘art for progress!’ Label Pyer Moss has left a strong impression at their New York Fashion Week debut on September 10, with what many believe to be one of the most “powerful” showcases ever.

    Screen Shot 2015-09-12 at 4.13.23 PM

    Photo Credit: Pyer Moss

    The much buzzed-about menswear label has recently branched out into womenswear. Last week’s NYFW was Pyer Moss’s way of introducing this new foray for the label to the world. Instead of presenting themselves with frills and fantasy, they’ve allowed current events to penetrate their work, bringing the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement to the forefront.

    And from the overwhelming response online, it seems as though the politically-charged gamble has worked!

    After the jump, find out more about this challenging and nerve-striking event.

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  • Samuel Goldwyn Films

    Samuel Goldwyn Films

    The title of Morgan Matthews’ narrative film debut, A Brilliant Young Mind, immediately evokes Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind, and both films have in common a protagonist who is an exceptionally bright mathematician with mental challenges. Unlike John Forbes Nash, though, who suffered from schizophrenia, A Brilliant Young Mind’s Nathan Ellis is merely on the autism spectrum. And unlike Nash, he’s a fictional character, though the film is based on Matthews’ 2006 documentary Brilliant Young Minds, about British teens competing in the International Mathematics Olympiad.

    Matthews, who has made several documentaries, does a solid job with his first fictional feature; the film is nicely paced and well-acted, with a lovely soundtrack and striking visuals. James Graham’s script is both sensitive and witty, including enough real math to be authentic without making the story incomprehensible to civilians.

    Diagnosed with Asperger’s, nine-year-old Nathan (Edward Baker-Close) is told that he is unique by his dad, who explains, “You have special powers like a wizard and we’re just muggles.” One of Nathan’s “powers” is synesthesia, wherein he experiences one sense (sound) as another (color); he’s often distracted by lights and patterns. He’s also a math wiz. His mom Julie (Sally Hawkins) tries but cannot connect with Nathan the way his dad does. When the latter dies in a car accident, Nathan sinks further into himself, until he meets Martin Humphreys (the excellent Rafe Spall), a rebellious, dryly witty teacher at school who was once a math prodigy himself and understands Nathan’s preoccupation with the subject. Martin, who blames his multiple sclerosis for never having achieved his potential as a mathematician, takes Nathan under his wing; the two slowly develop a bond.

    Samuel Goldwyn Films

    Samuel Goldwyn Films

    Flash forward to teenage Nathan (Asa Butterfield), whose obsessive behavior includes the need for prawn balls in a Chinese takeout order to add up to a prime number, or he won’t touch them. He’s clearly a handful for the soft, emotional Julie, whose infinite patience belies her exhaustion.

    With Martin’s help, Nathan applies to the British Math Olympiad and is accepted to train in Taiwan for a spot on the UK team that will compete in the international competition. The other kids vying for the team come off a bit like the cast of a more sophisticated Big Bang Theory. Nathan is instantly uneasy; he isn’t comfortable with their quick banter and doesn’t get their jokes. When each English kid is teamed with a counterpart from the Chinese team, the lovely, friendly Zhang Mei (Jo Yang) enters Nathan’s orbit and shakes up his world.

    UK team coach Richard (Eddie Marsan, another outstanding actor) knew Martin Humphreys back in the day. “It wasn’t his body that failed him,” he explains to Nathan. “It was his character.” In fact, Martin’s body is failing him more and more; we see him popping anti-depressants and refusing his shrink’s suggestion to join an MS support group. With Nathan away in Taiwan, Julie and Martin connect in their loneliness when she hires him to teach her math, hoping it will bring her closer to her son.

    Samuel Goldwyn Films

    Samuel Goldwyn Films

    At training camp Nathan doesn’t join in the math-themed rap throwdowns or arguments; nor does he speak up in class. (Butterfield is great at conveying distress). Slowly Zhang Mei brings him out of his shell, as they wander around Taipei and he’s overcome by the lights and sounds of the city. (Matthews shows us what Nathan hears and sees; it’s often quite beautiful.) He finally gets up in class and demonstrates a problem to the applause of his classmates. “There’s rare beauty in your work, but you’re unfocused and unpredictable,” Richard tells Nathan, who is having a hard time with both math and relationships. As he and Mai become closer, he struggles to understand emotions.

    Much of the movie is a build-up to the International Math Olympiad in Cambridge (including a classic slo-mo walk to the testing room), but the story is ultimately about the ability of individuals to connect despite major obstacles, as several characters eventually succeed in doing.

    There’s a lot of heft to A Brilliant Young Mind, which narrowly skirts predictability thanks to a smart script, interesting characters and strong cast. Though several of its characters seem too good-looking to pass for true geeks, the film doesn’t try to pretty up the reality of people with serious challenges or the pressure to succeed for these kids, for whom failure is particularly devastating. As one notes, “If you’re not gifted, then you’re just weird.”

    A Brilliant Young Mind opens Friday at Angelika Film Center.

    Marina Zogbi