Last night I watched a half-hour documentary, "Red Shirley," Lou Reed made of his cousin Shirley Novick just before her 100th birthday. I haven’t followed Lou Reed since the days of the Velvet Underground, but I heard about this documentary when he died. I hadn’t even known that Lou Reed was Jewish.
However, I learned a lot about Lou Reed from this film. I learned that he is a condescending, arrogant, ageist, sexist bastard who is too full of himself to recognize the worth in others. A powerful interview takes two folks: first, an interviewee with an interesting story – and Shirley Novick is most certainly that; and second, an interviewer who is interested in that story – Lou Reed could not even grasp what this woman was telling him.
Shirley Novick grew up in a village in Poland that was occupied by the Germans during WWI. In the fighting that preceded the occupation, their life was in constant danger, not the least when a massive but unexploded shell plunged through the roof of their home, cutting right through the heavy wooden table where they sat. The Germans, though, once they had control of the village did a great deal to improve sanitation services, she admitted.
Her family could only afford to send one of their many children to North America and her father chose Shirley. As for the rest of her family, except for two sisters she found 25 years later in Palestine, “Hitler took care of them,” she tells Reed. At 19, already a leftist, she made her own way with two suitcases to Canada, which she found too “provincial.” So after learning to play the mandolin, she continued on to NYC where she worked in a garment factory for 47 years before entering what turned out to be a very long retirement.
Along the way, she became an activist and a leader in the labor movement, often part of the internal opposition to cooptation and compromise by the union leadership. The film ends with the highlight of her life: making her way towards the front of the crowd during the 1963 March on Washington.
So how did Reed screw up this documentary? His interview style consisted of just a few elements:
- He repeated her remarkable sentences with incredulity. “So you stood up and spoke in front of all the workers?!”
- He questioned her many adventures with disbelief. “You didn’t!” “You carried your own suitcases all that time?”
- He blocked off our view of her by leaning in and screaming in her ear – she was somewhat hard of hearing, but apparently so was he – instead of just raising his voice and speaking to her directly. He crowded her space as if she were not the important person in this exchange about her life.
- He missed the magic of her answers. Even when she told him things about his own grandfather’s youth, he showed no curiosity.
- He never engaged with the substance of what she was saying, never grappled with the tragedy or the courage in her tale.
In short, Reed disrespected her and her radical history with an attitude of dismissal and disinterest.
Here’s my entirely imaginary fantasy of what happened. He discovered late in life that he had this elderly cousin with a story. He took two friends (there were two cameras) and with little preparation he conducted this interview, just to have it recorded. Afterwards, one of his buddies told him that he had gold in the footage and that by tarting it up with some stills from Novick’s photo albums, they could turn it into something that would augment his reputation. However, it ends so abruptly, that one wonders if he just got sick of it.
Should you go to SnagFilms.com and watch this documentary for free? If you can filter out Reed’s annoying interjections, the woman’s story is full of radical protest and working class anger. But when he keeps his face right in her face, it’s hard to achieve that filter. This is equally a documentary of Lou Reed the man (separate from the musician) tarnishing his legacy by revealing himself to be a dickhead.