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'One on One' Is the Best TV Talk You Can't See : Television: Wendy Clarke is having a hard time finding a platform for her series of video dialogues between prison inmates and outsiders. But the talks are stimulating viewing.

HOWARD ROSENBERG

December 08, 1993|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Some of the most stimulating television is the television you're denied the opportunity to see.

Coming under that category are Raul and Jeanene.

"Talkin' about drugs and violence and dis and dat, it's not helpin', y'know."

"Hi, Raul, I want to thank you for that great response."

And Ken and Louise.

\o7 "It's possible I can say things to you I couldn't say to anybody else . . . maybe."

"I'm thinking about you locked up in there, and I hope you get out real soon."

\f7 The above are snippets from "One on One," Wendy Clarke's series of remarkable video dialogues between prison inmates and outsiders, twosomes who were strangers before having these long-range conversations--they are speaking to a camera lens--through videotape. Clarke describes "One on One" as a project of art.

Perhaps unwanted art?

Clarke, whose videotaped series of short monologues titled "The Love Tapes" aired twice on PBS in the 1980s, says her attempts to get a wide audience for "One on One" appear to have been futile. She has submitted these latest tapes to museums that presented her previous work, and also to KCET-TV Channel 28 a year ago. "I never even got a call back," she said. "As far as I know, they've never even looked at them."

A KCET spokeswoman said Tuesday that the videos had been screened and are "in our inventory for consideration."

You would think so, given the seductive potency of "One on One" and its ability to converse on levels that are near unique for television, which too often is a pouting, shouting, Oprah Winfreyed-and-Geraldoized carnival where talk and communication are rarely synonymous.

"One on One" would make a fascinating, infinitely rewarding weekly series, especially on PBS, whose core viewers are more likely to appreciate works that favor quieter, meaningful revelation over loud buzzers and flashing lights.

Clarke has 15 of these tapes, ranging in length from 29 minutes to 80 minutes. The dialogues--between prisoners at the California Institution for Men in Chino and members of the Crenshaw business community and the Church in Ocean Park in Santa Monica--were taped by Clarke throughout 1991 with a standard video camera. Participants were told that there was a chance the tapes would be made public, she said.

The 15 prisoners who volunteered were all nearing release and were in a video class taught by Clarke at Chino, where she was artist in residence. "Most of the men were drug addicts and alcoholics who had a great concern for preventing kids from ending up like them," she said.

Clarke had each inmate make an introductory tape that she then showed to the non-prisoners she had recruited, letting the outsiders choose the prisoner with whom they wanted to communicate. Once the pairings had been made, she shuttled tapes back and forth like a mail carrier, getting each one's video response to the others.

Don't misunderstand. Clarke is not date-making Chuck Woolery. This is People Connection, not "Love Connection."

Thus, Clarke placed a restriction on the video partners, forbidding them to have contact beyond the tapes. "I wanted them to have a very pure video experience," she said, "and I felt that the relationships would be changed if they met in any other way outside of this video space."

Just how pure an experience is in the eye of the beholder. Because of the presence of the camera, some performance was inevitable, Clarke said. But there do appear to be some amazing connections on the screen, and in most cases the camera, instead of blocking communication, seems to be a two-way umbilical cord that nourishes the candor of both parties. Face to face, they likely would have been less open.

The longer you watch these tapes, the more mesmerizing they become and the more they reveal.

Raul is a 23-year-old Latino alcoholic with two kids, the white Jeanene a former actress, probably in her 30s, now a graduate student who wants to teach high school drama. He's reserved behind his tinted glasses, she's passionate, fiery and intense. Gradually, as one tape leads to another, their common denominators surface--both are from Texas, like the outdoors and have had bad marriages.

Ironically, it seems easier for Raul to communicate with the camera than with his estranged wife. "I can express all of my emotions and everything to you," he tells Jeanene.

*

Jeanene encourages Raul and makes him smile. But he notes about his coming release, "In a way, I'm not that glad, because nuthin's waiting for me no more."

The Ken-and-Louise dialogue--both appear to be in their late 30s--is vastly different and full of surprises. A married black singer-musician, Ken is friendly, yet guarded. Louise is single and white and also sings. Ultimately, her emotions pour out, turning her portion of the dialogue into a sort of catharsis.

In his second tape, Ken gently accuses her of putting on an "air." In her second tape, she nervously admits that he's right, that she's "afraid I'm going to say something wrong to you" because he's black.

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