Critic’s Pick: TV Picks: ‘Little White Lie,’ Hilary Knight, ‘Off Camera’

‘Little White Lie’
Filmmaker Lacey Schwartz and her mother Peggy bring family secrets to light in “Little White Lie,” airing Monday as part of the PBS series “Independent Lens.”
(James Adolphus)

“Little White Lie” (PBS, Monday). If “The Jinx” left a bad taste in your mouth -- the only taste it could have left, if you are not yourself a monster -- you might cleanse your palate with this “Independent Lens” entry, another film about life stranger than fiction, not without its tragic elements but happy in the end. Director Lacey Schwartz grew up as a Jewish white girl in Woodstock, N.Y., believing herself the biological child of both her parents; her birth father was actually a black family friend -- a fact that every childhood photograph of Schwartz makes obvious to the viewer but which everyone around her managed somehow not to see; even her mother shut herself off from the truth. The accepted theory: Schwartz took after a swarthy Sicilian grandfather. (“White people will believe anything,” Schwartz’s high school boyfriend, biracial himself, says.) Notwithstanding the experienced technical hands and creative advisors listed in the credits, the film has the slightly (not distasteful) amateur flavor of many confessional documentaries -- a tone similar to that of “This American Life,” the influential radio center of the My Strange Story movement. Cameras and recorders, which have become as common as pencils, seem to be the way we process reality now. It’s briefly odd to realize that Schwartz brought a crew to confrontational encounters with her parents, once she came to accept what her friends already knew; but it is the sort of thing you only consider afterward, when you are not flushed with amazement at people and what they’re capable of and incapable of. Schwartz’s story is probably not unique -- the child unconscious of his origins, from Moses to Mowgli to Buddy the Elf, is a staple of our storytelling, not to mention the failed duckling revealed as the perfect swan -- but it is extraordinary; and while it has much to say in passing about identity, race and generational change, it is above all one particular woman’s strange and ultimately successful trip to selfhood.

“It’s Me, Hilary: The Man Who Drew Eloise” (HBO, Monday). Lena Dunham -- you know her -- produced and is all over this more sweet than bitter documentary, directed by Matt Wolf (“Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell”), about the artist and illustrator Hilary Knight. Knight most famously gave line and life to Kay Thompson’s Eloise, the little girl who lived at the Plaza Hotel with her nanny Nanny, her pug Weenie and her turtle Skipperdee. A phenomenon when it was published in 1955, “Eloise” was not originally intended for children (it was subtitled “A Book for Precocious Grown Ups”), subsequently its main though certainly not its only audience. (Dunham became a friend after Knight learned that she sported an Eloise tattoo and sent her a pile of signed books -- at which, she says, she burst into tears.) Thompson, a cabaret performer best remembered for her Diana Vreeland-inspired turn in the film "Funny Face,” split with Knight over control of the character, a control she continues posthumously to maintain, blocking “my real participation for the rest of my, I hope not the end of my life.” (Still, it’s a kind of love story.) As the film shows, there was more to Knight’s career and life than Eloise, but in her, says Fran Lebowitz, “he made something that lasted -- and almost nothing lasts.” The film does maintain some critical distance from its subject, but mostly it just loves him and the fantastic, artful, art-full life he’s hand-made for himself. (“He literally has put new labels on cans,” Dunham recounts.) Says friend and muse Phoebe Legere, a musician, actress and performance artist in whom Knight sees a latter-day muse, “Hilary has found a way of making himself happy on a very light diet, and he’s living like a princess on air.”

“Off Camera with Sam Jones” (DirecTV Audience Network, Wednesdays; Photographer and director Sam Jones (covers for Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone, the Wilco documentary “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” videos for Tom Petty and the Foo Fighters) has been hosting this interview show since 2013, broadcast via DirecTV, with archived episodes available through his website. Past episodes or “issues” -- there is a Harper’s Bazaar/Alexey Brodovitch look to the graphics -- have featured Judd Apatow, Aimee Mann, Laura Dern, Tony Hawke, Jeff Bridges, Laird Hamilton, Sarah Silverman and Judy Greer; the new season, its third, adds Will Ferrell, Jon Hamm, Jennifer Beals, Ethan Hawke, and Dax Shepard.

All the conversations take place in a small white box furnished sparsely in midcentury modern; all are shot, like the Wilco film, in black and white, granting the image a formality and elegance that maintains even when the guests dress down (or, as Ferrell does at one point, undress entirely); the look betokens a certain seriousness and distinguishes the series from a legion of other, less pretty or more cacophonous talk shows and talk streams. (Never before have so many interviewed so many.) Having no audience means that there’s no pressure to entertain; this is not about the pitch or the plug. Jones is not out to call attention to himself, but it’s also clear from the context and conversation (and the clipboard) that he’s not just rolling out of bed; he’s done homework. Even with its well-finished, multi-platform presence, the show feels more a personal project than a (show) business proposition. There’s no particular agenda other than to be interesting and, with each session lasting just under an hour, plenty of time for relaxation and for revelation. There is an audio podcast version as well.


Robert Lloyd is tweeting right about now @LATimeTVLloyd


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