Review: ‘Talk to Me: Americans in Conversation’

Talk to Me: Americans in Conversation (Fri. (17), 10 p.m., PBS) Filmed in Illinois, New Mexico, Pennsylvania and New Jersey by the Democracy Project. Producer and director, Andrea Simon; cinematographer, Jerry Pantzer; editors, Lawrence Silk, Jane Zipp. Featuring: Mary Pipher, Tmas Altencio, Rosemary Bray, Gordon Wood, Allan Gurganus. Intriguing PBS film documentary from Nebraska's N-ETV could serve as a wake-up call to network TV programmers and advertisers that not everyone in the United States lives in the city, drives an Accord, has black or white skin and drinks an ice-brewed, low-calorie beer. Juxtaposing imagery of such cultural American icons as Walt Whitman and "Star Trek" with the prideful observations of culturally diverse citizens from suburbia to the heartland, "Talk to Me" stylishly illustrates the diversity in heritage and outlook that are the nation's very backbone. Producer-director Andrea Simon sometimes piles on the symbolism in her zeal to capture the far-flung melting pot that personifies the American identity. She has a tendency to try to work too much stimuli into the frame to disguise the fact that this is, more or less, a glorified parade of talking heads. But Simon generally makes it work because she has the good sense to let the people, rather than the trappings, take center stage most of the time. The profound insight far exceeds the trite platitudes. Simon takes the audience from "Lincoln country" in southern Illinois (where farmers chat about the world in a local diner) to New Mexico's Espanola Valley and its mix of Native Americans, Latinos and Sephardic Jews. She also takes the cameras to the steel belt of Pittsburgh and Johnstown, Pa., to chat with residents about upgrading their communities, and to West Orange, N.J., for insights from an ethnically mixed high school. The only "celebrities" who drop by are legendary composer Duke Ellington, author Allan Gurganus ("Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All") and psychologist-writer Mary Pipher ("Reviving Ophelia"). There are also historians galore, who mostly make the point that America is a glorious accident forged through improvisation. Backing it all is an eclectic soundtrack of salsa, rock, New England hymns, Hawaiian slack-key guitar and, of course, the blues. It gives the piece a texture that movingly mirrors the energetic, provocative cinematography of Jerry Pantzer and the oft-insightful verbiage. That isn't to say there's not plenty of hot air floating "Talk to Me." Portions carry the air of intellectual mumbo-jumbo, that "I really love to hear myself make penetrating observations on PBS" type of self-awareness. Where Simon is most successful is in giving the dialogue an energy, and a passion, that makes you care about what these people are saying. Ray Richmond

Talk to Me: Americans in Conversation (Fri. (17), 10 p.m., PBS) Filmed in Illinois, New Mexico, Pennsylvania and New Jersey by the Democracy Project. Producer and director, Andrea Simon; cinematographer, Jerry Pantzer; editors, Lawrence Silk, Jane Zipp. Featuring: Mary Pipher, Tmas Altencio, Rosemary Bray, Gordon Wood, Allan Gurganus. Intriguing PBS film documentary from Nebraska’s N-ETV could serve as a wake-up call to network TV programmers and advertisers that not everyone in the United States lives in the city, drives an Accord, has black or white skin and drinks an ice-brewed, low-calorie beer. Juxtaposing imagery of such cultural American icons as Walt Whitman and “Star Trek” with the prideful observations of culturally diverse citizens from suburbia to the heartland, “Talk to Me” stylishly illustrates the diversity in heritage and outlook that are the nation’s very backbone. Producer-director Andrea Simon sometimes piles on the symbolism in her zeal to capture the far-flung melting pot that personifies the American identity. She has a tendency to try to work too much stimuli into the frame to disguise the fact that this is, more or less, a glorified parade of talking heads. But Simon generally makes it work because she has the good sense to let the people, rather than the trappings, take center stage most of the time. The profound insight far exceeds the trite platitudes. Simon takes the audience from “Lincoln country” in southern Illinois (where farmers chat about the world in a local diner) to New Mexico’s Espanola Valley and its mix of Native Americans, Latinos and Sephardic Jews. She also takes the cameras to the steel belt of Pittsburgh and Johnstown, Pa., to chat with residents about upgrading their communities, and to West Orange, N.J., for insights from an ethnically mixed high school. The only “celebrities” who drop by are legendary composer Duke Ellington, author Allan Gurganus (“Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All”) and psychologist-writer Mary Pipher (“Reviving Ophelia”). There are also historians galore, who mostly make the point that America is a glorious accident forged through improvisation. Backing it all is an eclectic soundtrack of salsa, rock, New England hymns, Hawaiian slack-key guitar and, of course, the blues. It gives the piece a texture that movingly mirrors the energetic, provocative cinematography of Jerry Pantzer and the oft-insightful verbiage. That isn’t to say there’s not plenty of hot air floating “Talk to Me.” Portions carry the air of intellectual mumbo-jumbo, that “I really love to hear myself make penetrating observations on PBS” type of self-awareness. Where Simon is most successful is in giving the dialogue an energy, and a passion, that makes you care about what these people are saying. Ray Richmond

Talk to Me: Americans in Conversation

Fri. (17), 10 p.m., PBS

Production

Filmed in Illinois, New Mexico, Pennsylvania and New Jersey by the Democracy Project. Producer and director, Andrea Simon.

Crew

Cinematographer, Jerry Pantzer; editors, Lawrence Silk, Jane Zipp.

Cast

Featuring: Mary Pipher, Tmas Altencio, Rosemary Bray, Gordon Wood, Allan Gurganus.
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