Aside from a relatively short list of stand-out narrative features, for the most part Sundance ’15 has been a festival of great docs, particularly Alex Gibney‘s Going Clear, Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon‘s Best of Enemies and — my personal favorite — Doug Tirola‘s Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead — The Story of the National Lampoon. A generally hilarious history of a great magazine and a period of inspired anarchic subversion, it’s essentially about the birth and shaping of the irreverent mindset that has defined American comedy for the last 40 years, or since the debut of NBC’s Saturday Night Live (’75), National Lampoon’s Animal House (’78) and National Lampoon’s Vacation (’83). But the magazine and its half-demented staffers were the finest and most outrageous expression of this, and Drunk, Stoned is an absolutely vital history lesson for under-35s who’ve never read any National Lampoon issues or sunk into the mythology. I don’t know what the distribution picture is, but I could see this film again right now. It captures the whole saga in one swift, punchy, well-finessed package.
I’ve been Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead-ing for eight and a half months now, or since I fell for this snappy, punchy-assed doc at last January’s Sundance Film Festival. I’ve raved and raved (“Quite the cultural landmark…about something that nearly everyone understands or identifies with to some degree, which is the seed and birth of anarchic, counter-conventional, ultra-outlandish comedy, which everybody takes for granted today but was a whole new thing when it popped out of the National Lampoon in 1970″). I’ve expressed surprise that it took six long months to cut a deal for theatrical release. I sought out and interviewed columnist, author and former National Lampoon editor P.J. O’Rourke. I’ve noted the film’s popularity at film festivals over the first seven months of this year, etc. I’ve riffed on it every which way.
Doug Tirola, director of Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead, at Andaz Hotel last Wednesday afternoon.
So when I was offered a chance to speak with director Doug Tirola a few days ago, I responded “but of course!” I was an hour late. (Sorry.) We met in a conference room at the Andaz in West Hollywood (i.e., the former “Riot House.”) . We batted the ball around but I was feeling a little sloppy in the brain. The vibe was easy and relaxed but something wasn’t quite clicking. Amiable ping-pong for the most part.
Then I struck a vein. I noted that with the film in circulation now would be an excellent time to make available all those years of National Lampoon issues (’70 to ’80) online. Tirola nodded, grinned. And then he half-shrugged. “So why isn’t it?,” I asked. “What’s the hold-up?” He answered that the National Lampoon operation is now headed by CEO Jerry Daigle and president Alan Donnes and that they had mainly managed to calm things down and put out fires. Whatever that means. I know that despite knowing for at least a couple of years that Tirola’s doc would almost certainly be hitting theatres sometime in’15, these guys haven’t been able to get it together enough to offer online sales of back issues.
In the booklet inside the new Masters of Cinema Red River Bluray there’s an excerpt from a 1970 Film Comment interview with Red River screenwriter Borden Chase. Changes that were made to Chase’s screenplay by director Howard Hawks are discussed with interviewer Jim Kitses. One of these was Hawks’ decision to cut down John Ireland‘s Cherry Valance role, allegedly due to resentment on Hawks’ part about Ireland having scored with a woman Hawks had been having relations with. Hawks dismissed Chase’s account (which came allegedly came straight from John Wayne) in a subsequent interview. He asked if Chase was sloshed when he said it, and said he “was so full of shit.” I don’t believe Chase was fantasizing, but that’s me.
This morning I saw…no, endured David Wain‘s A Futile and Stupid Gesture (Netflix, 1.26). Based on the same-titled 2006 biography by Josh Karp, it’s a half-surreal, half-inept and wholly depressing saga of National Lampoon co-founder, Animal House producer-screenwriter and self-destructive genius Doug Kenney.
I don’t want to overstate my reaction, but ten minutes in I was saying to myself “nope, naaah, nope, nope…wrong, fake, not believable…shit, this is mindblowingly bad.”
It dishonors the legacy of the National Lampoon by suggesting that Kenney and his editorial colleagues weren’t very interesting. John Aboud and Michael Colton‘s screenplay supplies clunky exposition and by-the-numbers plotting until it seeps out of your ears. The interplay among National Lampoon staffers isn’t brisk or brainy or cruel enough — there’s no believing it. Cranking out monthly NatLamp issues couldn’t have been this tedious.
There’s no believing Will Forte‘s performance as Kenney for an instant, partly because (a) he looks and and sounds like an actor pretending to be an allegedly funny guy rather than the Real McCoy, and (b) partly because Forte was a bit overweight during filming and therefore doesn’t look like Kenney as much as late-period Truman Capote.
Domnhall Gleason‘s performance as NatLamp co-founder Henry Beard is bland and lifeless, and he wears the same stupid-ass ’70s wig in scene after scene, despite the passing of time and refining of hair styles. The ’70s wigs that everyone wears, in fact, really look like wigs, and the sideburn paste-ons have to be seen to be believed.
There was an older guy two or three rows back who was laughing his head off at too many of the jokes. I eventually couldn’t stand it and turned around and gave him the HE stink-eye.
Directed by Harold Ramis, National Lampoon’s Vacation (’83) was a soft, silly comedy of humiliation aimed at the squares. The only thing I really liked about it was the “Holiday Road” theme song. I know that John Hughes‘ screenplay diluted the fuck out of his original National Lampoon short story “Vacation ’58,” which was much, much darker — it really shook hands with the repressed rage of the 1950s-era dads who gave so many boomers such miserable childhoods. The new Vacation (Warner Bros., 7.31) is seemingly a slightly more vulgar rehash of the ’83 film with Russell Griswold (Ed Helms), the son of Chevy Chase‘s Clark Griswold, determined to experience the same family horrors. I’d much rather see Doug Tirola‘s Drunk, Stoned, Brilliant, Dead again.
Distracted this morning by Birdman euphoria and other matters, I now have 17 minutes to tap out something about Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig‘s Mistress America, a whipsmart, acrid, His Girl Friday-like comedy which I was entirely delighted with. Comedy is hard but making a fast, rat-a-tat-tat comedy is, I’m guessing, all the harder, especially when you’ve managed to fortify it with serious character shadings and a touch of pathos. I was also pleased and gratified by Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden‘s Mississippi Grind, which has an assured, nicely textured, low-key ’70s quality, and is easily the best film that Ryan Reynolds (whose performance as a good-natured knockabout is completely centered and confident) has ever starred in. I was fairly charmed and definitely amused by Patrick Brice‘s The Overnight, which I caught last night at 11:30 pm. It’s a congenial sex-kink comedy about an innocent 30something couple being gently and lovingly manipulated into sexual receptivity to a mellow predatory couple looking for a little action. It really works all around, but I have to leave for Drunk, Stoned, Brilliant, Dead…later.
This is definitely a sad week for guys associated with the National Lampoon‘s heyday. Three days ago Ivan Reitman, whose first big score came from producing National Lampoon’s Animal House (’78), died in Montecito at age 75. And now P.J. O’Rourke, who served as editor-in-chief of the National Lampoon in the late ’70s and for many decades was one of HE’s favorite satirists and comic essayists, has passed from lung cancer at age 74.
I’ve been chuckling at the flip, iconoclastic, world-weary smirkings and pot-shots of P.J. O’Rourke since the mid ’70s — a long journey. I can’t think of another rightie libertarian whose stuff I’ve laughed at quite so often. Come to think of it I can’t think of another rightie libertarian whose stuff I’ve laughed at, period.
One way or another I’ve always been a fan of his material. (For the most part.) Mainly, I suppose, because O’Rourke was editor-in-chief at the National Lampoon during that legendary publication’s last decently creative period, or ’78 through ’80, and because I truly worshipped that mag back in the day so there’s a carry-over effect.
O’Rourke is the author of 16 satiric, smart-ass books (including last year’s “The Baby Boom: How It Got That Way (And It Wasn’t My Fault) (And I’ll Never Do It Again),” which I haven’t yet read) and is currently a monthly columnist for the Daily Beast.
Two of my favorite O’Rourke books are “Holidays in Hell” and “Modern Manners“. I’ve also always loved the title of “Republican Party Reptile“, or more precisely the illustration of Dwight D. Eisenhower wearing a mohawk (which was dumped when O’Rourke’s publisher explained that relatively few targeted readers knew or cared who Eisenhower was). Honestly? I’ve never read “Republican Party Reptile”. No offense but why would I? I’m a leftie, and in some respects I’m selfish enough as it is.
I’ve arranged to see WHE’s forthcoming 2001: A Space Odyssey 4K UHD Bluray (streeting on 11.20) at a friend’s place (possibly as soon as this weekend), but some screen captures & comparisons posted by DVD Beaver‘s Gary W. Tooze are alarming. Because what I’m seeing are images that are significantly darker than the 2001 images I’ve been looking at for decades on theatre screens, VHS, laser discs, DVDs and the 2007 WHE Bluray. And the sides of the earlier Bluray (2007 and 2011) have been sliced off, for some reason, on the 4K.
I need to wait until I see the 4K myself, but the Tooze images are not pleasing, and the last time I checked he wasn’t blatantly misrepresenting Bluray images as a rule. So I’m wondering how or why Stanley Kubrick‘s 1968 classic is looking so damn murky and muddy.
All I know is that I’m alarmed all over again. Remember that despite what we’ve all read about this not being the non-restored Nolan “nostalgia” version with the piss-yellow and teal tints (and it’s really not, I’m told), this WHE 4K Bluray has had three fathers — Ned Price, Chris Nolan and Leon Vitali. And at least one of them is the bad guy here because 2001 has never been this dark, and it never should be. I mean, some of the 4K screen captures are ridiculous.
1. Tooze comparison #1 — the MGM logo. All my life the color of 2001‘s MGM logo has been a slightly muted publisher’s blue, like the top image from the 2007 Bluray. Now it’s a mixture of gravel gray and midnight blue — like the color of flagstone mixed with a dusky, early-evening sky. In short, it’s a lot darker and completely different than the logo image I’ve been looking at for half a century now. What is this?
2. Tooze comparison #2 — “Open the pod bay doors, Hal”. In the above 2007 Bluray image, Dave looks like he always has inside the pod while asking HAL “what the hell’s the problem,” etc. In the bottom 4K image, he looks like a demon ghost from The House on Haunted Hill. All you can really see are his piercing, key-lighted eyes. What the hell is this?
3. Tooze comparison #3 — Space-suit Dave in French chateau. The 2007 Bluray image of red-helmeted Dave is perfect, but you can barely make out his facial features in the 4K image. This isn’t just overly dark — it’s absurdly dark, as in the person who mastered this shot was (a) drunk, (b) stoned or (c) an anarchist who snuck into the WHE video mastering room with the intention of fucking things up.
4. Tooze comparison #4 — Discovery air-lock chamber. If you compare closely you’ll see that visual information on the right and left sides of the 2007 Bluray image (which was taken from a 35mm source) has been sliced off for the 4K.
David Wain‘s A Futile and Stupid Gesture (Netflix, 1.26) is based on Josh Karp‘s same-titled biography of the National Lampoon‘s brilliant and self-destructive Doug Kenney, the leading formulator of anarchic, horndoggy, anti-establishment ’70s humor, and which largely influenced the comedic attitudes of Saturday Night Live, National Lampoon’s Animal House (’78) and National Lampoon’s Vacation (’83), et. al.
You can sense right away, however, that this Netflix production won’t be all that great. The trailer suggests a rote, paint-by-numbers scheme. If you were Doug Kenney in heaven and you had absolute mystical power in choosing who would direct this film, would you be cool with the director and co-writer of Wet Hot American Summer (’01) and Wanderlust (’12)? I didn’t think so.
Quote from 12.20 EW story by Jeff Labrecque: “The spine of Futile and Stupid is the relationship between Kenney and his more responsible and aristocratic Harvard classmate Henry Beard (Domhnall Gleeson), during and after they partnered to take their campus Lampoon publication national. So think The Social Network but with cocaine, pranks and food fights.”
This 42 year-old Mike Douglas Show clip is worn and tattered, but it’s the shit. Really. Because it allows you to meditate upon the great Muhammad Ali and his refusal to embrace liberal inclusiveness as it was known in 1974, and his obstinate, unyielding insistence that the only thing he cared about was the living conditions of black people and that other tribes need to fend for themselves. (What would the young Ali be saying now about Donald Trump?) Sly Stone was obviously stoned or drunk. Congressman Wayne Hays, who would resign two years later over the Elizabeth Ray sex scandal, offered many of the positive sentiments that mainstream neoliberals were saying back then. Theodore Bikel was his usual moderate, sensible self. Here’s the whole kit and kaboodle.
Why have Netflix and director David Wain suddenly announced plans to make a movie based on a decade-old biography of National Lampoon co-founder/editor Doug Kenney (i.e., Josh Karp‘s “A Futile and Stupid Gesture: How Doug Kenney and National Lampoon Changed Comedy Forever“)? Doug Tirola‘s Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead, one of 2015’s most under-appreciated docs, is why. Wain saw it, loved it and a light went on. Obviously. Trust me — a deal to adapt Karp’s book didn’t just happen to come together ten years later. Will Forte will play Kenney (fine) and Domnhall Gleason will play Lampoon editor Henry Beard (not a shred of physical resemblance — they couldn’t at least find somebody who hails from a vaguely similar gene pool?). John Gemberling has reportedly been cast as John Belushi; ditto Joel McHale as Chevy Chase.
Doug Tirola‘s Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead will stream eventually, but the Magnolia Bluray comes out of the gate on 4.19. I plugged and plugged this doc for months after catching it at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. “Quite the cultural landmark…about something that nearly everyone understands or identifies with to some degree, which is the seed and birth of anarchic, counter-conventional, ultra-outlandish comedy, which everybody takes for granted today but was a whole new thing when it popped out of the National Lampoon in 1970.”