VIFF 2015: Two documentaries about magazines
Among the many films on offer at VIFF 2015 are two documentaries which take viewers into the rarified and demanding world of magazine publishing. I went to see them out of genuine interest and curiosity – but also in the sincere hope that these two films would reveal to me critical information, vital secrets to publishing success which I could then pass on to the industrial magnates, the Bay Street financiers, who underwrite the empire-in-progress which is Geist magazine. I imagined myself sharing what I’d learned from these two films at one of our weekly meetings (the crack team which assembles Geist on one side of the teak table, the money men in suspenders on the other, haloed by the light reflecting from their crisp, white, 200-thread-per-inch, bespoke cotton shirts). I imagined the honours which would accrue to me as a result: my rise within the Geistian ranks meteoric, my title on the masthead acquiring additional hyphens, additional suffixes: perhaps even (why not dream!) “-in-chief!” The power I would then wield! But: I am getting ahead of my story…
Very Semi-Serious, directed by Leah Wolchok, takes us inside the New Yorker; specifically: into the office of Bob Mankoff, cartoon editor at the magazine since 1997. Mankoff is himself a cartoonist for the magazine (his most famous cartoon is the one whose caption reads “No, Thursday’s out. How about never—is never good for you?”) and presides over the weekly cattle call “pitch” sessions where cartoonists, a mix of regulars (George Booth, Sam Gross, Mort Gerberg) and aspiring new-comers who are just making a name for themselves (Liana Finck, Ed Steed), bring their latest cartoons in the hope that Mankoff will select them for publication. They need to have thick skins, since the vast majority of the cartoons are rejected. It is easy to distinguish the members of one caste from the other since each is identified onscreen by name (in a large font) and (in a smaller font) by the number of cartoons they have had published in the magazine; some have had many hundreds of cartoons accepted. Very Semi-Serious is a somewhat haphazard film – in the sense that there is little structure evident: it seems to have shaped itself according to circumstance. My take-away for Geist? I think that we should set up our own weekly pitch meetings: they look like a lot more fun than those meetings with the financiers.
In the first paragraph above I referred to Geist as an “empire-in-progress”; I should have said “potential empire-in-progress,” since nothing in the magazine’s original manifesto suggested ambitions on such a grandiose scale. However, after seeing Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon (directed by Douglas Tirola) I think that we need to dream much bigger dreams. Why not a radio show! LPs! (vinyl is back, after all) Off-Broadway shows! (“Geist: The Musical!”) Nationally syndicated TV! (“Live, from Vancouver’s Downtown East Side! It’s Saturday Night Geist!”) Even genre-defining movies are not beyond our capabilities! After all, the National Lampoon started small in 1970 but over a very short period of time managed to spin off all of the preceding: it was almost unimaginably influential. The magazine’s two original founders, Doug Kenney and Henry Beard, had developed a taste for the magazine business during their time editing the Harvard Lampoon. They proved to have a finger on the funny bone—the zeitgeist—of their era: the 1970s. More importantly: they had the eyeballs of a very large (and growing) demographic, a fact which eventually began to interest advertisers – despite the frequent use of gross-out, often tasteless and frequently offensive “frat boy” humour; in many ways the National Lampoon was the anti-New Yorker. My take-away for Geist? I think that we need to sign all of our regular contributors – our columnists, our crossword-puzzle-maker, our resident cartoonist; our reviewers – to ironclad, long-term, and generous contracts. Otherwise (as was the case with the key creatives at the National Lampoon) they might be tempted away by the deep pockets of New York producers, or by the voracious demon seed of Hollywood.