Studs Terkel: 96 Years in 40 Minutes

Eric Simonson’s new film portrait of the ubiquitous journalist and author comes up short on complexity.

Dan Dineen

Studs Terkel attends the 11th Annual Death Penalty Focus Awards Dinner in Beverly Hills, Calif., on April 18, 2002. (Photo by Robert Mora/Getty Images)

Eric Simonson’s new doc­u­men­tary Studs Terkel: Lis­ten­ing to Amer­i­ca gives itself an extra­or­di­nary task: sum­ma­rize and assign mean­ing to Terkel’s long life and wide-rang­ing work in just 40 min­utes. The con­straints against Simon­son are con­sid­er­able – Terkel, who died in 2008 at age 96, seemed to live mul­ti­ple lives – but the film­mak­er suc­cess­ful­ly shows how Terkel’s enthu­si­asm for new media, inter­view­ing skills and pas­sion for social issues made him an endur­ing fig­ure in Amer­i­can jour­nal­ism and nonfiction.

The film does little to capture anything other than the prevailing idea of Terkel—the congenial, rabble-rousing oral historian always on the right side of history.

The doc­u­men­tary (which HBO will air on May 15 and 24) depicts Terkel as gen­uine­ly enthralled with tele­vi­sion and radio, in part because of their abil­i­ty to vivid­ly answer one ques­tion: What was it like to be an Amer­i­can in the twen­ti­eth century?

That was the ques­tion Terkel spent his career answer­ing. In the film’s nar­ra­tive, Terkel’s role as our chief lis­ten­er” came about by hap­pen­stance. As he explains, an unnamed lis­ten­er of his radio pro­gram called him after an inter­view to encour­age him to spend more air time with guests. As for his writ­ing career, Andre Schiffrin, the head of pub­lish­ing at Pan­theon Books who would go on to found The New Press, act­ed on the advice of a friend and asked Terkel to write a book about Chica­go. After Divi­sion Street was pub­lished in 1967, Schrif­fin asked him to do a book on the Great Depres­sion. Hard Times was fol­lowed by Work­ing, about the rela­tion­ship between peo­ple and their work. Through­out the long arc of his career Terkel ded­i­cat­ed him­self to reveal­ing the wis­dom of others.

Using audio inter­views, the doc­u­men­tary makes clear Terkel’s for­mi­da­ble inter­view­ing skills. His con­ver­sa­tions with James Bald­win (who Terkel affec­tion­ate­ly calls Jim’), Mar­tin Luther King, Jr. and Mar­lon Bran­do are all fea­tured, and in each Terkel probes the nature of the men and their work. (To Bran­do: What is the dif­fi­cul­ty of find­ing out who you are?”) Syd­ney Lewis, Terkel’s long­time col­league at Chicago’s WFMT radio sta­tion, explains that Terkel’s skill was not only in reveal­ing the inter­vie­wee to the audi­ence, but reveal­ing them­selves to themselves.” 

Explain­ing the sig­nif­i­cance of Terkel’s inter­views is Studs Terkels chief achieve­ment. Simon­son shifts the focus away from celebri­ties, vet­er­an inter­vie­wees all, and explains how Terkel did the work of bear­ing wit­ness to lives pre­sum­ably unex­am­ined. Peg­gy Ter­ry, a woman fea­tured in Hard Times, explains, I’m amazed that any­one could care what hap­pened to me, but Studs did such a won­der­ful job that it gives me a sense of who I am and who I was and my rela­tion­ship with oth­er peo­ple in this country.” 

Terkel believed in the pow­er of his inter­vie­wees’ sub­jec­tive expe­ri­ences and their native intel­li­gence; at his best, he made peo­ple aware of and proud of that pow­er. Today, as we strug­gle to define who are real Amer­i­cans,” Terkel’s work is as rel­e­vant and urgent as ever. 

But the film does lit­tle to cap­ture any­thing oth­er than the pre­vail­ing idea of Terkel – the con­ge­nial, rab­ble-rous­ing oral his­to­ri­an always on the right side of his­to­ry. There he is decked out in his ubiq­ui­tous red socks and check­ered shirt, shoot­ing the breeze in a liquor store chew­ing on a cig­ar, or hold­ing forth at a round­table dis­cus­sion about Spiro Agnew with steel­work­ers and home­mak­ers, supreme­ly avun­cu­lar with his hoarse stac­ca­to laugh. There is no icon­o­clasm here, although Simon­son – who last inter­viewed Terkel for the doc­u­men­tary just six months before his death – has said the most dif­fi­cult aspect of mak­ing the film was cap­tur­ing Terkel’s com­plex­i­ty. Shouldn’t that be every biographer’s task?

Is this com­pelling por­trait com­plete­ly accu­rate? I don’t know. It’s not that Terkel has an aver­sion to self-reflec­tion or that Simon­son lacks the abil­i­ty to tease insights from those offer­ing tes­ti­mo­ni­als about the man. The prob­lem is that the film deals with Terkel as almost a car­i­ca­ture – some­one who rep­re­sent­ed cer­tain ideals for so long that he became the embod­i­ment of those ideals, and noth­ing more.

In the film’s most fas­ci­nat­ing seg­ment, Terkel is asked about being black­list­ed in 1952 for sign­ing var­i­ous lib­er­al peti­tions, pur­port­ed­ly with com­mu­nist ori­gins, and los­ing his pop­u­lar dra­ma Studs’ Place, which was a prime exam­ple of the inti­mate and unscript­ed Chica­go School” of tele­vi­sion and broad­cast jour­nal­ism from 1949 to 1952. Terkel had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to repent, to say pub­licly that he was dumb and duped by com­mu­nist agents. He refused to do so, and for years peo­ple would tell him how hero­ic he was for stand­ing up to bul­ly­ing McCarthy-era tac­tics. The fact is my ego was at stake,” he explains. What­taya mean dumb? What­taya mean stu­pid? What­taya mean duped? It was my van­i­ty, my ego.” The scene reveals Terkel as more human than hero. One won­ders if this is the com­plex­i­ty that Simon­son strug­gled with, or sim­ply a moment of modesty. 

There are notable omis­sions. Though Terkel’s son Dan is inter­viewed, his 60-year mar­riage to Ida Terkel (about whom he wrote in his auto­bi­og­ra­phy Touch and Go, She had a cer­tain empa­thy I lack. And she was more polit­i­cal­ly active than I,”) is nev­er men­tioned. His long love affair with Chica­go is framed with exte­ri­or shots of the sky­line, but nev­er filled in. His style of radio pro­duc­tion is var­i­ous­ly described using the lan­guage of jazz, but his deep feel­ing for the music – his first book was called Giants of Jazz; Bil­lie Hol­i­day sang Strange Fruit” at his going-away par­ty before he went into the Air Force in 1942 – is nev­er dis­cussed. Nei­ther are his involve­ment in the civ­il rights move­ment or his career as a sports­cast­er. (Nor his occa­sion­al con­tri­bu­tions to this mag­a­zine, but no sur­prise there.)

Chica­go Tri­bune colum­nist Rick Kogan writes, Peo­ple see in Studs what they would like to see in them­selves.” The film pro­ceeds from this idea: Terkel as a promise ful­filled, a pow­er har­nessed and a life lived. He becomes a screen onto which we project our bet­ter nature. As a primer, the film works. But is Simonson’s por­trait cor­rect? It seems both true and inad­e­quate. Or did the film­mak­er run into, as Terkel once said, the dif­fi­cul­ty of find­ing out who you are”?

Dan Dineen, a grad­u­ate of Loy­ola Uni­ver­si­ty Chica­go, is Deputy Pub­lish­er of In These Times.
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