Very Semi Serious impresses
If I asked you to think of art, cartoons probably would not be the first thing you think of. Especially not the cartoons in The New Yorker. Many people who read The New Yorker don’t give the cartoons a second thought; they only focus on the punch line they deliver. Very Semi Serious shows that the cartoons, and the cartoonists who create them, are where the real magic is.
An offbeat documentary, Very Semi Serious was one of the more lighthearted presentations at the 2015 Milwaukee Film Festival. The majority of the film follows Bob Mankoff, The New Yorker cartoon editor, but goes off on many different tangents. As we learn how Mankoff narrows down the hundreds cartoons pitched to him, a process riddled with rejection, we meet the many different faces of The New Yorker cartoon scene. The old timers: George Booth, who has been submitting cartoons since the 60s, and Roz Chast, who has had over 1,000 cartoons published. The newbies: Liana Finck, a shy graphic arts student still working on getting her quirky material published, and Ed Steed, a former shepherd who has had almost instant success, despite only first hearing of The New Yorker months before.
It’s no surprise that all of the interviews were very funny. But what was most interesting about the array of subjects was that, despite the large range in age and experience, each interview had the same sense of humor, the same rhythm. That unifying trait effectively illustrated how this institution, The New Yorker, attracts a wide variety of people with one thing in common: they want to make people laugh.
In short, the movie was great. But I want to write about what I think makes a movie-going experience unique: the crowd. Whenever you see a movie in a theater, the audience shapes the way you watch it. You and a theater full of strangers share laughs, tears, gasps, “how did they do that’s” and “I can’t believe its.” I believe independent movies manage to bring audiences even closer. You’re not just watching the new installment of a superhero franchise or the latest dumb romantic comedy to stay up-to-date on pop culture. You’re walking into a theater full of people drawn to the same underground cultural niches that stood out to you as you flipped through the Film Festival schedule.
In the case of Very Semi Serious, the audience was full of people who get The New Yorker’s sense of humor. It was like reading The New Yorker with a bunch of people looking over your shoulder. As cartoons filled the screen while the interview audio played, the audience’s collected laugh was so loud that you often could not hear what the interviewee was saying.
On the surface, Very Semi Serious and Landfillharmonic may seem like very different films, but they actually leave the audience with very similar messages.
Junior impressed by film Landfillharmonic
Landfillharmonic tells the story of the Recycled Orchestra of Cateura, Paraguay. Cateura is a small, impoverished town minutes away from one of the largest landfills in South America. The children who live in Cateura have very little resources to explore different hobbies and interests; playing a musical instrument is almost unheard of. Favio Chàvez, environmental engineer and director of the Recycled Orchestra, originally came to Cateura to implement a new system of recycling (which later failed). After seeing how little the children of Cateura had, he decided to share his love of music with them to keep them out of playing in the landfill. Soon, the number of kids coming to the free classes exceeded the number of instruments available, which led Chàvez and Cola, a garbage picker in the landfill, to experiment with making instruments out of recycled garbage.
The film follows the orchestra from their first gig in Paraguay, to their viral success on YouTube, to performances in Brazil, the U.S., Canada, Amsterdam, Tokyo and beyond.
As we follow the original members of the orchestra, it is clear that the experience of playing music has impacted each of them in significant ways. A brother and sister get to meet their favorite band, Megadeth and connect with their father. Cola has the opportunity to leave the landfill, a work environment riddled with disease. Perhaps most touching, a girl whose father has abandoned the family discovers a second family in the orchestra.
Landfillharmonic is a film that gives incredible perspective. The children of Cateura cherish many of the things that residents of Shorewood often take for granted. We have constant access to Lake Michigan, a huge body of water, and watching the Recycled Orchestra see the ocean for the first time reminds us of what a privilege that is. Hearing a child say, “My violin is the most valuable thing I own,” gives a new appreciation to our incredible orchestra program.
Both Landfillharmonic and Very Semi Serious are stories that shed light on the simple things that fuel the human spirit. Where the cartoonists of The New Yorker used comedy to carry the nation through the aftermath of 9/11, music helped the people of Cateura endure environmental disaster and extreme poverty. The Milwaukee Film Festival prides itself on bringing stories like these to Milwaukee’s attention, reminding us of what the fundamentals of life and the human spirit are capable of. This year, like years before, they delivered to the benefit of both the community and independent film.
by Maeve McKaig