On a warm Dublin afternoon in 1987, Beatrice Behan sat before our camera. The interview with the widow of the Irish writer Brendan Behan was to be an important part of a documentary on Behan's tumultuous life and his role in Irish literature.
Beatrice Behan still lived in the house she and Brendan had shared until his death as an alcoholic in 1964. There were posters of Behan's plays and other memorabilia on the walls. The furniture was worn and crowded together. Twenty-three years after his death Beatrice's memories of her brilliant but self-destructive husband were still raw.
In 1939, when Brendan Behan was sixteen, and already a member of the IRA, he decided, without authorization, to blow up the docks at the British port of Liverpool. He was arrested as he stepped off the boat from Ireland with a suitcase of explosives, and sentenced to three years in an English reform school, or Borstal. He later wrote about his experiences in Borstal Boy, a vivid account of life with his fellow inmates and the friendships he made with these sworn enemies.
I began the interview with Beatrice wedged into a chair in a corner of her small sitting room. Her short, gray hair, brushed up above her forehead, gave her long face a somewhat military look. I sat facing her, next to the camera. Directly behind me sat Don Lenzer, the cameraman, his eye pressed against the viewfinder.
After asking about her early life with Brendan, I brought up a difficult subject: the possibility of Brendan's attraction to the boys in the Borstal. Ireland had outlawed homosexuality as far back as 1861, and up to the time of this interview, the powerful Catholic Church had banned all forms of gay behavior - at least officially. Biographers had written about Behan's possible gay experiences with the borstal boys without conclusive evidence, and we hoped that Mrs. Behan would help us resolve the issue.
Beatrice's first reaction to my question was to look away and say nothing. When she finally spoke, it was with a few hesitant words, followed by a silence that was uncomfortable for both of us. I decided to shift to an easier topic and shuffled through my notes. Lenzer coughed. “Let’s take a break,” he whispered. I was a little miffed: why was he interrupting?
Lenzer pulled me aside. “If you ask a question she doesn’t like,” he said, “just wait. Don't change the subject. You may not even need her spoken answer. It will be in her face. This is film, remember. So don't break the tension. It may prove valuable.” I nodded OK. “Sometimes,” he continued, “The silence may be so painful for her, she'll have to say something – anything – to ease her discomfort, and she'll suddenly give you the answer she's been trying to hold back. Your job is to keep that uncomfortable silence – don’t try to help her.”
We arranged ourselves again for the interview. The camera rolled. Beatrice looked uneasy, as her mouth tightened. I tried not to be aggressive: “In a reform school for teenage boys, Brendan must have made some close friendships,” I began. She replied almost in a whisper. I think he did.” I continued: “Is it possible he might have had physical experiences with some of those boys?” Her face froze...a long silence ensued, painful for both of us. I just had to help. As I shifted towards her in my seat, I felt a whoompf – Lenzer had grabbed my shoulder. I didn't move. Two more breathless moments, then Beatrice: “Well I suppose he...I imagine boys... thrown together at that age...are open, don't you know, to some kinds of – experiences, and I guess...” She went on for a almost a minute, during which neither Lenzer nor I dared to move. When she stopped she seemed relieved – she had gotten past the subject.
The rest of the interview proceeded smoothly, no more tough questions, just stories about life with her famous husband – memories of good times and sorrows that flowed easily in the Dublin afternoon.
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One afternoon I discussed interview techniques with the writer Janet Malcolm. I told her how interviews on film can be nerve-racking for the subject: the presence of a camera and sound equipment, plus a crew of four or five, create the tense atmosphere of a public performance. “It must be different in print journalism, I said.”
She agreed. Even with a tape recorder between herself and the subject, a writer is not faced with the kind of hectic atmosphere created by the requirements of filming . The two of them can sit in comfortable chairs, chatting amiably, as, all the while, the interviewer uses her practiced skill to draw the subject out. Back at the writer's desk, the real work takes place. Here she has the freedom to choose the material that best reveals her subject, weaving it together with her own commentary to produce a portrait that may be sympathetic or not, depending completely on her judgment.
* * * * *
It is striking that no matter how uncomfortable interviewees may be on camera, they usually judge themselves favorably when they watch their performance on the finished film.
In the mid-1960s, I was asked to make a film portrait of the composer William Schuman, who was also the president of Lincoln Center. In interviews made for the program, several of Schuman's colleagues had suggested that his talents as a composer suffered because of the complicated demands of running Lincoln Center. I asked him if he agreed. In his filmed answer, Schuman appeared overconfident, vigorously defending his two lives. It had the effect of confirming the accusations made against him. When he watched himself in the finished film, however, he was delighted with what he saw. He considered it a fine performance, one that portrayed a high level of success in both his careers.
Soon afterwards I made “USA Music,” for Channel 13 in New York. I invited two composers who represented widely divergent approaches to music, John Cage and Charles Wuorinen. I did not tell them that both of them would appear in the same film.
Cage's music is based on chance procedures such as the roll of dice. According to him, these techniques free the mind from the bias of previous experience, allowing one to become aware of nature in its endless unpredictability. In one of his famous quotes he says:
“Our Intention is to affirm this life, not to bring order out of chaos, nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply to wake up to the very life we're living, which is so excellent once one gets one's mind and one's desires out of the way, and lets it act of its own accord.”
Charles Wuorinen, on the other hand, maintains that music must be rigorously organized - that its beauty is found in carefully built structures. He believes that the rules governing composition can be derived from predetermined mathematical principles. About Wuorinen's “Times Encomium (For Synthesized & Processed Synthesized Sound),” which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1969, the composer wrote:
“The basic materials are the twelve tempered pitch classes, and pitch-derived time relations, (composed) with a view to the proportions among absolute lengths of events.”
My idea was to show the contrast between these two diametrically opposed methods of composition. But it was a real risk not to tell them they would be in the same film.
Appearing with Cage were the video artist Nam June Paik and the cellist Charlotte Moorman. Paik's delightfully outrageous work is featured in museums around the world. He is known for his towers of television sets and for a performance in which he burns a small piano. Charlotte Moorman had gained notoriety by performing topless.
In Paik's cluttered studio on Canal Street, I filmed him and Moorman performing Cage's “26' 1.1499” for a String Player,” a piece in which Moorman played the cello (not topless), banged on various kitchen objects, knocked over mechanical toys, shattered a sheet of glass, and drew her bow across a cello string stretched over Paik's naked back.
The Wuorinen segments, together with pieces by his composer-colleague Harvey Sollberger, were filmed in Miller Hall at Columbia University, where both composers taught. They had recently founded the Group for Contemporary Music.
While exploring Cage's and Wuorinen's music with them, I managed to ask the composers and their associates their opinions of each other's music. Their answers were uninhibited. According to Cage, Wuorinen was free to construct his compositions as rigorously as he dared, but the finished products were simply formulas in sound and had nothing to do with music. “But let them go their way,” he added. Wuorinen was withering in his description of Cage's methods. Random samples of traffic noise, baskets of junk emptied on a cement floor, or a rubber duck whistle blown into a tub of water – assembled in no particular order – belonged to no known musical category; they were simply the result of theatrical self-indulgence.
Back in the editing room I put together their separate statements, weaving them in with the musical performances. Out of this I constructed a spirited back-and-forth debate in which Cage and Wuorinen seemed to be launching their scathing criticisms at each other face to face.
But how was I to use this extraordinary material, obtained so unethically? I decided to put myself in their hands. I went to see each one and admitted that I had drawn statements from them without either knowing of the other's participation.
They were not pleased. But I had thought of a possible solution: I would screen the completed film for each side privately, and each would be free to decide whether or not I could broadcast it. The agreement would have to be unanimous. The film would be dead if one side gave permission and the other did not. They were both so eager to see what I had done that they accepted my proposal.
The screenings took place on separate days in different studios. Each brought five or six musician friends to watch the film with him. I sat outside, nervously awaiting the verdicts. During the half-hour sessions, I heard lots of laughter, which terrified me.
At the end of each screening, I was called in to hear their decisions. Each group told me that they loved the film – that I absolutely must show it just as it was, because each was certain that they had clearly triumphed over the other.