VERY SEMI SERIOUS: A Partially Thorough Portrait of New Yorker Cartoonists, documentary, not rated, Center for Contemporary Arts, 2.5 chiles
There was a time when The New Yorker stood near the pinnacle of sophisticated Manhattan culture, when its columnists and contributors, and especially its cartoonists, were larger-than-life celebrities, the stuff of (and commentators on) the gossip and the nightlife and the folkways of the city at the center of the world. As Harold Ross, The New Yorker’s founding editor, put it in the magazine’s initial prospectus in 1925: It “is not edited for the old lady in Dubuque.” The names of cartoonists like Peter Arno, Helen Hokinson, Saul Steinberg, Charles Addams, and Whitney Darrow Jr. conjured up instant recognition for their style, content, and character; Hokinson’s ladies became part of the language, Addams’ gothic family became part of the culture, Steinberg’s classic View of the World
From 9th Avenue epitomized the stubborn iconoclasm of New Yorkers.
What a time that would have been to capture on film! It is hardly the fault of filmmaker Leah Wolchok that she came along in a different era, when personalities have diminished, the field has flattened out, and the medium has left its salad days behind. The magazine still publishes some very funny cartoons, and there are still a few names that register, notably that of Roz Chast, whose offbeat drawing style and quirky sense of humor have made her the most recognizable figure of the current crop. But even Chast was not an obvious fit initially; she remembers that people would ask Lee Lorenz, the cartoon editor who discovered her, if he owed her family money.
The New Yorker’s cartoon editor since 1998 has been Robert Mankoff, who is the central figure in Wolchok’s film. We sit with him in his office as he sifts through stacks of roughs and chats amiably with the cartoonists sitting across from his desk. He estimates that he looks at 1,000 cartoons a week and prints 15, which makes for odds considerably worse than those of getting into Harvard. Mankoff is a lanky Ichabod Crane of a man, with long, wavy gray hair, a beard, and lots of teeth that display prominently when he laughs, which, unsurprisingly considering his line of work, is often. His own best-known New Yorker cartoon has a businessman saying on the phone, “No, Thursday’s out. How about never — is never good for you?” This caption has provided the title for the memoir on which he is currently at work. Old- timers like Mort Gerberg remember when
The New Yorker was the first stop of many for cartoonists making the weekly rounds with their drawings. It paid the best, but there were plenty of other magazines publishing gag cartoons. Like abandoned, half-forgotten railway stations, they’ve all left the field. These days The New Yorker is pretty much the only port of call for a vanishing breed of artists, who do not give up their day jobs. Wolchok shows the magazine straining for diversity to fit the modern world. An old film clip catches a fleeting glimpse of Chast slinking through a gathering of New Yorker cartoonists, the only woman in the bunch. Both Mankoff and the magazine’s editor David Remnick take credit for the push toward greater inclusiveness. They’ve been more successful in terms of gender than race, but it’s still largely a white boy’s club.
The movie is at its best when it lingers over the cartoons and pulls back the curtain to show the process of submission to the magazine. This has traditionally been done in person or by mail (as of this January,
The New Yorker has ended the mail or email route, going instead to a website). Mankoff culls his favorites, then takes them for the final say to Remnick, who sometimes has to have them explained. Our interest slackens when we go, inevitably, to up-close- andpersonal visits. The bulk of that time is devoted to Mankoff, whose family has recently suffered personal tragedy. He and several of his cartoonists talk about the dark side, the suffering, and the unhappy childhoods that lay down the groundwork for a humorist’s view of the world.
Personal tragedy is one thing, national tragedy another. The issue that followed 9/11 was to have no cartoons; in the end it included one, a poignant drawing by veteran George Booth of his usually manic violinist sitting in stunned silence. (The following week, humor was back, led by a Leo Cullum cartoon of a woman saying to a man at a bar: “I thought I’d never laugh again. Then I saw your jacket.”)
Toward the end the movie focuses on a pair of moves. The Mankoff family moves to a new house, to escape the ghosts of its loss. And the magazine, a Times Square fixture since its inception, relocates to the World Trade Center, moving in with that site’s legacy of ghosts.
A documentary tends to appeal to the fairly narrow slice of the public that cares about its topic, and this one, saddled with its labored, jokey title, is no exception. It won’t pull in the Fast and Furious crowd, but it will raise a smile to the lips of devotees.
Guardian of the jokes: cartoon editor Robert Mankoff