Quite an interview: a talk with Judy Stone

Pub date March 7, 2007
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review

"There’s no craft. I’m just curious." To which I respond, "Are you sure?" as if this respected journalist could be putting me on. I’ve just read Judy Stone’s new book of interviews, Not Quite a Memoir: Of Films, Books, the World (Silman-James Press). "How do you prepare your questions?" I ask. "I don’t," she replies as I stare down at my list of prepared questions. "But don’t let that intimidate you."

Because Stone was born into a family that "couldn’t resist a joke," her confessed lack of organization seems unconvincing. This is the woman who, during a colossal televised press conference for Alfred Hitchcock’s Family Plot, asked Hitch what he’d like on his gravestone. Later, Pauline Kael confronted Stone about her question, to which she responded, "Pauline, the whole movie was about that."

"I don’t include myself in my interviews because that’s not the point," Stone insists. Regardless, her priorities and ethics are clear in her writing. Take the subject of Israel: "I have always felt that I have ethical obligations," she says. "I’m not a Zionist. I’d like to see equal justice for Palestinians. My oldest brother [I.F. Stone] wrote a book called Underground to Palestine. He went with people right out of the concentration camps on the first ship to Palestine. In his articles he came out for a binational state." As if to suppress emotion, she fidgets with her copy of Not Quite a Memoir and reads a quote from her interview with Amos Oz: "Israel was a land for two people, not just one…. This particular national movement is the most stupid and cruel in modern history but we ought to do business with it…. You can’t make peace with nice neighbors." This quote, Stone says, is relevant today, not simply because the conflict in Palestine persists but because "it also applies to the question of negotiating with Iran. Their president is an imbecile and dangerous; so is Bush. So now we have two imbeciles making policy, and it’s a very, very dangerous situation. However, I hope that my interviews with Iranian directors show more of the human side of Iran."

Stone’s new book and her previous collection, Eye on the World: Conversations with International Filmmakers, should be regular fare in college film classes. But although her first book, The Mystery of B. Traven (about the enigmatic author of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre), has recently been republished, Eye on the World is currently out of print. And Not Quite a Memoir, boasting more than 120 interview portraits, including ones of Jean Genet, Leroi Jones, Donald Ritchie, Kathy Acker, Anne-Marie Melville, and Juan Goytisolo, has been publicized little and reviewed less. "It hasn’t even been reviewed in the San Francisco Chronicle, where I worked for 30 years."

Partly guided by an interest in "how each person’s homeland has affected him," Stone’s interviews with writers and filmmakers have taken her all over the world. Although Bernardo Bertolucci didn’t like Stone’s review of his film Luna, he told her a critic is supposed to be "a bridge between the filmmaker and the audience," to which she replied, "I try, I try." Proof positive: her interview with novelist Orhan Pamuk helped American critics better understand his complex work The Black Book.

Today she feels as she did while writing "Encounter in Montenegro." The previously unpublished piece, written in 1959, concludes Not Quite a Memoir and is the only one in which she reveals the way she responds to people. In it she’s a young reporter riding a bus through the black mountains of Yugoslavia. She engages in a discussion with a student from Ghana who makes clear his contempt for Stone, a stranger, and worse, an American. "I still feel that way," she says now. "Feel what way?" I ask. "Feel what way?" she repeats, pausing to help me understand. "This man despised me because I was an American." "So you felt despised?" To which she replies, "Don’t you?" (Sara Schieron)