Thursday, March 24, 2011

Brief encounters

Over the course of the nine years I have been writing professionally, I have been lucky enough to interview many people whose work I admire. In almost every case, the experience has been positive. I agree with what Bill Krohn (the estimable Los Angeles correspondent of Cahiers du Cinema) once said: that he has never been disappointed meeting a great filmmaker. I would modify that to say that I have rarely been disappointed talking to a great filmmaker, and the person needn't be a director or screenwriter, but can be an editor, cinematographer, actor, or a member of the crew.

Two of my favorite interviews in my book, Orson Welles Remembered, were with camera assistants R. Michael Stringer and Michael Ferris, who worked more closely with Welles than some more famous names. A few interview experiences were so great that I was inspired to write about them. See, for example, this brief essay I wrote for Editors Guild Magazine, about interviewing Robert Wise for my book.

My list of disappointing interviews is very short, though my brief conversation with the late Freddie Francis -- the brilliant cinematographer of The Innocents, The Elephant Man, and The Man in the Moon, among many others -- was certainly that. (It was as much my fault as his, and perhaps is the subject of a future blog.)

In my capacity as a filmgoer, rather than as a writer, I've also had some interesting, if fleeting encounters with great filmmakers. Perhaps the most memorable was the time I found myself sitting next to the legendary documentarian Albert Maysles, who, along with his brother David and others, co-directed such classics as Salesman, Gimme Shelter, and Grey Gardens.

Allow me to explain. In October of 2001, the Wexner Center for the Arts presented a retrospective of the films of Jim Jarmusch. It included all of Jarmusch's features to date, as well as a selection of the director's favorite films by others. One of the double-bills paired Jarmusch's Night on Earth with John Cassavetes's Love Streams, which remains one of the great filmgoing nights of my life.

I also attended the on-stage conversation between Jarmusch and critic Jonathan Rosenbaum. My recollection is that the house was sold out, but I somehow managed to secure a front row seat. As I was waiting for the evening to begin, an older gentleman, holding a very deluxe, very expensive-looking digital video camera, sat down to my right. He began filming. When Jarmusch and Rosenbaum took the stage and started to talk, he continued filming. As fascinated as I was by what was being said -- and it was, indeed, a great conversation -- I couldn't help but wonder who the person next to me was, and what he was doing.

Eventually, Jarmusch began taking questions from the audience. I asked something about Jarmusch's use of long takes in films like Stranger Than Paradise and Down by Law, and bemoaned the lack of long takes in many contemporary films. Just then, the man with the movie camera leaned over and whispered to me: "Great question! Right on!" (I remember his words exactly.)

A few days later, I asked Dave Filipi, the curator of media arts at the Wexner Center, if he could tell me who it was. It was then that I learned it was Albert Maysles. While I was already familiar with Maysles's work, I wouldn't have recognized him -- especially if I wasn't looking for him. Let alone expecting him to sit next to me at the Wexner Center. If I had, I suppose I would have asked for his autograph, or would have engaged him in further dialogue. But I was glad to learn, after the fact, that it was Maysles, and that he apparently thought enough of my question to stop what he was doing -- making a documentary -- and tell me so.

One final note: as far as I know, the footage Maysles shot of Jarmusch and Rosenbaum at the Wexner Center has never been shown. I later assumed that it was intended for an episode of the Sundance Channel series With the Filmmaker, in which Maysles profiled such directors as Wes Anderson and Martin Scorsese.