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Going Along for the Ride in ‘Taxicab Confessions’ : Television: The Gantz brothers’ documentaries detail the emotional lives of ordinary Americans. Their latest premieres Jan. 14 on HBO.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Gantz brothers were at it again--hunkered down in the back of a surveillance van, cruising the mean streets of Manhattan at the craziest hours, eavesdropping on the bizarre conversations of New York City cab drivers and their customers.

They aren’t cops, but nosy independent filmmakers from Woodland Hills in search of some arresting turf for their latest in-your-face documentary: This time, they want to explore the often outrageous scenarios involving taxicab passengers alone with a driver in the middle of the night.

So the Gantzes rigged a cab with five cigarette-sized cameras and hit the road. Over one month, they monitored the discourse of 550 fares from the trailing van, prompting drivers through an earphone--and acquiring permission for the footage after the ride was over.

Their hourlong documentary, “Taxicab Confessions,” premiering Jan. 14 on HBO, is a riveting look at nearly a dozen random New Yorkers who use the cab as a confessional to describe their unique vision of the world:

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There’s the nonplussed cop describing ways he has seen people die; the tipsy lesbian who makes a pass at her female driver.

There’s the crack-addicted prostitute who talks about the painful rejection by her father; the sadly glib transsexual; the druggie dude who details how he beat a man for stealing money from a friend’s funeral fund.

And the aged violinist playing requests there in the back seat.

This isn’t a cab, it’s a stage. Or a psychologist’s couch. And that’s exactly what Joe and Harry Gantz had in mind. “The taxicab was the perfect environment to catch the randomness of life--because you never knew who was going to hop in next,” Joe Gantz said. “They’re in a safe environment with a person who--chances are--you’re never going to see again. There’s no eye contact unless it’s a glimpse through a rear-view mirror. So, in that way, it became like a confessional.”

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Call them America’s Peeping Toms: The two sons of a Cincinnati trucking company owner are pointing the camera at real people in situations never before documented--all without the artificial adrenaline rush of “Cops” and “Rescue 911" or the titillation of talk shows.

“What interests us is finding out where people live in their emotional lives, finding where their deepest and strongest feelings lie and somehow getting a sense of that,” said the 36-year-old Harry Gantz. “A lot of what we do is a reaction to how television usually deals with a subject. We go after what we find missing, the things television isn’t doing.”

For their 1980s documentary “Couples Arguing,” the pair were on call 24 hours a day for three months. When a participating couple began to argue, they called the crew and waited in separate rooms until the filmmakers arrived.

“In Search of Love and Fame"--a reality-series pilot the Gantzes made in 1990--focused on the personal crises and professional triumphs of eight upstart performers--from actors to dancers to directors--trying to make it in Hollywood.

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In their 1989 television talk-show pilot “A Life at Random,” the Gantzes featured interviews with people talking about private moments. To locate potential personalities, the host spun a roulette wheel representing all 50 states, then threw a dart at the map of the state to find a city. Finally, using a phone book from that locale, he closed his eyes and placed his finger on the name of the guest. The television pilots for “A Life at Random” and “In Search of Love and Fame” are still collecting dust. “Couples Arguing” made it to PBS--after the Gantzes shelled out their own money to promote it.

That frustrates the brothers.

“Joe always says television is like a huge river,” Harry says. “It’s hard to change the flow just a teeny bit, to go out of the mainstream. Cable TV was supposed to change all that. But it’s not doing the job.”

It was 10 years ago, while on a skiing vacation in Vermont, that the Gantzes decided to take on television as they knew it. Both were struggling artists: Harry, an Off Broadway actor and director, and Joe, a writer and photographer who was then living in Paris, decided to make a documentary film about relationships.

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“Anyone who’s been in a committed relationship knows that arguments are inevitable,” says Joe, 40. “And on television, arguments were either treated as a joke or they erupted into dramatic violence. But the truth is, most people don’t kill each other when they argue.”

So they placed newspapers ads and posted bills in therapy offices in the Bay Area, receiving more than 100 responses. They settled on six couples who--for no pay or compensation--allowed a camera to invade their kitchens and bedrooms. “Many had tried therapy,” Harry Gantz said, “and felt that maybe by bringing in a crew and seeing the tapes, they could shed a new light on their relationships.”

Soon, a pattern emerged: Most fights were over money, drinking and sex. “After awhile, you recognized the same circle of argument,” Joe Gantz says. “They might start for different reasons, but they always ended up with the same topics.”

Eventually, however, the brothers ran out of money making “Couples Arguing,” finishing with funding from Channel 4 in England, which premiered the documentary. Sneaking into a European television convention, they sold the film to stations in Germany, France and the Netherlands.

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Like their previous films, “Taxicab Confessions” contains powerful moments, such as the homeless man who says, “I’m telling you the truth: When I go to sleep, I hope I don’t wake up.”

With “Taxicab Confessions” ready to air, the Gantzes are waiting for television to come calling, and taking precautions to preserve unaired tapes. During last year’s Malibu fires, Joe kept the videos in a 14-foot rental van, ready to roll if the flames came too close. “People don’t realize,” Harry said, “our whole life is in those tapes.”


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