Mar 21, 2009

Jennifer Crandall's onBeing: the next Talk Stories?

For a while now, I've been wondering: why isn't there a video equivalent of the New Yorker's legendary Talk Stories? Short. Witty. Sharp. An original voice coyly avoiding the first person. You can buy whole volumes of them by Lillian Ross or Jamaica Kincaid.

Talk Stories are a distinctive brand. I thought shortform narrative video should have an equivalent: three minutes, top quality, and smart.

Enter WaPo's Jennifer Crandall.

It took her a while to find her journalistic place, she told a session audience today. Crandall likes to meet people. She'll chat up seven-year-olds at parties. She visits a bike shop and runs into a refugee from Hurricane Katrina. "Week by week," she says, she wants to "chart the human landscape."

What Crandall started to do was invite some of the people she meets to an all-white studio. She turns on a camera and has a two-hour conversation with them. Then she distills that two hours into a three-minute video clip. One ordinary person, in crystal-clear video, talking against a white background. The seven-year-old kid. A guy who admits he's trying not to be a racist even though he was raised that way. A cute former sorority girl who loves her job harvesting tissue from dead bodies. (I won't give away her many punch lines: look in the archive for Jacquelyn Einsel.)

Crandall's editing is crisp and punchy. She edits out all of the questions she asks: what was a conversation becomes a monologue, but one that's clearly been shaped by Crandall's point of view. That raised some journalistic hackles at an earlier session: was it fair, another reporter asked Crandall, to present her subjects with all of the back-and--forth context removed? Wasn't that misleading? Crandall replied that it was clear to the viewer that the clips had been heavily edited and mixed around, so the viewers wouldn't be misled.

Crandall's project, onBeing, is obviously very different from the New Yorker's Talk Stories. It may be more closely akin to another narrative all-star, Ira Glass' This American Life. But Crandall's onBeing pieces are short and smart and they have that distinctive feeling of something that's already a classic. They're charming and funny, and people at the sessions today seemed to respond to them very intuitively.

I'm surprised I didn't hear about onBeing before this weekend's conference. It seems like something that should be spread around.

Yeah, I'll link to onBeing a fourth time. Just try one.

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