Interviews are a healthier, leaner food that satisfies the same appetite people have for reality shows or other things made to reveal the life of others, their regrets, their little bits of wisdom, a version of their private lives or whatever they allow themselves to say about their interior world.
It’s an almost indestructible format.
The interviewer and interviewed spar in a small arena, united by the intimacy of the camera like a bonfire. There are only three people in an interview: the obvious two and the listener who puts his ear against the keyhole and is made to believe that he’s the only person listening in.
The personalities are as varied, predictable and stylized as wrestlers: the aggressive interrogator, the softball thrower who wins his opponent over by appearing empathic. The well-prepared interviewer who appears to be quite inoffensive through the whole interview only to grow towards the end with a surprise question, something the interviewed never thought another person could have known.
In the past two weeks the world was progressively informed about Lance Armstrong’s bean spilling session through a series of announcements, pre-interview appearances from the hostess in her ritual audience-building teasers, and the news programs, echoing every mention of Armstrong’s name until it was a sound that supplanted all others.
My immediate reaction to the interview when I first saw it was towards the setting.
The complete symmetry of the props, complete with two straws, two little periscopes gasping for air outside of two tall glasses of water, each of them facing in opposite directions. Oprah and Armstrong sat meticulously aligned with the brown drapery that hung outside of a lighter white one that was parted in the middle exactly in the center of the frame. Clearly someone went around moving things in the room, some nervous producer-turned-decorator who didn’t now better than to reproduce everyman’s notion of order, something that was passed down in time from Noah’s Ark to the Egyptian temples to the picnic table cloth: two of each, one on each side.
It was like the background was telling us “here sit two equal people, none of them has the upper hand at the start, I am not giving any one an advantage. If there is a confession tonight you can only blame the ability of the interviewer.”
It’s not the first time that an interview is staged in a domesticized neutral territory. When David Frost interviewed Richard Nixon they met at one of Nixon’s friend’s house, a familiar space, not a studio, that the event had to transform. The respectability of the book spines in the background clashed with Nixon’s general aura of repugnance.
The other typology of interview set is what I would call the “Iconic Black”. Charlie Rose, one of America’s most interesting interviewers meets with his guests around a large round wooden table, of which you always only see the top, with a black backdrop that smooths out any peripheral detail focusing on the face, particularly the eyes and mouth. The back of Rose’s head, and more significantly his pin stripe suit are almost always in view.
To be in front of that black background is to be on Charlie Rose.
As being in front of that 80’s led pixel world map was being on Larry King Live.
In Portugal we had Ana Sousa Dias “Por Outro Lado”, one of the cleverest television sets I ever saw, where by using a mirror the audience would always see both the host and the guest at the same time, and was able to pick up any subtle reaction on any part.
As I continued watching the Oprah-Armstrong there was another oddity that took sometime to sink in:
They were in a hotel room with a camera crew.
A hotel room, presumably like so many others where Lance Armstrong used the substances he was know confessing to have used. This circularity enhanced the feeling of being part of a momentary revelation rather than the completely staged event that it was in reality.
As if we had ducked beneath the police line and stood in front of the crime scene, as if Oprah had caught him blood doping minutes before and had assembled us in the minutes it took Lance to put on a shirt.