The Reel Deal


By Saul Austerlitz

Published November 17, 2006, issue of November 17, 2006.
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Annette Insdorf can hardly believe it has been 20 years since she launched her popular cinematic interview series, “Reel Pieces,” and so she is consequently in the mood to reminisce. For the Columbia University professor who is also a film scholar and a master interviewer, the occasion of her series’ anniversary offers the opportunity to reflect on its legacy, and on the nature of her longstanding association with its host, New York City’s 92nd Street Y.

Insdorf, author of “Indelible Shadows: Film and the Holocaust” (originally published in 1983), has attracted a sterling roster of guests over the years, including Robert Redford, Oliver Stone, Martin Scorsese, Michael Douglas, the Coen brothers, Al Pacino, Robert Altman and Sean Penn, and this year’s series should be no different: Confirmed guests include Kate Winslet, Ed Harris and director Bill Condon. But only with the passage of time has Insdorf become able to appreciate how her series has changed, and how much ground has been covered.

“The first edition of ‘Reel Pieces,’ the first version, had one of each of an editor, a director, a cinematographer, a screenwriter, a composer, a producer and an actor,” Insdorf remembered in a recent interview with the Forward. “We came up with the idea of giving the audience a chance to learn about each of the major components of the filmmaking process, because it is such a collaborative enterprise. [And] the first ‘Reel Pieces’ in 1987 had something that I’ve not had the luxury to bring back: namely, lesser-known people in lesser-known crafts. It was great! I didn’t have to check with anyone about the star caliber of any guest. I just invited the people who were most talented in their fields.”

Insdorf’s work at Columbia and her position as chief film buff for the Y audience, appear to her as two points on a single continuum. “I consider myself first and foremost an educator, but the kind of educator who is less an academic — you know, in quotes — than a populist or a popularizer. I don’t consider the Y audience to be students in the strict sense of the term, but I suspect they come to the Y for the same reason that people choose my classrooms at Columbia. They want more than mere entertainment.” Seeking to bridge the gap between brainy cinema-chat and a more accessible form of movie talk, Insdorf carefully prepares for her interviews by poring over old interviews, scanning filmographies and reviewing her 20-plus year collection of notes taken on every film she has seen.

These resources allow her to prepare a finely balanced list of questions, one that may be tossed out entirely depending on her guest. Insdorf asserts that she has never been able to ask any guest all her prepared questions. And in the case of particularly chatty or assertive guests, like late director Alan J. Pakula, she says she was only able to ask two or three in her allotted time. Her job also requires her to carefully gauge the responses of not only her guests but also her audience, and this sometimes takes precedence over the answers themselves.

Having written, in addition to “Indelible Shadows,” well-regarded books on directors Krzysztof Kieslowski and Francois Truffaut, Insdorf is currently at work on a study of the works of maverick filmmaker Philip Kaufman (“The Right Stuff,” “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”). “What draws me to his work, if I have to summarize it briefly, is the combination of a profoundly humanist vision with a cinematic style that is about as rich and formally exciting as any director working in the United States mainstream cinema,” Insdorf said. “His versatility has denied him the auteur status so readily heaped on those who repeat themselves.”

With all the remarkable guests Insdorf has interviewed for “Reel Pieces,” a few have still eluded her grasp — including, among others, Warren Beatty, Dustin Hoffman, Steven Spielberg, Spike Lee, Denzel Washington and George Clooney. “There are so many that I have been trying to get for years and years,” she noted, “and the only reason I keep trying is that there has been some degree of encouragement along the way. I wouldn’t bother otherwise.”

Saul Austerlitz is a regular contributor to the Forward.

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