Three Interviews

Dion Neutra (photo by Scott Holleran)

Nestled in the hills of Los Angeles is a uniquely compact and inviting home where I first met Dion Neutra. I had spoken with and interviewed the noted architect, who studied and worked with his father, the late Richard Neutra, a few times for articles about modern architecture. The prospect of an extensive interview had previously been discussed though it hadn’t been conducted. This time, when Dion Neutra suggested that we meet for an interview, it was promptly scheduled. I drove to LA’s Silver Lake neighborhood, parked and climbed the steep stairs. I soon met the man who made with his father some of America’s most distinctive and iconic homes and buildings. We sat in a dining room and talked for over an hour. Days later, we would toast to his 90th birthday and, later, talk again about a campaign to restore one of his father’s signature buildings, the Eagle Rock Clubhouse. During our exchange, we managed to cover a lifetime of memories, thoughts and details of his father, meeting Ayn Rand, Frank Lloyd Wright, the Kun house, World Trade Center, Neutra’s Gettysburg Cyclorama and his childhood trauma in Silver Lake. I knew from previous talks that Neutra’s son and heir could be both eccentric and exhausting. This conversation is no exception. Read my exclusive interview with Dion Neutra.

Jim Brown, Ayn Rand Institute CEO

Another inheritance-themed opportunity for an exclusive talk recently presented itself when the Ayn Rand Institute (ARI) named a new CEO. His name is Jim Brown and his background is in business, financial analysis and military leadership. Qualifications alone merited my interest and I immediately welcomed him to the ARI and asked for an interview, which he kindly granted at his Irvine office. Though days into the job, he discussed plans, management philosophy and his favorite Leonard Peikoff works. As an Objectivist who first visited the ARI as a teen when I took the bus to its office on Washington Boulevard in Los Angeles, who has worked and studied with the ARI, I want my readers to read the interview and consider supporting the ARI under Jim’s new management. An edited transcript of my conversation with the center for Objectivism’s chief executive officer—Jim Brown’s first interview as ARI’s chief executive officer—appears on Capitalism Magazine (postscript: read a shorter version in the Los Angeles Times here).

And I am delighted that my favorite filmmaker—director Lasse Hallström—granted to me his only interview about his successful motion picture, A Dog’s Purpose, before returning to making Disney’s adaptation of the beloved Christmas ballet The Nutcracker. I am often enchanted by Mr. Hallström’s work. I always anticipate whatever he chooses to make. And I am privileged to have interviewed Lasse Hallström before. This time was particularly rewarding.

Lasse Hallström

Lightness in his pictures is perhaps the most indelible quality. Think of the French village in Chocolat or Venetian escapades in Casanova. The way he guides an ensemble cast to perfect union for an exalted or higher cinematic goal—around foodmaking in The Hundred-Foot Journey, liberation in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, serenity in An Unfinished Life, healing in The Shipping News, and the power of a dog to align man to what’s here and now in A Dog’s Purpose—should also be known. All of his movies, which began with his film about ABBA, are wonderfully musical including A Dog’s Purpose. But what, besides unity, love and lightness, is more pressing and relevant now than the seriousness with which he films his stories? This unique blend by a Swede who lives in America is often mistaken strictly as sweetness, which one should expect in a circus culture of cynics, celebrities and smears. The interview with Lasse Hallström, the artist who to me best expresses in today’s movies the American sense of life, is one I know I’ve earned and deserve.

I did not plan the pieces as a thematic trifecta, though it occurs to me that these three interviews explore man’s mastery of living in accordance with nature, man’s mastery of advancing the ideal and man’s mastery of recreating both in movies. Read, think and enjoy.

Free Speech, Advocacy and Alain Mabanckou

The freedom of speech urgently needs defending, as a college campus club recently learned in LA’s Eagle Rock neighborhood, and intellectuals across America are rising to defend the First Amendment. From outspoken writers, journalists and bloggers across the political spectrum to filmmakers, academics and wealthy businessmen, such as Apple CEO Tim Cook, the nation’s most influential thinkers and creators are exercising the right to free speech by denouncing government control, coercion and censorship—and, in the case of an African novelist I met earlier this year, by praising persecuted voices.


Read the interview with Alain Mabanckou

His name is Alain Mabanckou. I had read about his choice to present an award for courage and freedom of expression by a writers’ group to the French satire publication Charlie Hebdo after its office was assaulted by radical Moslems in Paris after printing a caricature of Islam’s prophet Mohammed. Mr. Mabanckou is a member of the group, PEN American Center, which is dedicated to protecting the freedom of speech.

Under pressure to withdraw the award, PEN and Mabanckou refused to compromise.

That he did so after an Islamic terrorist attack on a similar type of event—a cartoon contest in Texas—hours before his New York City event, caused me to ask for an interview, which Alain Mabanckou granted. We met at a lounge and talked about Charlie Hebdo, his thoughts on free speech and his writing. In posting this interview, I wanted to demonstrate that not everyone who stands up to irrationalism, including radical Islam, is a conservative, a libertarian or an Objectivist.

As with the Brandeis University professor I interviewed about his lonely defense of a writer targeted by radical Islamic types and their apologists for expressing her ideas, I wanted to show the reader that it is possible to “think different” and be different from usual voices defending absolute free speech and act on principle. I think that, more than ever, it is important for rational Americans seeking to defeat barbarians and tyrants to know that the one who acts for good might be an intellectual who isn’t hiding in an ivory tower, removed from ordinary life here on earth. He might be an immigrant or refugee. He might express himself as kind, colorful and eager to know—as against harsh, bitter and filled with rage—yet be strong and capable of advocating free speech on principle.

Though it’s clear that in a matter of weeks this historic presidential election is likely to result in an American president wholly opposed to absolute freedom of speech, and despite more Islamic terrorist attacks happening here, I remain optimistic about the future for freedom. There are left-wing and right-wing intellectuals—moviemakers are intellectuals—making thought-provoking motion pictures about lone heroes defying the status quo, as I wrote about in a Medium post here. There are great American heroes realizing the spirit of “Let’s Roll” everywhere, as I wrote about here. And there are brave and benevolent gentlemen taking stands based on reason and these facts demonstrate that, while these are desperate times for civilized man, victory is possible.

On the eve of this year’s PEN American Center gala in Beverly Hills, I’m proud to post my interview with one such individual, the writer who names, recognizes and rewards Charlie Hebdo‘s courage in exhibiting the freedom of expression. Read my exclusive interview with Alain Mabanckou here.

Three New Interviews

Three new interviews focusing on music and movies are posted. Robert Osborne, host of Turner Classic Movies, talked about TCM’s Star of the Month, Robert Redford (who’s in Utah kicking off the Sundance Film Festival) in a candid exchange about the elusive movie star (read the interview here).

Melissa Manchester sat down with me to discuss her early years with music industry mogul Clive Davis, the challenges of maintaining a 40-year career in show business and writing, recording and crowdfunding her first new album (You Gotta Love the Life) in 10 years, which debuts next month (read the interview here).

And writer and director Mike Binder (Reign Over Me, The Upside of Anger) gave me an exclusive, in-depth interview about his controversial racially-themed picture, Black or White, starring Academy Award winners Octavia Spencer and Kevin Costner, which opens this Friday, January 30 (read the interview here).

Christmastime at the Movies

Robert Osborne 2This season, between work projects and writing, I’ve been reading books and watching new and old movies. I’ve also managed to fit in a few interviews, including an exchange with writer and director Theodore Melfi about his emotionally powerful new movie, St. Vincent (read the interview here). It’s a fresh, humorously frank movie about a boy and an old man who’s a drunk and Bill Murray’s character is an especially pointed and honest portrayal of an alcoholic. I’ll be surprised if you don’t agree after seeing the film and reading the interview that Melfi is an artist to watch. I’ve also seen and plan to post reviews of The Imitation Game, Birdman and Whiplash, which I’ve appreciated or enjoyed to varying degrees, and a timely, new movie out next month starring Anthony Mackie, Octavia Spencer and Kevin Costner titled Black or White. The racially driven story is written and directed by the bright and talented Mike Binder, whom I recently interviewed. Like St. Vincent, the picture takes place in present day, involves alcoholism and a custody battle and, cleverly in both movies, it is rendered with a sense of dry humor.

That is also a particular characteristic of Robert Redford’s, the subject of an interview with Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne (pictured), who will host an entire series of Mr. Redford’s films next month on TCM. I’ve interviewed Osborne about John Wayne, Katharine Hepburn and Barbara Stanwyck among others, such as Ernest Borgnine, so I’m excited about the opportunity to examine one of Hollywood’s more recent (and last great) movie stars. Robert Osborne doesn’t hold back. This may be our best interview.

I enjoy watching classic movies and I recently watched and recommend Elia Kazan’s brilliant and terribly underestimated Man on a Tightrope, grueling East of Eden and brutal On the Waterfront. Other pictures include an unknown gem by Stanley Kramer, at least previously unknown to me, with an outstanding performance by Faye Dunaway as an individualistic, self-made oilwoman opposite rugged oilman George C. Scott, Oklahoma Crude. It’s an incredibly involving film with Dunaway at her best. Look for a review of Lasse Hallstrom’s new movie, The Hundred-Foot Journey, which is released on Blu-Ray this month, too. Of course, it’s Christmastime, which means there’s a glut of new movies I still want to see during this jam-packed awards season and I’m listening to Christmas tunes by Olivia Newton-John, Christopher Cross and Melissa Manchester, whose new single and album will be released early next year. On the topic of music, I’m glad to see talented recording artists such as Sam Smith and Bob Seger get recognition they earned and deserve. Giving and getting what one wants and deserves, and anticipating what’s joyful to come, is, for me, part of the magic of Christmas.

Barbara Walters

BWHaving grown up with broadcaster Barbara Walters, who is widely praised as a pioneering journalist and interviewer and is retiring, I have thoughts on her over 40-year career, which runs from her co-hosting The Today Show to appearing on her show The View.

First, it is true that Walters is dedicated to her profession and I think she is ambitious and there’s nothing wrong with that (I do not, however, think she is exceptionally talented). Second, she has endured from television format to format, despite a speech impediment and being one of the few females in a male-dominated field of endeavor, that’s a fact. Third, she is commercially successful; audiences like to watch Barbara Walters, from morning programming and light banter in the afternoon to her interview segments in evenings before the Academy Awards.

But Walters is best remembered for her mediocrity. She has accomplished next to nothing as a serious journalist. Her interviews are her best work, though even these are hardly penetrating or serious given the unprecedented access and acclaim she received to and from some of the most iconic artists and statesmen of the 20th century. The fact is that time and again Walters squandered uniquely golden opportunities to ask piercing questions of serious philosophical significance and she rarely ventured beyond the safe, warm personality issues and questions of the stereotypical feminine feature.

Her ascension in TV news coincides with the women’s liberation movement, when thanks to works by Betty Friedan (The Feminine Mystique) and Ayn Rand (Atlas Shrugged) among others, including the fountainhead of entertainment for men, media magnate and Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, the role of the productive woman in Western civilization was expanding. She cashed in on liberation as many did. Women were gaining ground in the marketplace and rightly so after Americans embraced the idea that women should be free to work, too, for their own happiness, not just to make ends meet or support the war effort. The working woman as a rational, selfish person became more acceptable during the 1970s self-help era, fed by Rand’s hugely popular literature of egoism, and Walters, who was professional and articulate, often seemed to be one of the best practitioners and examples.

Walters fell far short, though, seeking typically to elicit tales and tidbits from Communist dictators and legendary movie stars more than to challenge and demand to know answers. This approach, in turn, fueled her ability to gain ever more prominent, if lightweight, interviews, not a single one of which is memorable for having disclosed, demonstrated or illuminated something crucial and meaningful about human life and action. She infamously asked Katharine Hepburn what kind of tree she’d like to be when Hepburn said she’d like to be a tree (oak is the answer). She is said to have “humanized” her interview subjects but to my recollection she never got to any but the most salacious, fragmentary and fleeting parts of their lives and rarely for longer than a few seconds. She interviewed world leaders, heads of state sponsors of Islamic terrorism – before 9/11 – and dictators and to my recollection made not a single seriously lasting impression. Among her biggest achievements is a most-watched interview with the White House intern who performed fellatio with the president which led to his subsequent lies and impeachment and, in retrospect, distracted Republicans and Democrats from performing government’s most fundamental role, defense, leaving Islamic terrorists to execute a diabolical act of war.

Walters wrote a recent memoir in which she disclosed having an affair with a married man and U.S. senator who is no longer alive. She co-created a women’s talk show that she appears on which is known more for vapid back-biting and gossip and catty public spats between women. Her time at Today, 20/20 and ABC Evening News is forgettable.

Like Oprah, Barbara Walters has proven more proficient in promoting herself than in informing and enlightening her viewers. She has been accused of ingratiating herself in an opportunistic way to people she perceives as powerful, usually men, in order to advance her career which by any measure is a commercial if not creative success. I do not know whether this claim is true but having observed her for 40 years, interviewing some of the worst monsters on earth and the most skilled people of ability, I think she has very little to show for what she’s done which to me is driven by appearing intently interested without in fact being interested in what she is covering at all.

Barbara Walters ultimately traffics in trivia, faking sincerity every step of the way, leaving very little if any original reporting or interviewing that’s a first draft of anything let alone history. She is famous for being famous, paving the way for people like Kim Kardashian, or, for that matter, Megyn Kelly or Rachel Maddow, women who behave like shrews and harridans (Coulter, Malkin, Huffington) who appear to be passionate about news though in reality huff and puff and add very little to one’s knowledge of what happens or matters. Walters’ lengthy career represents everything shrill, shallow and vapid about today’s barely legal or existent free press.

Really, Barbara Walters is a pseudo-journalist. She at once plays into the stereotype of women as dim, opportunistic and emotionalistic or anti-conceptual and embodies the empty suit or airhead lampooned by cultural commentators. Sadly, especially for the American public which deserves an intelligent, honest and sincere examination of news, facts and newsmakers, Barbara Walters retires with enormous success and wealth and a blank track record. There are many unsung women in journalism who advanced the art of writing, reporting and broadcasting (the late Jessica Savitch, a Walters peer, comes to mind). Barbara Walters is not one of them.