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Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Paris Day 27 - badness part 1

I've been preoccupied for the last several days with the idea of badness, and so much of my own work and that of others I've encountered recently has been relevant to this theme that what I have to say won't fit into a single diary entry. Hence the title, which has an especially nice ring to it on my Facebook status (Paul Festa is badness part 1).

I had reason to think about badness on Monday, the day I woke up to snow and spent the rainy afternoon working at Au Train de Vie. There I was, sitting in this warm, perfectly comfortable French brasserie, periodically putting down sentences in the novel and otherwise watching waves of commuters make their way through the rain to and from the station. I was enjoying everything about this experience, especially my bouncy upholstered train car seat and even the challenge of the work, and most pertinently the mere fact that I was doing my work here, in Paris, in the Jerusalem of my creative spirit. Right in the middle of one of these self-satisified space-outs, the song changed on the radio and Frankie Goes to Hollywood began singing Relax.

I remember liking this song when I was fifteen years old. It was dirty, which was good in and of itself, but it was also the gayest thing I had ever heard through the mass media, and this seemed like progress. So I've always had a soft spot in my heart for Relax, but the soft spot had gone all rotten on Monday because all I could hear, listening to this song in the city of Maurice Ravel, Francis Poulenc, Olivier Messiaen and Jacques Brel, for that matter, was its howling badness, the sex joke stripped of its humor and its shock value by a quarter century of repetition, the violence
(when you wanna sucka to it) done to language, the ferocious banality of the music itself and the sound effects and the whole, awful, depressing package forced down our collective global cultural throat for - I repeat - a quarter of a century.

So, much like when anyone tells you to relax, the song had the opposite effect on me and I became agitated thinking about badness, primarily about the tragedy of our species' cultural future being determined by a free market whose most heavily weighted decision-making shares are controlled by American thirteen-year-old gay boys and their girlfriends. In what other realm of global consequence would we be so careless in entrusting authority, except perhaps the world's most powerful military over the last eight years? Yes, the song in question is English but somehow I just know that it is the fault of my motherland that I was subjected to it in a brasserie overlooking the train tracks to the Gare de l'Est, and while I've always known that American cultural imperialism was an irrefutable fact of life and lamented it, on Monday I understood that it was a tragedy, and I became angry about it, and because there's nothing I can do to influence what gets played on the radio I became deeply concerned, or more deeply concerned than usual, about the moral consequences of my own badness.

So much of what I do is bad. Remember how I said I would read through the diary Feb. 1, beginning to end? Never did it - I'm too afraid of all the badness that's nested in these daily dispatches, starved as they are for revision and that cardinal labor of composition, excision. Those rejection letters I could make residential high-rises out of? Most of them, obviously, were the consequence of how many artistic deaf-mutes sit on selection and admissions committees, but several of them certainly the result of my own badness. And then there are the several hundred thousand words that I have written into this novel and then deleted - novels worth of badness, thrown onto the compost heap to rot with all the novels before this one that I've abandoned, and with that part of my heart that could once listen to Frankie Goes to Hollywood without mourning the death of culture or France or the human spirit.

I wrote before how the work I'm doing now, the actual writing, is excruciatingly difficult but the time flies beneath it - a three-hour morning vanishes like a small fraction of the time. The labored extraction of these sentences from my brain - maybe it's like brain surgery. These teams of surgeons are bent over the patient for six, seven, twelve hours, and when it's through, have those hours passed as they would had the surgeons been on a Stairmaster or reading press releases in a cubicle? However else the work is painful, I am not bored, I am hypnotized by the spectacle of this novel unspooling, not unlike the way Matt couldn't bear to take his eyes off Afterward despite well-founded fears that its badness would continue unrelieved all the way through to the end.

What if the novel is just as bad as that movie, or, to tease the imagination to outer limits, what if it is actually in some ways worse? I value the experience of bad art, not because I enjoy chortling over someone else's mediocrity - I really don't - but because it is so instructive. I once read a John Grisham novel and it was a dismal exercise to get through and one of the most valuable in my self-education as a writer, because after 350 pages of having him bash me over the head with an idea before making an incision in my arm and pumping it into my bloodstream and then burying me in a coffin stuffed full of the idea with a subterranean sound system blaring it for all eternity before he repeated it one more time, just in case I missed it - after 350 pages of this literary bludgeoning I became significantly more sensitive to my own capacity to do exactly the same thing.

It is so close to us, the badness we make, that we cannot see it without a radical perspectival shift, or a hideous reflection glimpsed in someone else's work. The other day, seeing grotesquely bad things in Afterwards, I became convinced my novel was bad in many of the same ways - even now, after editing it mindful of the lesson gleaned at such cost from Grisham and his irredeemable badness. This is why I wanted to flee the theater - the idea that I would inflict such pain on a reader as this film was inflicting on me was almost more than I could entertain outside of a padded cell. I resolved, if nothing else, to be bad in a different way. The bludgeon I use on my reader, I resolved, will be pink, with green fleurs de lys imprinted on it, glitter-glued, LED lights flashing up and down the handle. Don't you get it? The bludgeon is the subject. (Note to Corporate - shave some zeros off his advance). Here - look at the notebook I'm writing this in:

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Paul Festa’s first film, Apparition of the Eternal Church (2006, 51 min), captures the responses of 31 artists to the apocalyptic music of Olivier Messiaen (with Justin Bond, John Cameron Mitchell, Harold Bloom; screenings: Grace Cathedral, Barbican Centre, Library of Congress; “Remarkable”The New Yorker; “Stunning”Chicago Sun-Times; “Sublime”Globe & Mail; numerous awards). Festa performs the Tchaikovsky violin concerto, opposite members of the San Francisco Ballet and The Cockettes, in his award-winning second film, The Glitter Emergency (2010, 20 min), a silent-film drag ballet comedy (“Enormous visual and musical inventiveness…full of pleasure and joy...Festa gives a bravura performance."—Film Threat). He produced, wrote and edited, with director Austin Forbord, and was chief archivist, for the Emmy-nominated documentary Stage Left: A Story of Theater in San Francisco (2010, 80 min: with Robin Williams, Bill Irwin, Peter Coyote; screenings: Geary Theater, KQED; “Intriguing...entertaining...a valuable record”—Variety). Performances as violinist and actor: ODC Theater, Center for Performance Research, Kunst-Stoff, TheatreFIRST, North Bay Shakespeare, Albert Fuller's Helicon Ensemble (Merkin Hall, Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall, Alice Tully Hall). US, Boston, NYC, SF, LA and DC (Coolidge Auditorium at the Library of Congress on the “Betts” Stradivarius) premieres of Messiaen’s Fantaisie for violin and piano. He is the author of OH MY GOD: Messiaen in the Ear of the Unbeliever, based on Apparition of the Eternal Church, and several anthologized essays, and has written for The Daily Beast, Salon, Nerve, and The New York Times Book Review. Current projects include a novel and Tie It Into My Hand (2014, ca. 80 min), a documentary feature that has screened as a work in progress at the Cannes film market and at ODC Theater in San Francisco (with Alan Cumming, Gary Graffman, Peter Coyote, Mink Stole, Robert Pinsky; "A fascinating exploration of the artistic life, as rollickingly entertaining as it is insightful and stirring."San Francisco Bay Guardian). Education: Yale (B.A.; prizes, honors, distinction), Juilliard (Cert., Adv. Cert., scholarships). Residencies: Yaddo, MacDowell, ODC Theater, Centre des R├ęcollets.

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