Monday, January 24, 2011

Talking Out of Turn #11: Julia Reichert/James Klein (1985)

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show, On the Arts, at CJRT-FM in Toronto. With the late Tom Fulton, who was the show's prime host and producer, we did a half-hour interview program where we talked to artists from all fields. In 1994, after I had gone to CBC, I had an idea to collate an interview anthology from some of the more interesting discussions I'd had with guests from that period. Since they all took place during the eighties, I thought I could edit the collection into an oral history of the decade from some of its most outspoken participants. The book was assembled from interview transcripts and organized thematically. I titled it Talking Out of Turn: Revisiting the '80s. With financial help from the Canada Council, I shaped the individual pieces into a number of pertinent themes relevant to the decade. By the time I began to contact publishers, though, the industry was starting to change. At one time, editorial controlled marketing. Now the reverse was taking place. Acquisition editors, who once responded to an interesting idea for a book, were soon following marketing divisions concerned with whether the person doing it was hot enough to sell it.

For a few years, I flogged the proposal to various publishers but many were worried that there were too many people from different backgrounds (i.e. Margaret Atwood sitting alongside Oliver Stone). Another publisher curiously chose to reject it because, to them, it appeared to be a book about me promoting my interviews (as if I was trying to be a low-rent Larry King) rather than seeing it as a commentary on the decade through the eyes of the guests. All told, the book soon faded away and I turned to other projects. However, when recently uncovering the original proposal and sample interviews, I felt that maybe some of them could find a new life on Critics at Large.

One of the book's chapters, The Arc of the Cold War, dealt with both its peak and decline since the Soviet Union would dissolve by December 1991. The interviews in this chapter, which included SF author Frederik Pohl on his novel Chernoybl and spy novelist Fletcher Knebel's Crossing in Berlin, provided a cross-section of observations about the psychology of the Cold War rather than detailing the different aspects of it. In their film, Seeing Red, documentary filmmakers Julia Reichert and James Klein examined the early years of the American Communist movement, its beginnings in the thirties, its rise in the WW II years, the later disillusionment with Stalin, and then its legacy in the eighties. 

James Klein
kc: When you started researching your documentary, Seeing Red, what attracted you to the communists of the thirties and forties?

jk: Well, in the States, there's such a wall between the generation of the thirties and forties and our generation. We know nothing about that past period because of the McCarthy period and the Cold War. You see, all of the history books were re-written at that point. And all of the people who could have told us about the different roles that people played in history were silent and not speaking out. It was very much of a surprise to us to discover this older generation of communists. Then we thought it was a story that people had to hear about. Besides these people are dying. They are not going to be around forever. So it was quite an opportunity to meet this generation.

kc: You also decided not to look at the hierarchy of the Communist Party. Your film examines the true rank and file members.

James Klein filming
jr: That's exactly what we were looking for. We felt that the lives of people who formed the backbone of the movement, rather than the people who were at the top, would be much more interesting. We also realized that a little bit unlike the movement of the sixties, this generation was working-class. So we found sailors, people who worked in factories and people who rode the rails -- all kinds of fascinating working-class characters. These are very articulate people and that's what got me interested in making this film. They were so eccentric. They had such interesting and varied lives coming out of poverty and then becoming very articulate writers and speakers. They had been through so much. They had the tremendous joys in the thirties, the union activity and the war in Spain, but then got heavily attacked during the fifties. They also became disillusioned by the policies of Joseph Stalin, who they thought was this great leader until the fifties. At which point, they had to figure out what to do with their lives once the ideals that they built their lives on had fallen apart.

jk: The other reason that we stayed away from the leaders was that we were not really interested in doing history. History can be pretty dull. I mean, it's very important and history works great in books, but we are filmmakers. And because of that, we were more interested in what it felt like for these people to get up on a soapbox and express their ideas. We wanted to explore what it felt like to have the police charging down on you from horseback, or what did it feel like in the fifties to stand in front of the HUAC committee? That, for us, made for more interesting movie-making. And we think that you learn something about history in the film by learning about character, as well as something about the human spirit. To me, we were after a very human story that transcended the ideology of communism.

kc: In terms of that human story, what did you come to see about these old radicals as you had them looking back on their scrapbook of activism?

Julia Reichert
jr: We wanted to look at people who joined the Communist Party and follow them through their major life turning points: joining the Party, getting attacked, and somehow resolving their political life in the eighties. So we thought it was very important to bring these people up to the present. The basic question was: Could they maintain their political commitments and ideals for their whole lives, or would they turn conservative in their old age? Would they look back and say, "Weren't we cute in our youth"?

kc: The people you interview in Seeing Red don't become conservative like some of the sixties generation have today. Could that maybe be because of what you said earlier about these people knowing hardship and poverty and not coming from pampered middle-class homes?

jk: That had a lot to do with us making our film. Even though you could say that the people in our film came out of economic poverty in the 1930s, Julia and I came out of the intellectual and cultural poverty of the fifties. But what we had in common with their generation was a sense of longing and a belief that the society was not right. They had a strong sense that something was wrong with society because they were all out of work and suffering hunger. We had the sense that nothing was nourishing us spiritually.

kc: So what did you both learn most from making this film?

jk: When we started, we had real questions about what was going to happen to our lives. It was the end of the seventies and we saw a lot of people not active in the political movement as they had been earlier. And when we saw this other generation of activists, we thought they were going to answer for us the question about what we were to do now. They couldn't answer that for us. They couldn't do that in the least. But what they could give us was a sense of courage that leading a socially committed life -- a life that looks outward at the society you live in, rather than at just your personal possessions and well-being -- was a good life. They taught us in the end that you're going to feel good about that.

jr: That was the most important lesson for our lives! It's that sense of living your life according to your beliefs. And taking the consequences of that. They certainly found out what that was like. It is very inspiring to discover that living a political life is a good life to lead. It's not like you're going to lead a revolution. We might not even have an affect on our country's policies in Central America, although, I hope so. But it's a better life choice than advancing my career. To me, that would be a very narrow life to lead. I'd rather be involved in my society and try to make changes in my society. That's the sense of life we got from these old Reds (laughs).

-- Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. Beginning in January 2011, Courrier will be presenting a lecture series on Film Noir (Roads to Perdition) at the Revue Cinema in Toronto. An interview with Kevin about Film Noir can be heard on CBC Radio's Fresh Air. An article in the Torontoist on the Noir series by John Semley is here. NOW Magazine's film critic Norman Wilner highlights Roads to Perdition here.

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