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Saturday, February 28, 2009

Paris Days 48, 49, 50 - Parisian girls

I've mentioned already how satisfying the writing process has been these weeks and months in Paris - the consolidation of the notes, the creation of a new outline, the writing, from scratch, of the new draft. This mutually reinforcing set of methodical tasks has silenced the question that disfigures creative artist and trust fund baby alike: what the hell am I doing today? I am a happy writer because I know exactly what I am supposed to be doing at any given moment, and what I'll be doing tomorrow, and even roughly where I'll be when the work comes to an end with James's arrival a month from now: done, or nearly there, with the first write-through of the third draft, 21 months after starting it in Wyoming.

In addition to not being disfigured by unstructured time, I'm also blessed with being under the impression (possibly delusional - see Tolstoy's The Sufferings and Hallucinations of the Painter Mikhailov) that Part III is good. It was the very worst of the four parts in the second draft, and three quarters through this pass, it's shaping up to be my favorite. This, after all, is the quick of the plot, the big garden, the high stakes, the summoning of furies and dispensing of fates. To conclude the novel I've prepared a second climax, which put me into such fits when it occurred to me six weeks ago, but it's extra, coda, exorcism. Part III is pandemonium itself and it had better be good. So if my hallucination holds, or if a few other readers possibly including an agent or Farrar Straus Giroux editor share it, my time here in the monastery will not have been entirely wasted.

So that's how the writing is going. The writer - not quite so well. At least for the time being I've passed through the phase, which must be common to all novelists, where you have hallucinations about your face, and have gotten to the part where you can't breathe. I mean, I can breathe, but it feels like there is a set of rubber bands around my ribcage that only lets me get so much air. It's enough to live on but you always feel oxygen-poor. Various other stress-related ailments have cropped up, but in the interest of not having to post another gruesome-content advisory, I'll leave them to your imagination.

After about ten days of rubber bands hugging my lungs, I started thinking maybe I should take more than my obligatory single day off per week, and because my Israeli friend Ofer was coming to town it seemed like an ideal weekend for two in a row. Free time started last night with drinks over at the Corona, at the Place d'Alma, with friends who work and worship at the American Cathedral, where there may be some interest in Apparition of the Eternal Church. As I wrote in my year-ender, I'm continually surprised by how much fun I have with church folk - and it might give you some idea of what sort of church folk they are to learn, as I did last night, that one is tight with Sister Roma back home.

As I left the Corona I noticed that everyone on the street had their cameras out taking pictures of the Eiffel Tower, which was sparkling the way the Hotel de Ville had been on inauguration night (and yes, I fell for the old landscape/portrait video trick, so please turn your monitor on its side to view):

The festivities continued after dinner when Ofer showed up. He brought a gift all the way from Mendocino County so we had some of that and got naked and got into bed and listened to Alison Goldfrapp and Brazilian Girls and stayed up late doing things that both help loosen respiratory rubber bands and require content advisories. Under circumstances like that I'm prone to fall in love with music and last night was no exception. The judge came over for brunch today and I made him listen to this amazing Brazilian Girls song and help me figure out the lyrics. The diary would be indebted to Martin and other francophone readers if they would make corrections and suggestions to my translation in the comments:

l’impression d’un petit bon homme
si tes raisons sont bonnes,
come on,
prends ton temps et le mien,
car j’y tiens.

Make like a good little boy
if your reasons are good, come on,
take your time, and some of mine,
cause I hold it dear

la vitesse d’un vrai ouragan
l’altitude de quelqu’un qui connaît son coeur
car en somme c’était
J’ai plus peur...

the speed of a hurricane
the altitude of someone who knows his heart
cause in sum it was fun
I'm more afraid...

homme sauvage -
Homme, ta cage j’abandonne

wild man -
Man, I abandon your cage

Ments, puisque savoir mentir est un don,
donne-moi un baiser sur le front puis ments,
ments encore,
mi corazón -
Je te pardonne -

Lie, since to know how to lie is a gift
Kiss me on the forehead then lie
lie again, mi corazón -
I forgive you

finalement le son de mes mots,
éphémère comme le temps,
t’a ratrappé,
Écouter aussi, c’est un don,
Et comprend -

finally the sound of my words
ephemeral like time
it has recaptured you.
Listen also, it's a gift
And understand -

homme sauvage -
Homme, ta cage j’abandonne

The lyrics are steamy enough, but when you combine them with the Piazzolaesque music and Sabina Sciubba's scantily-clad voice you have a real conflagration of a song, and piecing through it over champagne brunch with a single gay guy would seem like a really good opportunity for another content advisory. But the judge is so...judicious, and I had to wait for Ofer to get home before anything happened worthy of "Homme" (yes honey I took pictures).

Still, I have to give it up for the judge. He alone makes me stick to the half English, half French rule - he actually looks at his watch and interrupts me if give up on saying something in French five minutes before my hour is up. Today we worked on nasals and I had some questions for him. The French people are constantly mispronouncing the "in" nasal as if it were "en" or "an," for example saying "Moo-lahn Rouge" instead of "Moo-LAN [holding your nose] Rouge." This has caused me some embarrassment. Someone told me I was an "ecrivant," so for two weeks that's how I described myself in email and chat. Then I saw this street sign -

- which identifies Jean-Jacques Rousseau as an "ecrivain." Yeah, sure you're a "writing."

I became especially concerned about my nasal pronunciation in a recent conversation that turned on the word "con," cunt, which I began to suspect I wasn't differentiating sufficiently from "quand," when ("Cunt are you free for lunch?") The judge pointed out that "Homme" is full of that particular nasal sound, for example "don," gift, which I was also mispronouncing. We figured out this little mnemonic, which I'll leave here in case it's helpful to other gay men working on their French pronunciation:




Ton don est tax-deductible.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Paris Days 46 and 47 - night at the opera

[diarist's note: comments for this blog are now open to anyone - you no longer need a account]

Monday night I was treated to my second Massenet opera in five months, this after having gone 38 years without ever hearing a note of Massenet apart from the meditation from Thaïs that we are exposed to in shopping malls and advertisements for toilet tissue. In October a sponsor of the Chicago screenings of Apparition of the Eternal Church took me to the Lyric Opera's production of Manon, which was ravishing. The only trouble was that I was not ravished, I was incapable of that experience because two nights before I had heard Christopher Taylor perform the Vingt Regards sur L'Enfant Jesus at Roosevelt University's Ganz Hall and had spent the subsequent 48 hours in or on the verge of tears, having fallen completely and embarrassingly to pieces in the performance itself (at the climax of the 6th movement I gasped - everyone heard), and the route between Massenet and Messiaen is one-way going, in this case, the wrong way. All my experience and perceptions told me I was hearing an impeccable performance of a beautiful work, but after the serial cataclysms and otherworldly ecstasies of the Vingt Regards I was incapable of hearing anything but banality in the opera house. I've never had yage or peyote, but I imagine this was like having a big heavy Native American drug trip, throwing up into the wind on top of the pyramid for six hours, and then being shown into a frilly Rococo room and seated at a banquet table crammed with French pastry. I excused myself at the first intermission.

Monday night I had a much better experience at the dress rehearsal for the production of Werther at the Paris Opera. My host was the assistant conductor, David Robert Coleman, to whom I had been introduced via email by a fellow Messianiste here in Paris. David had invited me to the rehearsal and offered to introduce me to conductor Kent Nagano, a hugely important Messiaen disciple and champion who lived with the Messiaens for several years in Paris.

David had told me where to meet him by the musicians' entrance at 7:15 "exactly." At 7PM I unlocked my bicycle and rolled it to the gate of the monastery, realizing at that point that the front tire was totally flat. I sent a panicky text message, thought about running all the way to the Bastille, decided I had a better shot going underground, encountered ulcer-inducing delays there, and ran up to the musician's entrance at nearly 7:30. David had left my name with the receptionist, but the combined forces of her English and my French were unequal to the task of figuring out where I should go and how I would get there (the Bastille Opera House is a notorious labyrinth). Finally, she got an idea - I should go to Susan Graham's dressing room. She gave me directions and waved me through the gate.

For those unfamiliar with the opera world, this is a little bit like showing up late for a
White House meeting with Rahm Emanuel and being given permission to wander around the Executive Residence until you find Michelle's boudoir: absurd, but not something you really say no to. I was so disoriented by my task that I immediately forgot the directions; I found sound stages and stairwells, rehearsal rooms, dance studios, a badly needed toilet... After consulting a map and wandering a little longer, I found the great mezzo's dressing room and, feeling like a complete idiot, knocked. Nobody home, thank God, so I continued feeling my way through the warren, opening doors trepidatiously lest I find myself onstage with Ms. Graham with no clue what I was supposed to sing.

The closest I got on my own was backstage, where techies and singing actors waiting to go on and assistant directors with headsets were variously monitoring the production and killing time, and props sat in piles and the singing onstage competed with footsteps sounding the stage like a drum. Nobody seemed to care that I was lurking around, but at a certain point I thought it would be nice to take a load off my feet and see what the opera looked like from the audience and so, with a little help from a woman in a headset, I was finally at the opera and this is what I saw:

I loved everything about Werther. The music was unspeakably gorgeous - the ne plus ultra of French late-Romanticism, suffused with a huge and wildly inventive range of luxuriant colors and textures and special effects. I repeatedly heard how much Hollywood soundtrack composers, the thieving hacks, have stolen from Massenet - to hear the original, and to hear it in Paris, and to hear it played by the Paris Opera Orchestra, was revelation, transport - not otherworldly, but ecstasy still. And even as I felt like I was having one of the most Parisian possible experiences, I also - even in the Age of Obama this is embarrassing to admit - but I took some pride in my own country, because there was Berkeley native Nagano so surely commanding the great instrument of the Paris Opera Orchestra and all the forces arrayed onstage, and there was plainspoken American diva Susan Graham belting out the role of Charlotte.

Here she is approaching Werther as seen in the top panel of the mirrored strip that framed the stage (as always, click on these images for a bigger version):

And here's the pit, with its dreamy string section - which also sounds good -

People complain about the Bastille Opera House. It is awful to look at, apparently it's a nightmare to work in, and it's not improving with age. Like so much of what was built in the 80s, it probably should be torn down, and if it is, I'll be happy to have this memento of its Death Star ceiling with its Vegas-caliber carbon footprint:

After the show David introduced me to Nagano and I nervously pressed a copy of my DVD into his hands. After watching him work for four hours I was terribly star-struck. Then I left the theater, or tried to; thirty minutes later I was still trying to find my way out.

Without your tax-deductible donations, I am lost.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Paris Days 43, 44, 45 - the saddest oysters in Paris

[diarist's note: comments for this blog are now open to anyone - you no longer need a account]

Autobiographical writers are happy, or should be, to have any friends at all, given our propensity to write about people we know, usually without warning or permission. I'm especially happy to know my San Francisco friend Joel, who's living in Paris these days, right in the part of the Marais where the Jews and gays collide, which in Joel's case couldn't be more appropriate. Joel has not only fed me and wined me and given me, in an hour, more French history than I've read since college, but introduced me to his polyglot circle of friends who this weekend gathered not once but twice to kill several hours at his place. These are mostly friends, including the teacher, from an Alliance Français language class Joel enrolled in on arriving here, and everyone - the Spaniard, the Italian, the Texan - everyone but the San Franciscans, actually - has secured a Parisian lover or job and prattles away in apparently perfect French and has the grace to compliment us on our halting attempts to keep up.

The Texan, Gwen, is a beautiful singer and graced Saturday night's gathering with a song:

Saturday's replay was the result of the Italian's having made a big tiramisu for a party the 21st, only she learned Friday that that party was March 21st. So the seven of us gathered, same hour and place, because this tiramisu had to be eaten.

The tiramisu party was my second gathering yesterday, my day off - the first was at the swank Hyatt Vendome, where two American friends I know independently of one another were meeting other friends in Paris in the lounge there before heading out to dinner. When I saw the price of the cocktails people were ordering, I began to get nervous, and when the conversation turned, repeatedly, to the subject of organic French wine, which it sounds like this crowd downs by the case, I saw the rest of the evening in color at once vivid and dismal: these guys living it up, ordering another bottle, appetizers, amuse-bouches, main courses, desserts, French organic dessert wines, and me sitting, stone-cold sober and in fact still a little hung over from Joel's party the night before, in the corner, with a glass of ice water and a little plate of bird seed. "No, I'm fine, really. I had a late lunch."

So I bailed, picked up a 5-euro falafel sandwich brimming with oil-soaked eggplant at that famous place on Rue des Rosiers, and had that and 0-euro tiramisu for my dinner.

I felt ungracious leaving Joel's the moment my licked-clean tiramisu fork clattered to its plate. But in fact it was nearly four hours since the party had begun (people do not rush their socializing here) and I was bitterly tired. Joel said he understood, that when he first came to Paris he would leave a party where everyone was speaking French, go home and sleep for twelve hours. Yes, that's it, I thought, too much French - but this morning I woke up with a sore throat. This was a bummer: I was expecting the judge for lunch, our first date in a couple of weeks and the first time in a nonpublic place. I thought I'd be well enough to get through lunch, but even if I write about people without permission I do try not to give them colds without warning, and so I sent email explaining my condition and offering to reschedule.

The only trouble was, I didn't have the judge's phone number, and what if he didn't check his email before coming over? The maid was coming at noon, the judge might be coming at 1:30, and the market on the Blvd. Richard Lenoir was in full swing. So I took my sore throat and empty backpack down to the Bastille and had a dizzying hour at the market.

Old lady twins at the mushroom stand!

Chickens with their heads still attached!

French organ grinders singing cheesy old French songs that the old folks hummed along to as they bagged chickens with their heads still attached!

I shopped well - I stuffed my backpack. I found great bargains - huge Haas avocados, three for a euro and a half. Fresh large oysters from Normandy, a dozen for eight euros (you have to burn a few gallons of gas getting yourself up to Tomales Bay to get them that cheap at home). Great stuff! Enough for a real feast in case the judge showed up - but he did not. I came home to email from the judge, thanking me for the warning, looking forward to next time
, correcting my French.

And so I stood at the sink for the next twenty minutes shucking the toughest oyster shells I've ever shucked with my new Parisian oyster knife, and I put out the confit duck leg I'd gotten for three euros, and the little round of goat cheese, and the fruit, and the bacon, and the fresh bread, and the eggs whose yolks I knew would be orange and viscous and rich inside, and the firm broccoli and the pineapple and bananas and clementines, and I arranged all of this on the table just so and felt how sad it was not to have anyone to share it with. The whole thing was so pathetic that I took a picture, just so I could always remember how low I sunk in Paris -

- and the more I thought about it the sadder I got, thinking about having to eat all dozen Normandy oysters, all by myself, and I almost roused myself to the computer, thinking I could still email the judge, tell him I was feeling better (which was true), that he should just come over, we would open the windows and I would keep a respectful distance. And then I looked at the oysters, all dozen of them, with their little lemon wedges wedged artfully here and there, all sundered from their shells so I could just suck them down without a fork, and I finally decided, after a moderate amount of reflection, to accept that fortune had dealt me the solitude card that morning, and that it was my fate to eat them, all dozen Normandy oysters, all by myself.

I was midway through this terribly sad experience when I realized I had nothing to drink. This is so pathetic I can hardly bring myself to write it down, but I had had this fantasy of offering the judge a mimosa, and had both orange juice and my favorite bottle of six-euro French sparkling white wine all chilled and ready. The thought crossed my mind that I could open the bottle - but then I thought, no, it's a work day, and drinking alone is terribly pathetic, terribly sad, and I'm already halfway through the oysters, and I decided I would not open the bottle of champagne.

But then, even knowing how pathetic it was to sit there by myself drinking champagne and eating oysters, I did, in fact, open the bottle of champagne, and poured myself a glass, using one of those Eiffel Tower flutes, and I sat there looking out at the sad, sad Parisian Sunday, drinking the champagne and eating the oysters.

But before I had any of the champagne, I took a picture:

I am now totally out of oysters.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Paris Days 40, 41, 42 - badness, feedback, Anna Karenina

I would like to let this badness / feedback thread die, not least because it has inspired some of the worst writing in this whole diary, but it will not die. The subject is apparently evergreen. I just finished
Anna Karenina and popped a bottle of bubbly to mark the occasion - I'm drinking it out of my Eiffel Tower flutes. Anyone who hasn't read the novel or who hasn't read it recently will think I'm a mean guy, celebrating with cheap champagne in kitschy glasses after the poor woman throws herself under the train. But in fact that happened days ago. To follow this up Tolstoy gives us a coda, 50 pages long, most of which depicts his striving, stressed out, ultra-sincere, good-hearted, hitherto nonbeliever Kostya Levin in the throes of spiritual ecstasy as he casts off all his "sheer intellectual fraud" (by which I think we are meant to understand his study of science and philosophy) and embraces Jesus Christ as his personal savior. Tolstoy pulls a similar maneuver to close out War & Peace, getting you all jacked up on battle and history and romance and then beating the life out of you in the second epilogue with an interminable disquisition on historiography. Spare me your beliefs, bitch!

I have written that I would not like any feedback on finished work, and that I
should not want any feedback on work in progress. At the same time, I would like to offer some to Tolstoy. I would like to go back in time and beg him, plead with him, pay him off to get him to leave out this numbing awful ending about Levin's spiritual awakening / delusioning, and to make Levin's wife, around whom so very much of this novel revolves, less of a neuraesthenic drama queen princess (although technically that's pretty much what she is) and to repair any number of other glaring faults that mar this book that Nabokov and a number of other reasonably smart people have deemed the greatest novel ever written. Allan writes in the comments to the second feedback diary:
I'm totally in agreement that feedback is not of much use as a critical tool. What feedback would you give Messiaen on an unfinished work? What would you say that could make the piece better for him?
A few things, actually. After Christopher Taylor performed the Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant Jesus in Davis a couple of months ago, he did a Q&A and I asked him if, after all these years of performing the 2-hour suite, of learning it and living with it, there were any things about the music that he had come to think of as its faults. He gave a very elegant and I think honest answer, that if you're going to play the piece convincingly you must allow yourself to be convinced by it. But as swept away as I was and remain by the Vingt Regards, and specifically by Taylor's interpretation, I remember thinking during one of the big movements toward the end, as Messiaen was working up all the power of Yaweh, Jesus and the angels combined into some gigantic geometric construction pushing its way up and down and in and out and bigger and bigger - not again. I remember thinking, this was effective when you did it 45 minutes ago in the 6th piece, but you can't make me go up the same spatial-cyclical-musical staircase twice in the space of an hour. It's like Albert Fuller said in an Apparition clip that I had to cut: "Honey the shock wears off!" At the very least it's an argument against playing all 20 pieces in the same program, but I experienced it as one of my first understandings of Messiaen's limitation, the first time I saw that he had a bag of tricks and it was not infinite, that even he, the most daring and original and resourceful composer in the whole friggin conservatory, was capable of running out of ideas.

This segue doubles back upside down, because the real relevance of Messiaen to this depressing experience of Tolstoy's badness is not that they are both flawed, but the way in which Messiaen, as a Christian artist, is so much better. Or perhaps that's too easy and the difference is more in the capacity of music to transcend the theological divide while words tumble into it - the point I want to make is that the sheer alienation and actual revulsion I felt at the last 50 pages of
Anna Karenina, in which Tolstoy seemed to throw his fiction to the rails in the service of his religious faith, was such a stark ugly contrast to the way I experience my composer Jesus freaks, in which I forgive them every dogma, every intolerance, every delusion, to the point that I am seriously considering having tattooed on my body the concluding measures of the 6th of the Vingt Regards, a piece of whose title Par Lui Tout A Été Fait I believe not a single syllable. I suppose this is why I went off the deep end when I discovered Messiaen, because it was the first time I'd found a way to experience the power of religious feeling through art without having all my aesthetic receptors cauterized by cliché-ridden drivel like the following passage from AK:
But he had only to forget the artificial train of reasoning, and to turn from real life to what had satisfied him so long as he kept to the given chain of argument, for the whole artificial edifice to tumble down like a house of cards, and it became evident that the edifice had been constructed of those same words transposed and regardless of something in life more important than reason.
(Apologies to Tolstoy and everyone reading this if the badness of the representative passage is due solely to Rosemary Edmonds' translation.) So yes, I have some feedback on finished work for the Greatest Novelist Ever who wrote the Greatest Novel Ever Written: I just hated it. And not just the last 50 pages - the last three or four hundred, a whole novel's worth. I hope I read it again when I'm an old man and regret writing these words. Maybe by then I'll be a Jesus freak too.

I had a rip-roaring conclusion connecting all of the above to recent bad sex, but it's one in the morning so that will have to wait.

Moses said man cannot live on bread alone, but he didn't know about the bakery up the street from the monastery. Buy me a couple of baguettes.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Paris Days 38 and 39 - masked ball

I have entered the mental illness phase of the writing process, which has gotten me thinking about Ovid. Ovid was a good writer, but he was too soft-hearted. He couldn't stand to see anything really bad happen to his characters. He'd sooner turn a nymph into a tree than see her raped. He couldn't bring himself to kill off Echo, so he turned her into a sound. Even when he tried to punish someone, he let them off easy. Narcissus, punished for not putting out for some smitten homosexual, was made to waste away pining for his reflection. How long does it take to starve to death, five or six weeks? Couple months? If Ovid really wanted to make Narcissus suffer, he would have made him stare at his own face into his late thirties.

I wrote in the last entry about the hallucinations we suffer looking at our own creative work. Recently, despite a severe apparent shortage of hallucinogens in Paris, the same phenomenon has been affecting various mirrors and my digital camera when my face drifts into them. Much of the time, I will catch a glimpse and give myself the usual props, hey handsome, looking sexy there, keep subtracting five years from your age online. But increasingly over the last few weeks I have caught visions of ruin, horror mask, tales from the French hospital for incurables, and I think, honey, you need to start adding.

Friday around noon there was a nice little pizza party for a new resident here at the monastery. The subject of this blog came up, and that led to a discussion of the wild nightmares I had my first few weeks here and my theory that I was sharing the psychic premises with the ghosts of prior residents who came here with consumption or gangrene instead of the second draft of a first novel (each of us has his cross to bear). Three of the lunch guests made reference to a story about room 326 - mine - that they all agreed was too awful to let me know before my residency is complete.

I find, by the end of my Sunday to Friday work week, that my 6-hour day deteriorates into something closer to five or four hours, and this Friday was no exception. I couldn't get anything done and so took myself on a long walk through unfamiliar neighborhoods, with a vague goal of winding up at the old opera house, which I'd never seen. I wasn't expecting it when I came upon it and the sight took my breath away:

On the walk home I took pictures of fierce mannequins that I'll save for a day I can't think of anything to write. Saturday I commenced my day of leisure by updating this diary, calling into question my use of the word leisure - chronic problem. At three o'clock I biked down to the Beaubourg for a coffee date with a Costa Rican mime, followed by a 4:30 tea date with a Welsh friend on the Rue Montorgeuil who has an amazing library of books relevant to the novel and loans them to me, followed by a 6:30 date near the Bastille with Martin's friend Sophie. As her complete noncomprehension of English became apparent, I thought, how am I going to get through this? Two hours later, I asked myself, do I speak French now? We'd been talking nonstop and it was nearly nine. Perhaps I'd cheated, gotten by sticking to safe topics, vocabulary covered in the first ten chapters of my French textbook - what will you have to eat and what is it that you do for a living. But for two hours?

I had one last social engagement Saturday, and here is the part of the blog where I must issue a warning to readers under the age of 14, blood relations, and anyone who considers him- or herself squeamish about stories concerning the reproductive organs, because as amusing as I find this story today it's actually kind of gross.

It all started on Facebook, of course, or maybe it started on Gmail when San Francisco friends furnished emails of introduction to Parisians and I struck up Facebook chats with one of them. He invited me to a masked ball Saturday night, the invitation for which read, in part:
A mask is required. And, gentlemen, I refer to a mask on your eyes [loup also means wolf]. Or a face mask, or whatever you want but something on your head. For the rest, you don't have to wear a thing - naked bodies are fine with us.

And here's the original, in case it's my translation skills that got me into trouble:

Un loup est obligatoire. Et, messieurs, je parle bien d’un loup sur les yeux. Ou un masque, ou ce que vous voulez mais quelque chose sur la tête. Pour le reste, vous pouvez ne rien mettre. Le corps nu nous va très bien.
Give me some credit: I didn't take them literally about going naked. I wore the stretch-tite silver sequinned hotpants that I got from Momo Le Moins Cher for my Beltane wardrobe, and for "quelque chose sur la tête" I wore a Vegas-style belt with beaded tassles that I picked up in the same place. Look, I didn't grow up in San Francisco, the son of a man who's placed in numerous Bay-to-Breakers costume contests, and give the dregs of my youth over to Trannyshack, and spend the last three years hanging out with the Radical Faeries for nothing - I have some basic drag skills. Maybe it's true, as some unkind person remarked, that I looked like I was wearing a lampshade. So what? Short on disposable income, I make do with available materials. Also, when you're experiencing novel-induced hallucinations about your face disintegrating before your eyes, it's surprisingly comforting to go to a party with a sort of bag over your head.

Not everyone at the party was pleased with my outfit, or with the behavior of various guests and even hosts in the presence of the outfit, especially toward the end of the 52 bottles of champagne we wound up putting away. The Facebook friend of a friend who invited me to the party in the first place only half-jokingly refused to acknowledge me when we were introduced. But if you come to Paris, and you're concerned about a party being dull, with a bunch of reserved Parisians
incomprehensibly murmuring this about Sarko and that about la crise, bust out with a little Showgirls drag. Because in the presence of some silver sequins and a little skin, these people turn into complete animals.

I promised you a revolting story about my reproductive organs (kind of funny to call them that, considering their usual circumstances, but whatever) and as much as I would like to put this diary entry out of its misery a promise is a promise. After five hours of being manhandled by homosexual Parisians and a few of their girlfriends, I came home with the worst case of blue balls I have ever had - not because they hurt so much, although they did, and not because my balls were swollen to the size of Meyer lemons, as they were when I auditioned with Suppositori Spelling for John Cameron Mitchell's Shortbus workshop, but because they were so swollen that the left one seemed to have actually burst open and halfway given birth to a third ball. I sat there, palpating this monstrous seam, wondering, are even my fingers hallucinating now? You'll be happy to know that after sleeping with a bag of frozen peas tucked between my legs, I woke up with everything restored to its proper size and shape.

My peas got mushy. Co-sponsor my next trip to Franprix.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Paris Day 36 and 37 - feedback purge

If I didn't get my point across in the last posting about feedback on finished work, it wasn't for lack of emphasis. The trickier question is about feedback on unfinished work; it's also a more consequential question, since the first kind of feedback can result in a mood swing, while the second kind can result in a better work of art, or a worse one.

A few years ago, a trusted mentor startled me by declining to read a draft of the novel, describing himself as "more and more of the mind that 'feedback' is an overrated commodity - it's best to trust yourself, and too much listening to what other people think can lead a writer to grow deaf to his/her own intuitions. Stare closely and meticulously at your own writing, over time, and you'll find the way..."

I love the purity of this idea, and I love it especially considering the source, one of the most fearlessly original artists I know. His intuitions are spectacularly strange and beautiful, and they are the kinds of intuitions MFA programs, New York Times book reviews and the publishing industry are designed to crush. He is one of those artists, like Messiaen or Gilbert & George, maybe Bjork though it's hard to see it through her ubiquity, who flawlessly execute a performance of perfect comfort within their own self-crafted skin, and you probably don't get there from here by taking other people's advice on how to make your art.

I've been writing fairly seriously, regularly, with purpose, since I was about 12. I started making the film 20 years later. But I feel like an experienced filmmaker and a novice writer. Part of that is obviously because I've put my first film out into the world, and the novel isn't finished yet, but I felt the confidence gap even before the film had had its first screening. I solicited feedback on the movie-in-progress and disregarded almost all of it. But if someone criticizes a passage in the novel, even one in which I thought I had perfect confidence, my psychic I-beams start to melt. And the steel begins to buckle even before the criticism is uttered, even before it forms in the critic's mind. The moment the work is exposed to the air, all the confidence of these weeks in Paris will vaporize:
During the few seconds that the visitors were silently gazing at the picture Mihailov, too, looked at it with the indifferent eye of a stranger. For those few seconds he was sure in advance that the most profound and equitable of judgements would be pronounced by those very visitors whom he had been so despising a moment ago. He forgot all he had thought about the picture during the three years he had been working on it, forgot all its qualities which he had been so certain of, and saw it with the fresh, indifferent eyes of these strangers, and saw nothing good in it. He saw in the foreground Pilate's irritated face and the serene face of Christ, and in the background the figures of Pilate's retinue and the face of John, watching what was taking place. Each face that, after so much searching, so many blunders and alterations, had grown up within him with its own character, each face that had caused him such torments and such raptures, and all of them so often placed and replaced to make a whole, the shades of colour and tone obtained with such effort - seen now with their eyes struck him as a series of commonplaces repeated over and over again. Even the face of Christ, which he most prized, the centre of the picture, that had sent him wild with joy as it unfolded itself to him, was lost when he glanced at the picture with their eyes. He saw a well-painted (and not so well-painted in places either - he noticed a multitude of defects) repetition of those innumerable Christs of Titian, Raphael, Rubens, with the same soldiers and the same Pilate. It was all hackneyed, poor, stale, and positively badly painted - weak and unequal. They would be justified in saying a few polite things in his presence and then pitying and laughing at him when they were gone.

What gives me equal parts hope and hopelessness is that Tolstoy (translation: Rosemary Edmonds) makes this vain, quasi-delusional nervous wreck of a painter a really good artist, if not a great one, his own avatar in the novel, painting an aesthetically dazzling and psychologically penetrating portrait of Anna Karenina. A sickness (it's called subjectivity) seizes us when we work and when we show our work, a high fever with vivid hallucinations, where nothing is stable, and a passage or figure shifts in and out of originality and quality like a bedpost turning into a shifty little dwarf and then back into wood. Because we are constantly hallucinating, we turn to others for the answer, for some connection, however mediated, to objectivity and critical stability. And those are the most elusive chimeras, but they can't be dismissed because we know that Messiaen is great (even if you don't like him) and that John Grisham is terrible (even if you enjoy him), and before we expose ourselves to the great cosmic streaking escapade of publication, we would like to know roughly where we fall on that spectrum, and more importantly we would like, if it's possible, to claw ourselves a little closer to Messiaen.

And it seems like the way to do that is by getting a little feedback, but the only way is to swear it off.

If I promise not to ask you to read my draft, will you buy me a beer?

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Paris Day 35 - feedback lunch

Today I finally made it over to C.R.O.U.S. and collected my second of three bourse disbursements, after which I consulted my Paris Pratique, found a perfectly direct route to get me back across the river (in Paris, the way in is never the way out) and proceeded to ride my bicycle in a triangular loop describing the lower third of the 6th arrondissement, bringing me, twenty minutes later, exactly where I started at the Port Royal (this kind of thing never happens to me north of the river). That made me twenty minutes late to meet my inauguration buddy Irène at Jours de Fête back up in the 10th.

I have a swell time with Irène. She is patient with my French, which requires
patience in government surplus quantities, but her English is perfect so when push comes to shove I can make myself understood. We also have compatible musical tastes - when I walked into Jours de Fête, they were playing Komeda, the Swedish band I had recommended to her on our last date; she's now their biggest fan in France.

I was late also to our last meal at Jours de Fête, that time because I had to run back over the canal and up to the monastery to get the copy of my DVD I had promised her. Today she announced somewhat breathlessly that she and a friend had just watched the movie and she had so much to say about it.

As it happens, I love talking about
Apparition of the Eternal Church. In fact, I've done little else over the last year and a half and I enjoyed almost every minute of it. The distinction I failed to make in this instance is that whatever talking I was to do about my beloved movie was to follow a period of listening, and with the exception of hearing introductions to the film delivered by people who have just spent considerable sums to screen it at their institutions of art or higher learning, I have had comparatively little experience in the last two years with this kind of listening.

I didn't like it.

I blame myself! I went through this experience, writ larger, after screening the film on Halloween 2006 to my fellow residents at the MacDowell Colony. I was on my way down to the New York premiere at St. Bart's, and I wanted to be ready for anything the New York audience threw at me in Q&A, so I told my MacDowell colleagues to really give me the business after the show. And they did! There were one or two nice comments - Anthony Alofsin said it was the most psychedelic thing he'd seen in twenty years - but for fifteen of the worst minutes of my life as a filmmaker I faced a firing squad of dismissive, often condescending, ringing denunciations of the work. Then I called a friend at home to cry on his shoulder and he said he pretty much agreed with them.

I'm happy to say that the one thing I changed between Halloween and the New York premiere Nov. 9th was not one of the things the firing squad or the friend at home had objected to. The objections concerned one leg of the three that hold the movie up, and after watching everyone kick it and douse it with gasoline and set it on fire, I decided it was
indispensable for reasons both structural and aesthetic and that people who didn't like it could go to hell make their own experimental documentaries.

But more importantly, I made a decision after that scariest of Halloweens to never again solicit - or offer - feedback on finished work. I did the first, central interview for Apparition, with Albert Fuller, in March 2003. The world premiere was in the fall of 2005, and after substantial revisions it screened at half a dozen film festivals in 2006. By Halloween of that year the film was finished! It made no sense for me to start entertaining fundamental objections to the idea or the execution or to any of it. If what I really wanted was for everyone to fawn over the film and pat me on the back on my way to the New York show, then I got what I deserved. But I also learned the lesson, and started to shut down critical conversations about the film the moment they began.

"The idea you had, it's such a good one," said Irène. "But...may I be honest?"

That was my cue, and I missed it. I'm out of practice! It's been well over a year since anyone tried to engage me in this kind of a conversation, and I just forgot what a toxic experience it is for me. It is a truly hopeless and useless situation for the creator of finished work. If you understand the objection and have an answer to it, as I did today, you come off sounding defensive (guilty), thin-skinned (guilty) and unappreciative of your critic's honesty and insight (three strikes!). And what is the other option, silence?

I've had this conversation before. Someone sees Apparition, and what it triggers for them (beyond its nonprofessional sound and picture, which Irène felt compelled to mention) is what is missing. In Irène's case, this was a section getting away from everyone's subjective experience of the music and telling us with more authority and analytical precision what the music is and how it works and why it's important and when Messiaen wrote it and who he was, etc. In other words, educational television.

I am not knocking educational television. I love educational television! The idea of sitting in a room with Ken Burns's Jazz or Ric Burns's New York for a long weekend and doing nothing but eating and sleeping and watching educational television - it's Puerto Vallara,
Vegas and Valhalla all rolled into one. But what am I supposed to say to someone who watches Apparition of the Eternal Church and wishes it were PBS?

Today's feedback lunch reminded me of a well intentioned and lengthy email I got from a film industry professional in LA back in 2005, before the movie was finished but well after I had already decided that I was not making educational television. Here are some representative excerpts:
We are seeing a lot of faces here. When you watch a documentary (which is what this is. You are essentially documenting people's reaction to this piece.) they often tell you about who is speaking when they first appear.

I might do something like: After Albert appears for the first time and puts on the headphones and the first notes hit him. cut (don't fade, fade implies a transition between time or location) so CUT to black with this card.

Text: Albert Fuller has taught music at Jilliard (or some other idea of who he is) Classically trained. blah blah blah.

cut back to Albert listening and talking - What is this?

cut back to black cardtext: Albert is the first person to perform this piece in the US... 30 years ago. He has not played it since.


The black guy the appears frequently. Who is he. Why are did you pick him. What sort of appreciation of music does he have?

The drag queen card might say. So and So has been doing Drag for 12 years professionally. Her favorite artists are Moby and Cher.


In addition: You might find some stills of the original church organ this was performed on. Or Stained glass from the cathedral that the son was talking about having his father take him into. Give us some visuals when you can. I enjoyed watching the talking faces. But after about 15 minutes, a break to some other visual would be engaging. You might also try going to cathedrals in SF and just standing in the middle/back and panning your camera up.
Let me cut to something
less depressing. On Day 9 here I found a scrap of paper on which I had written the holy words of Paul Chan, quoted in The New Yorker:
I realized that what I had to do was impoverish the image. I had to give up all the things that I thought were my strengths – the vibrant color, the brutal clarity of line…the sort of depth I got by almost putting the foreground and the background together. If you’re willing to impoverish, you can go on to something else.

Can you free it from what it is, to become what it can be?

My mind was cleared for something else to happen, which I think is what art does. If you do it right, that’s what happens.
I'm mixing up three different issues now - one is the uselessness, to the artist, of criticizing finished work. Another is objecting to experiments because they don't - which they don't by definition - conform to clichés (introductions, stained glass). A third, related idea is of impoverishing the work of what comes immediately, most easily (experts, explanation, authority) in order to make room for the phantasmagoria, the riot, Squeaky Blonde. Nobody understood this better than Messiaen.

I have become long-winded and cranky on top of being constitutionally defensive and thin-skinned. And I still have plates and platters left to serve about feedback! But I'm not going to call this "feedback lunch Part I" - I'll just save the rest of it for "feedback dinner" or, possibly worse, "feedback cocktails." Today Irène explained why my Paris hangovers are so brutal - it's all the tannins in these cheap ass French table wines.

A blog is never finished, so your feedback is always welcome. So are your tax-deductible contributions.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Paris - Day 34 - caption catch-up

Email showed up from monastery admin a couple of days ago warning us to have our windows shut during the upcoming storm. I never look at a weather report - I like being surprised. So instead, I was surprised by the email, and excited; not every storm merits a warning. This one was OK - mostly wind, a fair amount of rain, some hail. It seemed to have passed yesterday at half past noon when I got on my bike to head for C.R.O.U.S. for my second stipend disbursement, but it had not, and I wasn't to the river before I was couldn't ride anymore, mostly because of how hard I was laughing at how miserable I was. So I bailed on C.R.O.U.S., locked up my bike in the Beaubourg, and headed to l'Imprevu, which was closed as usual, and then to the Café Beaubourg, where I got the daytime version of the Pompidou Center seen through electric-lit plastic weather sheeting -

Sunday was a work day but I got out of the monastery in the afternoon for a bike ride and a couple of hours of writing in a cafe out in the 20th, five or six blocks northeast of Père Lachaise. Cute, neighborhoody, with one or two pretty new buildings:

I got there via the long hill up Menilmontant -

and found a few other murals along the way -

When I got home I heard a big ruckus outside and saw hundreds, maybe a thousand people rollerskating down Rue du Faubourg-St. Martin, a good five-minute-long procession, followed by a police escort -

Saturday, my day off, I went to the movies, hoping to catch up with Marc/Matt but our text exchange flickered out. I saw the film I had become very excited about after running into my colleague here, a Chinese woman, also a filmmaker-slash-novelist, who invited me to join her to see the new David Lynch movie, Benjamin Button. And I believed her! "What," James said, "have you been living in a monastery?" I almost want to recommend going into the film under the same misapprehension, although ultimately the chasm between David Lynch and David Fincher does not flatter the film. Still, I liked it and cried twice, first when the dog was led away from his master's funeral, and then at the end, like a baby.

On my walk home I took pictures, this one with virtually no light:

- and this one of the ubiquitous Smart Car, times two:

Last week San Francisco expat Joel had me to dinner and the two of us spent hours drinking wine and yammering on about life here -

This is Joel's view of the Marais, right smack in the middle of the Jewish section:

And these, my favorite mannequins in Paris, some of them starting to put on a few threads as sale season winds down and spring approaches:

Today the idea was to make another attempt on C.R.O.U.S., but in the second week of the month it is closed the third day of the week (perhaps you've heard about the French bureaucracy, about which I have less right than anyone on earth to complain, because it is both feeding and housing me). I worked in the studio all day, which reminds me that my week away from the blog saw an important milestone - I finished Part 2 (of 4) of the third draft! This is both more and less than it sounds - less because I came here with most of the Part 2 third draft already written, more because it includes some now promising scenes that had completely stymied me in prior drafts, and because the first month of work included all that outlining and organization and synthesis. So writing through to the end of Part 2 was little more than a week's work. Now I'm on to Part 3, and it's coming out fairly fluently but perhaps too much so; 7200 words in, I'm just clearing my throat. It beats writer's block.

After an instructive but otherwise unsuccessful shoot for La Création du Monde, I left the studio for a ride down to the little cafe in the Tuileries, but their espresso machine was broken so I went up to the Café Marly in the Louvre. It's a little bit hard for me to believe they let me sit in that room for 90 minutes for the price of an espresso.

I write for love, but I also sing for my supper.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Paris Days 29 - 33 - bounce

When it comes to obscenity, I alternate unpredictably between prudishness and Tourette's, and so I have spent about half the time since posting the last entry embarrassed about the title ("fuck la crise"). I was also embarrassed to miss three postings in a row. That turned into five thanks to an incident that gave me new reason to regret "fuck la crise" - life has issued a little warning that the reverse is much more likely to be true.

My laptop is dying. It's a four and a half year old PowerBook that I have handled as though it were made out of spun sugar - not once did I bring it to a cafe, leave it in a hot car, feed it crumbs, or submerge it in bathwater. It's 25 percent past its life expectancy making it, in human years, something like 103. It is exhibiting symptoms consistent with extreme senility - dementia, irritability, a tendency to wander, inability to form new memories, and a kind of twilight zone between sleeping and waking that has manifested itself in the sleep light always being on, for example right now as I type this blog entry into it. This thing with the light was the result of a progressive deterioration, which began with an intermittent but very bright flickering that gathered in intensity and duration, and as anyone who has suffered through Afterwards well knows, that is nothing less than Death flashing his brights and telling you the time is nigh.

Though on some level I understand my existence as a writer to be predicated on others' enjoyment of my suffering, it seems like the height of bad taste for me to dwell on what this death watch has been like for me. Who wants to hear about other people's technology problems? I seriously think the rate of suicide from boredom must have doubled among bartenders after PCs became commonplace. Suffice it to say that I no longer need the ghosts of this old monastery/hospice/military hospital to wake me up, my heart racing, at two in the morning.

The frustrating thing is that I feel like I'm so close to being able to pull this off. Juliette once put it this way after I had a big memory slip near the end of a 110-minute recital: "You go on a long trip, you're on the road a month, then you're on your way back and two blocks from home you have a wreck." The trick to this whole three-and-a-half-year self-employed filmmaker/writer/violinist journey of mine is that it was always a viable path as long as nothing expensive happened. For the 18 recent and interminable hours in which my laptop would not respond to electricity, tears or threats, I glimpsed the end of the road, and it was a tall and very hard wall.

"About la crise," one of you wrote in last week. "Don't obsess (unless it's exciting): you're smart; you're sexy; more important you know how to

I like this thought, especially that last part. I want it to be true. To make it true I need to ask your help. In order to deal with my technology meltdown, to make it through this next, hopefully last stretch before the book is finished and put up for sale, and to get me through to May when I can embark on some institutional fundraising for my video projects, I'm passing the hat among readers of this blog.

If this blog has given you any pleasure, provided any insight, or distracted you from something unpleasant you really should have been doing, like work, please consider making a donation. Any donation - $5, $10, it doesn't matter - will earn my profound gratitude (writers are always shocked to be paid).

I'm also offering these tokens of my gratitude for more substantial support:
Giving is easy - for gifts of less than $35 (or if you don't want the tax letter), you can use PayPal to or send a check, made out to me, to 3482 22nd Street, Apt. B, San Francisco, CA 94110.

For gifts of $35 and more, ODC Theater - where I have a three-year residency - is acting as my fiscal sponsor and can provide you with a receipt for tax purposes. Please send a check
made out to ODC Theater to the following address:

Director, ODC Theater
Shotwell Street
San Francisco, CA
94110 - re: Paul Festa

Please include a note indicating that the donation is toward my residency. Please also send me email letting me know that you have donated so that I can make sure you get your receipt and gifts.

If you can't give right now, I understand. Believe me I understand. I hope you keep reading.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Paris Day 28 - fuck la crise

I spent much of Thursday worrying about money. First I realized, at five after one, that C.R.O.U.S. closes at one so I can't collect the month's stipend until the middle of next week. I worried about this senselessly for five minutes before reminding myself that my bank card works in Paris and there is still some money, however little, left in my account. Then I worried about how little there is, how little time remains for me to finish this novel, how little the chance of selling it, of making a living as an artist, of making a living as anything else, thanks to la crise, and so I worried about la crise, on and off throughout the day, despite the fact that it was a day in Paris, the second in a month that started off with a rainbow (above) and the sun went down with this sunset as seen here near the Hôtel de Ville -

And that's how the day went, alternating beauty and la crise, including possibly the best contribution yet to La Création du Monde, and a really nice talk on Skype with James and the doggy -

- and a kick-ass writing session at the Café Beaubourg, where I think I got my money's worth out of an eight-dollar cafe au lait and also this vision of the Pompidou Center -

- as seen through plastic patio sheeting. Two strange episodes in the day briefly took my mind off la crise - the first, while I was shooting Création video, a serious fight that broke out on the corner of the Rue Faubourg St. Martin and Rue des Récollets, kids, teenagers, two of them really going at each other for five or ten minutes before the cops came in their wailing van, which blocked Rue des Récollets while the cops jumped out of the vehicle and the kids and their spectators scattered, all of which provided the end of my Création scene with a perfectly timed siren. And the second, also requiring emergency services, after leaving the Cafe Beaubourg I walked toward psychotic shouting, and found two rather presentable looking young Frenchmen, a man and a woman, fussing over a guy, my age, who was railing and hollering and doubling over, possibly speaking in tongues but most of it was more inarticulate than that, just animal growls and hollering, and I couldn't stop watching this because it bore such a close resemblance to a scene from one of my more spectacular monastery nightmares, the one in which I had descended into hell but it was just a busy street in Paris populated by throngs of guys just like this one raving and clawing at me, making me one of them. As the EMTs restrained him and loaded him into the van I thought about the guy I flew over with, part of the way, escorted off the plane by his armpits.

Still, despite Paris, rainbow and sunset, accomplishment and violence, la crise came back, tinnitus returning with silence. Still I asked, what am I doing? What happens after this? Who do I think I'm kidding? Who will read or buy? What will we eat? Should I sell the violin? What will become of us? Paris answered: