Interview with award-winning documentarian Perry Wolff

This December, OLLI @ UCLA will present three documentaries by Perry Wolff on the works of Michelangelo, Picasso and van Gogh.  Mr. Wolff is the producer, writer and narrator of each documentary.  He has won 15 Emmy awards, 14 Peabody Awards, numerous Writers Guild, Du Pont and Polk awards and a Motion Picture Academy nomination.

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Q:  You won numerous Emmy and Peabody Awards during a long career as an executive producer for ”CBS Reports” and other news programs, but after you retired from CBS news, you made a series of art films for public broadcasting, including Images of Jesus, which won the Religious Broadcast of the year award, Michelangelo Restored, The Impressionists, van Gogh, Picasso, and An Essay on Matisse, which was nominated for an Oscar in 1996.  Why did you shift from investigative news to the fine arts?

A:  When Laurence Tisch bought CBS, he eliminated the one-hour investigative documentaries in 1998 or 99 because of the success of 60 Minutes, and I no longer had an investigative unit. I was cast into another world. I had always been interested in the fine arts, and my wife was a painter, although she never talked about art – she just did it. And even when I was running the investigative unit at CBS, I did a show on Picasso (Pablo Picasso: Once in a Lifetime, which won an Emmy), as well as on other artists and dancers. One version of the Picasso documentary was done at CBS but I did another version later (Picasso Paints Picasso).

A number of the people I had mentored went to PBS and while I wasn’t a celebrity, I was available, and so I went there and had a run, but then like all institutions it changed direction. They ran out of money and I didn’t get the Gauguin show I wanted to do. I had an interest in art all my life – when we lived in Paris I went to all the museums and attended music concerts, but there are limits to which art interests me. I give up about 1924 or thereabouts from Kandinsky on.

Q:  You offer a lot of insightful artistic comments and yet you don’t have any formal education in art history, so where does that knowledge come from?

A:  At the University of Wisconsin, I took a course in art history but it was early in the morning and I slept through it. The knowledge comes when you’re interested in art and you look at paintings. I mean, it’s a language, and I always liked to look at paintings.  I just picked it up. It’s all research, but I’m also taught by other people. I did this show on Matisse and then suddenly somebody said to me that I didn’t notice how Matisse was influenced by the textiles that came from Japan, and that was true – I missed it.

Q: You once said that Michelangelo was a Christian in religion and a pagan in art. How so?

A:  Well Michelangelo, while a Christian, in many ways was an admirer of the Greeks and the Romans, particularly the Greeks and their gods. He painted Apollo and in his other work you will find his sculptures of ancient gods.

Q:  “Picasso once said, ‘I don’t create. I find things.’ You said once that you too have stumbled into many interesting fields, mostly by chance.” Can you comment?

A:  It is by chance, I mean, I remember when the first tape recorders, I said, “Well, what would happen if you cut the tape? Could it be put back if you dropped something?” And that was by chance, and that led to the sophistication of tape editing. With visual things in investigative reporting, we had to get beyond the kinescope and then we went to two-inch tape and we had to figure out how to cut, and as Ben Bradlee, the editor of the “Washington Post” said, “To edit is to choose.”  And so in trying to find the story or what was pertinent to the story, it led to editing – the validity or the trickiness of editing.

Q: Were you the first to splice tape?

A:  No.  I was in Paris and we were running out of money, but my boss wanted me to come back, because he said we had now found a way to edit tape, and that meant a great deal.

Q:  Your documentary on Pablo Picasso persuasively demonstrates that Pablo Picasso’s body of work is also his autobiography. Particular scrutiny is directed at the portraits of the women in Picasso’s life, whose sometimes lovely, sometimes grotesquely distorted features reflect the power they held over the artist at various points in those relationships. What compelled you to pay particular attention to those portraits?

A:  The women were very important in his life, extremely important. His stages go through various women. He married the ballerina Olga Khokhlova and wanted to be upper class, and then he threw that away, and even before that, when he was in his blue period, his women represented that kind of bohemian life that he had in the beginning. To a great degree, I got a lot of information from Francoise Gilot, his mistress who later married Jonas Salk. And this is the way the world goes – Francoise’s couturière was the same as my wife’s. So we’d sit around and talk about Picasso. One thing she was pleased about was that all the other women that Picasso painted – sooner or later he painted them in distortion. When he got rid of them, he painted them in distortion, but he never did that to Francoise.

Q:  Although you once said that while you hoped the screening of Van Gogh would entertain and offer insights, you warned against “thinking deeply about thinking deeply.” You mentioned that Max Otto said that – your professor of philosophy at UW.  Is it better to be a pragmatist?

A:  Yes, it is. Max Otto was a pragmatist and was my professor of philosophy at the University of Wisconsin. He was a great influence on my life because he came out of John Dewey and Will James – they founded the philosophy of pragmatism, which became the basis of American education and pragmatism is the beginning of science for that matter.

Q: Art touches on the profound.

A:  Science does too. But art contains ambiguity.  In pragmatism there is no ambiguity, but in art there has to be. And you see the same thing years later and it’s different, whereas in investigative work the thing is always the same.

Q: Would you want to be known for your documentaries on investigative journalism or art?

A: It’s up to the chooser.

Interview conducted by Mary Ann Wilson, Program Representative, OLLI @ UCLA

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