An Ear for Film: Signs of Life

The three best movie-related podcast episodes of the week.

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An Ear for Film: Signs of Life

Each week, Dom plumbs the depths of podcast nation to bring you the best in cinema-related chats and programs. If writing about music is like dancing about architecture, then writing about movie podcasts is like listening to someone describe someone dancing about architecture.

Have a suggestion for a good movie podcast? Slide into Dom’s DMs on Twitter.

As humanity solves cold cases and suffers brain injuries because of Pokemon, the world collapses around us, the foundations of our shared civility eroding the further we retreat behind panes of glass and slabs of touch screens. It’s all very sad, but at least Nintendo has solved society’s obesity epidemic.

Among so many things, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about interviews. Because: Interviews are hard. As a pop culture journalist of sorts, I am often required to conduct them, but rarely do they ever feel more successful than simply tolerated, as if for both me and the person I’m interviewing there is only awkwardness and feigned politeness until it’s been silently agreed upon that the conversation has lasted long enough to qualify as worthwhile, that enough has been cursorily discussed to satisfy my word count.

Probably to the benefit of no one, I begin most interviews by explaining the article I’m going to write to the person I’m interviewing, typically attempting to make excuses for any questions I ask which may have been asked countless times of the interviewee before. “I’m writing a profile of you, mostly targeted at people who are unfamiliar with your work, so I may ask some pretty rudimentary questions”—which really means: “I should have done more prepping, tried harder to ask unique questions, used more of my imagination to give you a better experience than those you’ve endured zombie-wandering from one press person to the next.”

But I’ve been thinking a lot about interviews lately because so many of the film-related podcasts I listen to and write about here are necessarily hosted by people who are phenomenal at conducting them. They elevate small talk into an unparalleled art; they can make the most disagreeable, aloof people seem open, warm even. And then they attempt to close that distance even further, pressing such people to excavate the reasons—the fears, the insecurities, the solipsism, the anger—which drives them to be so disagreeable and aloof. They invite secrets, give the impression that such secrets are safe with them. They listen—and they listen well.

Maybe I’m oversimplifying—I am—but I feel like truly talented interviewers are of a particular brand of person that should be cherished. Especially now (again, oversimplifying) when so much of what constitutes our popular culture, greased by one oily spurt of the zeitgeist after another, is built on the notion that communication is clearest, easiest, best when broken down to its empirical parts—that passing messages from one entity to another (or from one entity blindly into the void, devoid of consequence) is most functional when completely dehumanized.

So my picks for this week’s three best movie-related podcast episodes celebrate the careful ingenuity of the interviewer, of just how difficult it can be to create a safe space—both for open conversation and for opening up in general.

(Norm Wilner, you are a Titan of the Interview. I apologize for not including Someone Else’s Movie this week.)

The Cinephiliacs

“Life and Something More: Abbas Kiarostami Remembered”

As I and some of the Paste Movies staff tried earnestly to honor, the life of master director Abbas Kiarostami left us last week. He was 76. To attempt to add some words to the modest glut of love poured upon Kiarostami much too late to show the man how much he was truly adored—a lack of punctuality of which we’re all guilty, pretty much anytime a beloved artist dies—host Peter Labuza welcomes writers and critics Amir Soltani, Tina Hassannia and Carson Lund to his show to share in whatever it is about the Iranian director that’s proven so immensely moving about his work. Soltani’s and Hassannia’s discussions about the layers of politicism indelible to Kiarostami’s films are fascinating and crucial to consider (especially if the director’s death has encouraged you, the uninitiated, to finally seek out his films for the first time), but when Hassannia brings up Ten and Shirin as prime examples of Kiarostami’s fascination with liminal spaces—in those cases, inside a car and in a dark movie theater—the conversation naturally progresses toward something much more emotionally ineffable. Labuza seems to want to ask what it is about the director’s films that are so deserving of love, but he doesn’t know how to do that—and to his credit, it’s a hard question to ask about any adulated artist. Instead, he wraps up the conversation by asking each guest to talk about their favorite moment or image from Kiarostami’s oeuvre, and to hear Soltani, Hassannia and Lund describe, as concretely as possible, their choices is to hear movie criticism and cinephilia at its basest best.

During the episode I thought about Werner Herzog, maybe my favorite director, and what image from his films that has affected me most. Maybe it’s from a brief scene in Stroszek in which Bruno S. visits a children’s hospital, in which a bawling, beat-red infant clings to a doctor’s fingers, and the doctor lifts his hand, the infant still clinging, hanging tenuously in mid-air above its crib, crying convulsively but never letting go, before the doctor slowly lowers the infant back into the crib, then picks him up again, cradling him, consoling him gently into silence. Or maybe it’s the climax of Signs of Life, the horizon of windmills. The jauntily-plucked guitar ending to make room for the sound of an incomprehensible vista. I don’t know what it is about these images; I only know that they touch something deeply within me. They force me to cry—they force me to admit that they are the reasons I love movies so much. So when Hassannia asks if she can close out the episode by reading the prayer recited by a student in the last seconds of Homework, her gesture feels perfect, as if she knows it’s the best she can do to approximate that indescribable experience for an audience who can’t do anything but listen and imagine what that feeling must be like. Or just go and watch the movie themselves, seeking out the same.

The Treatment

“Roseanne Barr & Eric Weinrib: Roseanne For President!

In the middle of this episode of The Treatment, during which host Elvis Mitchell mostly stays silent to let Roseanne Barr expound endlessly on her life, her ethics and her new documentary chronicling her bid to run for President in 2012, Mitchell follows up Barr’s discussion of the “crazy” people she met in the park when first she spoke publicly by saying, “I feel like this whole thing, watching the entire movie, is really like watching you try to figure out which voice you’re using, because—” Roseanne cuts him off, “That’s exactly right. God, you’re so good. Why’re you so smart like that?” Mitchell, admitting he’s blushing, takes it to a commercial.

From there, the episode pivots: What does it mean for Barr to understand at this late point in her career, and in her life, that she has balanced so many conflicting personas publicly for so long? Without hesitation she pours out one anecdote after another about her childhood, about the physical and mental toll required of being a progressive trailblazer on network TV, and most plangently about the head injury that led her to years of recuperation and mental illness. The episode morphs swiftly from something candid and interesting to a quietly devastating revelation about the personality and personhood behind someone who’s spent decades in the spotlight just trying to figure out what that even means. And the success of the conversation hinges on the moment Barr tells her interviewer that he’s “so good”—telling him that he’s earned her trust, at least for 15 minutes.

Talk Easy

“Eric André”

Even before listening to the latest episode of Sam Fragoso’s interview-based podcast, I steeled myself. I knew intuitively, without Fragoso offering an introductory explication of the absurd tenor of the proceeding interview, that it would be an uncomfortable, confrontational thing. And of course it was, because André is an undoubtedly unforgiving, brilliant person—the kind of person to whom I’d never say any of that, lest he think I care too much about what he thinks of me, or that I care at all about what anyone thinks of me—but at some point in the interview, probably after Fragoso asks André if this is what they’ll be doing now, by which he means lying down, listening to it becomes less about cringing through the exchange, and more about pushing through that acute awkwardness to hear how Fragoso navigates each second. It’s hilarious and stupid and genius and feels like three hours even though it’s only 30 minutes. It’s kind of like watching a rated R movie sex scene with your parents, or like listening to a Rihanna song on a Kidz Bop album, wondering how they’ll re-write the swears, knowing they will but afraid they won’t, and then wondering why I’m not just listening to the original song instead of creepily anticipating what words will emerge from these overproduced pre-pubescent voices, knowing they have no idea what they’re saying, and that they have no idea that there are people like me listening, worrying about their moral fiber. It’s one of the best interviews I’ve ever had the privilege of gritting through in my life.

Dom Sinacola is Assistant Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. Like everyone on this planet, he co-hosts his own podcast, Pretty Little Grown Men, which is sometimes about movies but mostly about Pretty Little Liars. You can find it on Twitter.