Few non-fiction filmmakers working today are Penny Lane’s match when it comes to unearthing thought-provoking humor from unlikely places. Who knew Satanism or anything that has to do with the scandalous American President Richard Nixon could be genuinely funny? And yet these topics are amusing in Lane’s hands, thanks to her subversive yet compassionate sense of humor that informs and distinguishes her filmography, including her thematically wide-ranging collection of six features and an array of short works.
“Fundamentally, my people are people who make jokes in all different aspects of life,” said Lane in a recent interview with IndieWire. “If you cannot laugh at the absurdity of life, I just can’t vibe with you.”
To Lane, comedy doesn’t mean denying the seriousness of the human experience. Quite the opposite, a conviction she substantiates by pointing to the development of theater in ancient Greece. “There [was] tragedy and comedy, both super-important parts of how we narrativize our experience and come to terms with the ultimate meaninglessness of the universe and the indifference of God,” she said. “To me, those are equal things.”
Lane’s feature-length debut, 2013’s “Our Nixon” encapsulates the director’s stylistic instincts and approach to humor. Firstly, it’s an archival film by a documentarian who has always held a preference for editing over shooting. “The production of the images is not the point for me at all,” she said. “It’s really the arrangement and [seeing] what new things can happen.”
Cinedigm/courtesy Everett Collection
Even inside a subject as exhaustively examined as Richard Nixon, there were indeed new things waiting to materialize for Lane when she and her producing partner Brian Frye dug up nearly 30 hours of never-before-seen Super 8 movies from the National Archives, filmed by Nixon aides H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, and Dwight Chapin. Lane was quick to take notice of the dramatic irony buried within the material and the humor that paradox inherently possessed.
“You as the viewer know the future and they do not,” she explained. “[Someone says], ‘Nixon’s going to be remembered as one of the great presidents.’ You’re like, ‘Ha, if they only knew!’ Or, ‘This is the best day of my life,’ and you’re like, ‘You are going to prison for Watergate!’ That was a huge starting point for me.” But being an empathetic storyteller, Lane decided that overindulging in such obvious jokes would be fundamentally unfair, even cheap.
She sidestepped easy gags, favoring a more sophisticated tone of humor. “I cared enough about them as human beings to not want to be unempathetic,” she said. “None of us know the future. We’re all just muddling through.”
A long-time champion of Lane’s filmmaking, Sundance Film Festival director Tabitha Jackson attests to Lane’s proficiency as a researcher, calling her “a collector of ideas and stories,” praising her singular skill in preserving ample critical distance from her subjects. To Jackson, it is that ability that illuminates Lane’s sense of humor, demonstrating both the farcicality and unexpected complexity of the stories she pursues.
“She’s always looking in from the outside. She can see things, is wrestling with ideas and then reframing them for us,” said Jackson. That we don’t see more examples of funny non-fiction work these days surprises her as a seasoned figure in the documentary community.
“In a sense, [comedy and documentary] share the same DNA,” Jackson said. “[Both] the comedian and the documentarian [notice] something in the world and put a frame around it. It’s very welcome when a filmmaker like Penny comes along with [this] ability and [brings] humor, absurdity, and a raised eyebrow into our experience of that thing. It helps us see it differently.”
Watch Penny Lane explain her various cinematic influences and how she finds humor in truth in the video below.
The director’s collaborator on “Nuts!” (2016), “The Pain of Others” (2018), and “Hail Satan?” (2019), composer Brian McOmber also admires Lane’s knack for finding truth and humor in things she doesn’t have personal stakes in, and doing so without dehumanizing anyone. “That’s really difficult to do when you’re dealing with the [subjects] that she is,” he told IndieWire. “She’s fair in how she describes someone [with] a different viewpoint.”
Telling the story of John R. Brinkley, an early 1900s medical quack who claimed to cure impotence by transplanting goat testicles into humans, the mostly animated “Nuts!” is a perfect example of both Jackson’s and McOmber’s assessment of Lane as an inquisitive outsider. “You hear about this absurd [thing] and your instinct is to laugh. ‘How could anyone believe this?,'” Lane said.
To non-judgmentally put herself in the shoes of those believers, Lane structured “Nuts!” unconventionally — first, sticking with Brinkley’s self-mythologizing version of the truth and then gradually exposing his lies by blending entertaining animation (where fornicating goats is a hilarious recurring motif) with archival material and present-day interviews. “I don’t think humanity is any smarter [today],” she said. “The boundaries of scientific knowledge were different [then]. So I thought it was important to put the viewer into the position of the person who’s been duped.”
That could only be done by somewhat deceiving the audience. Lane studied conspiracy theory movies, applying their conniving speed to the first part of “Nuts!” She explained, “The film goes really fast through, ‘How does the cure work?’ It puts emphasis on happy customers. And then you’re just convinced by [them].”
McOmber’s score was an asset, too. While the duo normally avoid overly prescriptive music, they went all in on manipulation here. “We actually used music to make people feel good about [Brinkley],” explained McOmber. “We were trying to build him up [likably] before we pull the curtain.”
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Humor is everywhere in “Hail Satan?,” easily the most traditional film of Lane’s oeuvre through which the director closely inspects the present-day Satanic Temple as an authority-defying assembly of free thinkers. “The Satanists use comedy, satire, and provocation as part of their religious identity,” said Lane. “So I didn’t have to bring any humor. Again, a big chunk of the film is archival. We just reflected what was there.”
Musically, Lane and McOmber wanted to take people on an overtly comedic journey in the first third of “Hail Satan?,” before dialing up the narrative’s emotionality in later acts. “Penny sent me a teaser that she made. The music itself wasn’t as funny but the comedic elements were there,” remembered McOmber. He made demos before recording the actual instruments, using tuba to flesh out lower frequencies.
The breakthrough moment in nailing the film’s brassy, satirically droll score came when Lane asked McOmber to turn up the tuba because it sounded funny. That became a shorthand for humor in synergy with the amusing iconography on the screen. “It’s really fun to indulge in that kind of stuff with Penny because she’s so smart,” he said. After that discovery, whenever Lane suggested, “Brian, this seems too serious,” McOmber got the hint: “You’re asking me to add tuba again.”
Lane’s resulting film was so effective that Jackson emerged from it self-defining as a Satanist. “I am the daughter of a Church of England clergyman. And so I thought, ‘Well, that was a pretty good outcome from that filmmaker,’’ she said. “One of the reasons [Penny is] so effective is, she could have made a different film, leaning into the absurdities [and darkness] of Satanism. Instead, she invites us to think. She’s gently leading us down a path, enabling us to discover a conclusion for ourselves. It’s a powerful way of manifesting belief and a reflection on belief in the audience.”
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Lane’s already got her next documentary under her belt. Premiering earlier this month at the Toronto International Film Festival, “Listening to Kenny G” takes a close look at the music and legacy of the best-selling yet critically loathed smooth jazz saxophonist, Kenny G, pondering the correlation between a piece of art’s popularity and perceived quality. “There was a joke I made,” said Lane with a laugh. “I made a movie about Satanists. And who do people hate more? What’s my follow-up to Richard Nixon and the Satanists?”
Luckily for Lane, Kenny G proved to be a delightful man with a sense of humor, someone who’s heard it all before in meaner contexts than Lane’s good-natured project. “He is no longer a threat to anybody,” Lane said. “So now it’s easier to [ask], ‘Why was everyone so upset about KG? There is a lot of humor to the idea that we get so mad about other people’s tastes.”
Citing the films of Erroll Morris and Agnès Varda as well as “Exit Through the Gift Shop” among the biggest influences on her filmmaking, Lane is committed to making films that are both provocative and entertaining. Most of all, she is determined to keep poking at tricky topics.
“There’s a part of me that’s related to the Satanists, ‘how about I poke this? How would people respond if I poke that?’ There’s value in going against the grain,” Lane said. “And if I don’t do it with a smile on my face, why would you listen to anything I have to say?” —Tomris Laffly