Johns Hopkins Magazine - November 1994 Issue


From the Horse's Mouth

By "Guido Veloce"

Among Federico Fellini's last films is Intervista, or, in American video translation,The Interview. It reunites actors from the director's earlier movies, notably Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg, in a loving, playful, and sometimes ironic self-homage to his career. That Fellini would make an autobiographical film isn't surprising. He did it for decades. The fascinating thing is that a master of one contemporary art form--cinema--would cast his almost-final statement in the figure of an interview, a form derived from journalism, a profession he treated with something less than compassion in his classic La Dolce Vita.

I'm intrigued by the prevalence, popularity, and appeal of interviews on television, in magazines, in newspapers, and on radio. If they aren't a 20th-century invention, they are at least a modern obsession. They have also been much on my mind lately because I blew one. My chance for 15 minutes of media fame came a few months ago with an invitation to participate in a made-for-television biography of 19th-century American showman, P.T. Barnum. For weeks, visions of a supporting role, maybe a writing credit, danced through my head. I'd even formulated a position on nude scenes. Alas, the producers wanted neither my body nor my prose. I was to be one of several academic "talking heads" to interpret, to inform, and to interrupt the story when it became interesting. There clearly was no Emmy in that, but an interview was, nonetheless, important and unique enough to push up my bi-annual visit to Mr. Gary at the Mall ("Where good haircuts are still only $10") and to endure a nine-hour train ride--all for 90 minutes in front of a camera. In truth, I spent less time dropping pearls of wisdom than a technician took dusting shiny spots with makeup. The interviewer was a producer whose expertise on Barnum far exceeded mine. Good intentions to the contrary, in fact, I did everything I've ever disliked about academics on television. I nattered, sounded pompous, cleared my throat, pretended to know what I was talking about, and was as cuddly as Richard Nixon. I, of course, relished every minute of it and would have gone back the next day if asked.

My fascination with interviews dates back to the early days of television, when my parents protected my innocence and their budget by not buying a set. That left, as my major viewing resource, the next-door neighbors, devout Mormons who avoided almost every show that interested me. An exception was a program, the title of which I've forgotten, featuring an aggressive young reporter with made-for-television hair named Mike Wallace.

For a child out in the provinces, it was exhilarating to see historic, sometimes heroic, figures like Frank Lloyd Wright and Margaret Sanger treated to a good interviewer's mix of honey and vinegar until by word and gesture they revealed more than they wanted. I still recall golden moments--as when Sanger, who dottered a bit, dispatched a misogynist critic whom Wallace quoted by declaring, "He must have been a bottle baby." That was interviewing at its best--drama, humor, and self-revelation.

Over the years, however, interviews that went awry remain as memorable. My childhood circle of San Francisco Giants fans eagerly awaited interviews with a slugger whom a local sportscaster always tried to coax into revealing the mysteries of his craft, or at least into explaining what he had done to a hanging curve ball the previous evening. The star inevitably responded with some variation on "Well, I just sort of whupped it." We reveled in our hero's refusal to sully his art with analysis.

I've also cherished bad interviewers, one of the more accomplished of whom is an institution on local radio. In decades spent honing her technique, this woman never met a tangent that wasn't worth taking, a clich‚ that didn't bear repeating, or a guest worth listening to. Many an unwary author has summarized a magnum opus, only to have her follow with, "So what's your book about?" Her disinterest in hearing what her subjects have to say paled recently when compared to an eager young television reporter interviewing a distraught rescue worker at the site of an airplane disaster. The rescue worker described the carnage in grisly detail, explaining that no one could have survived. "So," the reporter responded, "how bad was it?"

The fact that most interviews are self-serving, tasteless, and dumb isn't enough to explain their popularity. My guess is that they fulfill many needs, in addition to invading privacy and giving some of us a chance to make fools of ourselves in public. They promote a sense of spontaneity and authenticity, of eavesdropping on history in the making: we hear the voices of people who were there, even if those people don't have a clue about what happened. Above all, interviews reinforce the brave new world of electronic media's bad habit of translating complex, sometimes horrifying events into personal experience. For many, it makes the world seem more comfortably small and manageable. The large picture dissolves into the testimony of individuals--sometimes perjured, usually badly sought, often trivial, and occasionally venal. The hell of it is, even people who take such a grim view (including me) can't wait to see the film at 11 and don't want to end up on the cutting room floor. We're self-seduced. We believe that if we're interviewed, we must have something to say.

"Guido Veloce" is a Johns Hopkins University professor.

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