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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.




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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 Récollets.

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