11.15.03 San Francisco thoughts
I am back in San Francisco, at a fancy downtown hotel
-- the Renaissance
Parc 55. Jim is getting a
lifetime achievement award from the Gerontology Section of the American
Public Health Association, a wonderful honor for him.
Our hotel is pretend glitzy. High prices, but not even a mini-bar in the
room and a charge of $10/day for high-speed internet access. Hmmph.
We were out here in October for the United Nations Film Festival and
stayed down at Stanford, where the Stanford Terrace Inn spoiled me with
its complementary Internet access -- I figured every hotel in the region
must be so enlightened.
Oh well... that means I should use my little computer not for surfing
the web and pretending it's productive but for creative work.
I dreamed last night that my literary agent called to say she'd given my
novel a second thought and want to try once more to get it published.
That darn novel! It consumed so much of my life. I
believe it really is worth getting published somehow. The venue --
Pakistan and the Muslim parts of China -- is so relevant now. Maybe if I
convert the smuggled Chinese art treasures to Iraqi art treasures...
maybe it's worth self-publishing to get it behind me.
I can't complain, though. That novel and its predecessors made
me learn a lot about writing, developing characters, and structuring
scenes. Learning is never lost.
My 2-minute movie, The Valentine 1955, was chosen for screening at the
United Nations Association Film Festival, Oct 21-25. It was such a
thrill to be chosen that Maria and I decided to make a junket of it,
bringing Jim and her buddy Scott along with us.
Upon arrival, the first thrill was simply to be accepted as a
"filmmaker" -- the big red badge. Almost immediately, the festival
publicist introduced me to a producer from San Jose public television,
who made arrangements to meet us on Sunday to be interviewed for their
program "Video i."
I have to be truthful and say that I've never actually attended a film
festival, even though it always sounded like a cool thing to do. The UNAFF, with its theme of
"Universal Respect" was a documentary festival
and many of the filmmakers attended. Once I began to hear these
filmmakers speak and, of course, saw their products, I was humbled to be
in their company.
For The Valentine 1955, I sat in my room, wrote the memoir, recorded it,
then developed some animations and a little music to go along with it. I
thought the process was an exercise in agony: creating 3500 frames of
story out of nothing but a memory and a group portrait of my First
Communion class. How heroic.
Then I started hearing from my fellow UNAFF artists -- documentarians,
all of them. In contrast to me, they were people who aggressively took
on the world to get their story. One team went to Niger to film men as
they returned slaves to families; another filmed child labor being
practiced in seven nations; and another interviewed all the factions in
the Colombian drug trade. They followed lives with no idea where these
lives would take them: 4 women in a special NY prison program that had
allowed them to keep their babies; a young Guatemalan woman in search of
her family, which had been broken up by civil war; a man who was trying
to make reparations for the damage of agent orange in Vietnam.
Few of the projects had any decent financial backing -- getting the
money to keep the project going was always part of the story.
I wonder about the courage and the obsession it takes to complete
such films. It takes a certain amount of obsession to write a novel
and a certain amount of belief in your story and your ability to tell
that story. But to take a team of people with you into harm's way,
inserting yourselves into other people's lives, begging for funding
along the way. Gosh.
This train of thought makes me think about my work -- not my seedling
filmmaker work, but the agency work I still collect a salary for. Over
the years I've been involved in projects that are risky and
revolutionary -- trying to buck the way New York State pays for services
for troubled youth, trying to change the way social workers deal with
families of these same youth. Passion can turn into bitter rage and
futile tantrums. Obsession is not always single-minded -- it grows
tentacles that push out in a dozen new directions. Good intentions
become clouded and corrupt. Wonderful, high profile projects melt into
irrelevance and there is little to show for all the investment.
Okay, okay. Changing systems is not the same as making a movie about
people trying to change systems. Maybe making documentaries would
actually be easier than making social change.
So why does it scare me? Why do I think it would take courage I don't
have? Maybe because it feels so public, so exposed, so lacking in the
kind of institutional sponsorship that allows process and effort to
substitute for outcomes. In the film business, you either finish it or
you fail. If you finish it, you have a nice product to show. Look what I
did. It can't be reversed. Like a high school diploma, it can't be taken
away, even if all the critics and all the audience members hate it. If
you don't finish the film, you are not only a failure, you aren't even
The above is all bullshit.