Talk shows, as a rule, are pretty phony and rehearsed. As we learned from “The Larry Sanders Show,” actors are pre-interviewed before they meet the host in order to squeeze out any potential anecdotes and find the best way to plug their new project. In a way, the actor never stops acting — they are playing a version of themselves, commercially tailored for the viewing public’s consumption. Not surprisingly, even Joaquin Phoenix’s decidedly “uncommercial” faux crash-and-burn appearance on “The Late Show With David Letterman” was just a manifestation of the cocaine-sniffing rapper version of himself in the brilliant “I’m Still Here.”
With several episodes screened at the New York Film Festival, the French television show “Cinéastes de notre temps,” however, counters the usual artificiality of the television interview. Spearheaded by André S. Labarthe and Jean Bazin, widow of André Bazin, “Cinéastes de notre temps” began in 1964 and ran until 1971, with each episode featuring a filmmaker interview in a grainy black-and-white cinéma vérité style. The show was brought back in 1988, under the slightly different name “Cinéma, de notre temps,” more freeform this time in terms of the individual directors bringing their own style to each episode. What is especially interesting about the two versions of the show is that each episode is specially designed to glean the truest responses possible from the particpants.
In many of the episodes, filmmakers are interviewed in their “natural habitats” — where they’re more relaxed and more willing to offer honest responses. In the cases of the David Lynch and Abel Ferrara episodes (entitled “Don’t Look at Me” (1989) and “Not Guilty,” (2003) respectively), these iconoclastic directors are more fully able to “let the crazy out” than in any other of their television appearances.
In his episode, Lynch is interviewed by film critic John Powers at his beloved Bob’s Big Boy, where he supposedly eats every day. When Powers asks him what would make Bob’s Big Boy better, Lynch replies that the addition of a large, fat woman standing in the middle of the restaurant, eating a hot dog, telling dirty jokes, and singing would be the ticket. Later on in the episode, Lynch is at home, silently molding a naked woman out of clay. In both of these instances, Lynch is in his happy place — Bob’s Big Boy and working on his art — and can therefore give insight into the inner workings of his brain.
The 1950s kitsch of Bob’s Big Boy is reflective of Lynch’s work; his fat lady vision could very well occur in one of his films. As for the sculpture moment, Lynch is revealed to be very focused, meticulous. He says that he is making the sculpture for a potential photo shoot in Interview Magazine, but if they don’t like it, he’ll just keep it. He makes art for his own enjoyment and satisfaction and is not concerned with what others think.
Ferrara’s happy place is New York City at night, when it’s empty, dank, and dangerous. Mimicking Ferrara’s noir style, filmmaker Rafi Pitts interviews him as he dodges in and out of taxicabs, even evading the camera crew at one point. Riding in the passenger seat of a car, drinking a beer, he says, “Our job is to go out into the night and search for adventure.”
One of these adventures involves following girls on the street. When he bumps into one, he says he’s making a TV show about Manhattan women and that he wants to film them. He then changes his lie midway through and claims the show is called “Last Day on Earth” — which, interestingly, became the title of Ferrara’s most recent film, “4:44 Last Day On Earth.” This footage proves Ferrara is definitely not a poseur — hunched over and leering, he truly is a creature of the night, like a character in one of his movies.
While it may be impossible to fully strip away someone’s public artifice, “Cinéastes/Cinéma de notre temps” makes the valiant and very effective attempt to force these filmmakers to let their guard down and allow their audience to see the person that stands behind the movie camera. While it’s hard to imagine that someone like Abel Ferrara could ever not be off-the-cuff, allowing him to run amok in the city at night does capture him in his element, a place where a facade is not needed. If Ferrara were interviewed on a standard talk show, he wouldn’t be able to, let’s say, drink a beer wrapped in a paper bag or reveal his penchant for auditioning girls to be his date, as he does in his episode. And in the end, the stealthy beer and date audition are decidedly more compelling television.
Caitlin Hughes has an MA in Cinema Studies from Tisch, and has done various stuff in film, ranging from non-profit to PR to film programming. You can read more of her articles on Film School Rejects, or follow her on Twitter. This piece is part of Indiewire and the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Critics Academy at the New York Film Festival. Click here to read all of the Academy’s work.