A history of Saturday Night Live that isn’t afraid to dive into the show’s issues of diversity and identity, Live From New York is a compelling and effectively moving portrait of a program than in 40 years has gone from being an avant-garde game-changer to an American institution. Director Bao Nguyen examines how the show has changed from its experimental days in the 1970s to producing segments that became some of the most memorable viral content of the internet era. Remember Lazy Sunday? Dick in a Box?

But the film is not all about laughs. One of the most moving segments in the doc centers on the show’s response after the tragic and devastating events of Sept. 11, 2001. Cast members and musical guests like Tina Fey and Paul Simon explain how the show allowed Americans, in a way, to laugh again. In a powerful on-air moment following the attack, Lorne Michaels, the show’s creator, asks then New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani if the show is allowed to be funny that week. Giuliani’s response was perfect: “Why start now?”

Much of the documentary’s spotlight focuses on the show’s early days. In the mid ‘70s, political comedy on American television was all but dead. But that first cast, which consisted of comedians like Chevy Chase, Dan Aykroyd and Jane Curtin, shocked the culture’s nervous system, becoming a counterculture staple in just a couple of shows. While that golden age faded after a few years, the film shows how SNL’s influence has gone on to affect how America sees its politicians. The film would have you think that Chase’s caricature of Gerald Ford is why the 38th president is remembered as clumsy. Likewise, it’s hinted that the weird charm of Will Ferrell’s dim-witted George W. may have lost Al Gore the 2000 election.

But perhaps the most interesting side of the documentary is its consistent probing into the show’s diversity issues. Why has it been such a boys club? Why are there so few comedians of color? The film doesn’t give any answers, but it’s enlightening to hear the experiences of cast members. Some say the environment was sexist, others contend Michaels was a champion for women’s comedy, and others still say that TV has always been white. (“There was no black Friend,” one person quips.) To be sure, no one argues SNL is/was ever a perfect example of American comedy – hell, the show was almost canned in the early ‘80s – but the film does inspire the feeling that SNL remains relevant because its satire, when effective, reflects some truth about American culture. And that’s at the heart of why it’s still so funny.

Live From New York is playing at the Lagoon Cinema.

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At first, The Farewell Party comes off like pro-euthanasia propaganda. Five elderly folks in an Israeli retirement home band together in secret to help their friends and loved ones die with dignity. It appears, for a moment, that it’s them against the law, a straightforward moral tale. But the film is hardly that simple. Instead, as it progresses, The Farewell Party walks a tricky tightrope, showing the bittersweet joys of aging while also examining the moments and situations where perhaps death’s hand is not something to fear, but to embrace.

It all centers around Yehezkel (Ze’ev Revach), a basement inventor whom we see in the very beginning calling an old woman, pretending to be God with his voice booming through a transformer. The prank is his way of encouraging the lady to take her meds. But not long after this call, Yehezkel again finds himself playing God, this time with the life of a dear friend, who begs for his suffering to end. Yehezkel and his wife, Levana, (Levana Finkelshtein), his friend’s wife, a veterinarian, and the vet’s secret boyfriend devise a suicide machine to help his pal pass on. Yehezkel jerry-rigs a sabbath box to administer chemicals that first put the user in a coma and then stop the heart. The person looking to die pushes the button, before a video camera, and it’s over in a minute. The procedure is simple, but the consequences aren’t.

First off, Yehezkel’s wife, who is showing the early stages of Alzheimer’s, isn’t on the same page as the rest of the group. She calls them murderers, and her relationship with Yehezkel suffers for it. Next, the group finds that the demand for their device is intense. Although they work in secret, everyone in their home seems to know what they did, and others want help. Strangers walk up to them, pleading for mercy for their loved ones. The group is torn, with Yehezkel on the side of lending out his machine. Again, it could be said, he’s playing God. But things get a lot trickier for him when his wife’s condition worsens and he’s forced to make difficult choices about her future.

Directors Tal Granit and Sharon Maymon tell this story with remarkable wit and gentleness. Just as they are able to make you laugh poking fun at the old folks — and even their terrible diseases — the filmmakers also get you tearing up. It’s this incredible balance that makes the film so undeniably human. The humor complements the gravitas of the subject matter so well that it moves from being less a film about assisted suicide as it is about love, friendship and the true joys of life.

The Farewell Party is playing at the Edina Cinema.

Jonathon Sharp

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