Hot Shot: The director says he met performance artist Shanti stark naked on the set of a John Cameron Mitchell film.
Paul Festa's explores the lines between music, religion, torment and ecstasy in the Santa Cruz Film Festival's 'Apparition of the Eternal Church'
By Bill Forman
Paul Festa is no Ken Burns. Nor, one suspects, would he want to be. His Apparition of the Eternal Church, which will be Sunday night's feature screening at the Santa Cruz Film Festival, more than lives up to its billing as an experimental documentary. The San Francisco writer/musician/filmmaker's subjects include one woman with flaming antlers, two drag queens, a half-dozen professors and countless actors, musicians and artists--all of whom are individually subjected to a single piece of music, Olivier Messiaen's 1931 Apparition de L'église Eternelle.
As the eerily religious, insanely bombastic organ work leaks out of their headphones, they react in real time: laughing, cringing and wildly gesticulating while describing the no less extreme images, feelings and memories the music conjures up for them. Only during the closing credits does Festa reveal the identities of his motley crew, from Daniel Handler, who writes as Lemony Snicket and has known Festa since junior high school, to Harold Bloom, whose book The Western Canon touched off academic culture wars in the '90s.
And as the list goes on--Scissor Sisters singer Ana Matronic, standup comedian Marga Gomez, playwright Eisa Davis--it also becomes somewhat incestuous: Festa met Shanti, the performance artist with the headphone-melting flaming antlers, a year ago while both were stark naked on the set of a film by Hedwig & the Angry Inch co-creator John Cameron Mitchell, who's also in Festa's film. Virtually all the subjects have some personal connection to Festa, including his Juilliard prof Albert Fuller, a musical heavyweight whose onscreen revelations are among the most revealing.
In the following interview, Festa recounts the motivations behind Apparition, contemplates the connection between joy and torment, and holds forth on the state of filmmaking today.
Metro Santa Cruz: What was your own reaction when you first heard Messiaen?
Paul Festa: Usually I don't react very strongly to music on the first hearing--it takes multiple hearings for a piece to get under my skin. But the first time I heard Apparition of the Eternal Church, I nearly jumped out of my skin. It was such a visceral reaction--like so many of the people in the movie I felt it in my body. And hearing it in a cathedral (which I never have) you would probably attribute that at least in part to the massiveness of the organ itself and the physicality of the sound of the instrument. But it works without that. It's the music itself, not the machinery. And I felt as though the piece were compelling me up a vast stairway to heaven at the top of which was this blinding vision of white light. I found the descent--fully half of the piece--to be hugely disappointing and depressing. I still do.
Were you raised Catholic, or do you have any similar fire and damnation baggage that you've contended with?
I was raised a secular Jewish half-breed, celebrating commercial Christmas and Chanukah like everyone else, and I remain an agnostic or atheist, depending on the day. So whatever hellfire and brimstone baggage I have--and it's probably not negligible, considering the power of the church in our culture--is indirectly acquired. But the odd thing is that I didn't connect that at all with the piece when I first encountered it. I was surprised that so many people had that response. For me, the ecstasy of that great, endless C major chord at the apex of the piece was achieved with difficulty, but I didn't experience the ascent or the apex as fire and brimstone.
One of my first thoughts about the piece was that it was Messiaen's answer to Also Sprach Zarathustra, the Richard Strauss tone poem that was so hugely influential after its premiere in 1899, because the introduction to that piece lands on the same C major chord on the organ, which we're all familiar with from Kubrick's use of it in 2001. I thought this was Messiaen reclaiming the C major chord for the church from Nietzsche and Strauss, an idea that remains vestigially in the movie with the quote from Also Sprach.
How did you set about choosing who to include in the film? Were some folks already friends and was there a viral component where word just kinda got around?
I started off just interviewing my friends and former teachers, and pretty much kept to that through the process. I've interviewed more than 100 people so far. I've included how I know people in their biographical sketches on the website. Only two people, I think, were friends of friends whom I met for the first time doing the interview--Ricky Ian Gordon and Rabbi Buchdahl.
So what did you set out to discover in doing this?
The Revolution May Be Televised: Festa shot 'Apparition' on digital video and edited it in Final Cut Pro, technologies he describes as 'blood running in the streets revolutionary.'
The first question I had when I heard the piece was how Albert Fuller would react to it. Albert was my chamber music coach at Juilliard, where I was a violin student in the early '90s. And after coachings he would invite me and my piano trio to the bar of his studio--a vast duplex studio on the West Side where they filmed All That Jazz and where Albert has hosted a concert series for the last 25 years--and he would pour us drinks and pass around a joint and we would listen to music and talk about the music. So in a sense this movie is just an extension of that ongoing musical symposium that Albert created around his bar.
I had no idea that Albert had played the piece as a young man--I knew about Albert's organ background, but thought of him almost exclusively as a harpsichordist, and as one of the driving forces in this country behind the original instrument and period style movements (playing Bach on the harpsichord instead of the organ, playing with gut instead of steel strings on the violin and with limited use of vibrato, etc.). When I imagined Albert's organ career, which was practically never, I pictured him playing Bach on some church organ and was shocked to learn he'd ever played a note of Messiaen. So that was one of the nice surprises in making the movie.
As I began to do more interviews, the question became, more broadly, about how people listen to music and about how music works. How successfully could time-bound music express the eternal? How could a series of mathematical equations evoke God, or a staircase, or a church? Obviously some of it is through association--we've heard the organ in a church, so we associate it with Christian theology. But other associations are less obvious, and even those theological associations are tangled up in bizarre contradictions, mostly having to do with the confusion between heaven and hell, and torture and ecstasy, that are so manifestly at the heart of the faith.
Regarding Albert Fuller's revelation at the end about his 'deflowering,' where exactly did he say that happened? And were you at all surprised that someone with such a high profile would be so forthright in such a public forum?
The blow job happened in a swell box, the part of the organ where pipes are enclosed so the organist can muffle them and create crescendos and decrescendos. And no, I wasn't the least bit surprised Albert came out with that story, which I think he included in his memoir about his friendship with the great music benefactor Alice Tully [Alice Tully: An Intimate Portrait] in the context of explaining to Alice why loud music in a disco had such powerful erotic associations for him.
What were the most surprising or revealing things that people told you?
First of all, I was surprised how many people hated the music. I've included clips from several of those interviews, not just because it's fun to watch people like Harold Bloom and John Cameron Mitchell with sharp senses of humor squirm, but because the theme of torture became so crucial to the movie. Out of the 110 interviews I did total, there was a far greater proportion of negative responses than what I ultimately included. A surprising number of those responses came from sophisticated classical musicians, some of whom write really challenging music of their own. But the interesting part of the movie, to me, is the negative or defensive response that breaks down and breaks through to a genuine emotional response. The heart of the movie is those transformations--those conversions, you could say--in the responses of Albert Fuller, Eisa Davis and to a certain degree Sandi Dubowski.
Another surprising thing to me was the degree to which sex became a dominant theme. I actually found that shocking. Sex was the furthest thing from my mind when I heard this piece.
Is that the same Harold Bloom who wrote 'The Closing of the American Mind' and got all that controversy going about the Western canon? It sounded like when you told him it was Messiaen, he said, 'Oh, that nudnik'--did I hear right?
Allan Bloom wrote The Closing of the American Mind. Harold Bloom wrote (among many other books) The Western Canon, which generated some controversy. And yes, he called Messiaen a nudnik.
What were your favorite juxtapositions?
The single most important juxtaposition, the moment that tries to get at the heart of this perplexing intersection between suffering and ecstasy in the Christian faith, is the listing of the martyrs over the nearly orgasmic response of Eisa Davis at the apex of the piece. And you only have to pick up a newspaper to see how that intersection isn't just a Christian one. The passion for violence generated by religious feeling remains a mystery to me as a secular person, and I suppose that's why I continue to find it so compelling to watch the expressions on the faces of these people who hear the fire and brimstone and are so sent by it.
And more generally, what were your inspirations as an experimental documentary' maker?
I'm not sure how much I identify as an experimental documentarist. I have another documentary I've made recently, about the San Francisco journalist George Dusheck, which is a pretty conventional movie, and another one I'd like to make which is a bit more unconventional and will borrow from the music video genre. But I've been more of a writer than filmmaker over the last several years (this is my first movie) and I'm most of the way through a second draft of a novel about a medical marijuana farm in Mendocino County.
And how do you feel about the use of film as a creative medium these days in general?
I feel great about it. I'm completely baffled by all the "death of film" talk. I go to see movies very selectively, so I'm deliberately looking at a skewed sample, but I've been really impressed with so many things I've seen lately, even the big Hollywood pictures. And if by "film" you mean to include video, I'm even more optimistic. The fact that people like me can make a movie on consumer-grade equipment and software is really revolutionary--blood running in the streets revolutionary, as far as the art form is concerned. And then there are the video artists like Bill Viola and Pipilotti Rist, who are doing something radically different but so exciting and inventive and pleasure-giving.
There seems to be a parallel between the subjects' not knowing initially what the music was and the viewers not knowing the identity of the subjects until the end. Was that intentional? What was the reason for identifying them at the very end, which is the opposite of what documentaries traditionally do (the film 'What the Bleep Do We Know!?' notwithstanding).
I didn't want people to focus on the identities and credentials of the people in the movie. It seemed like a distraction. I actually wasn't conscious of creating that parallel but it's certainly there and thanks for pointing it out. Mostly I just wanted people to feel like they were eavesdropping on this intimate conversation, and presenting some kind of a formal introduction would intrude on that feeling. I suppose my model for this is Richard Linklater's movie about lucid dreaming, Waking Life, where introducing professor So and So or novelist X during their contributions would have completely violated the dream state.
You also hold off on letting people hear the work itself, except for headphone leakage, until the very end, when you play it over those Jose Saramago quotations. What was that about?
I had a lot of difficulty deciding how, or even if, to play the music for the audience. I knew I was taking a huge risk by not playing it until the end. My filmmaker friends thought that was a terrible idea, because they feared it would wreck the sense of intimacy I spoke about before in the context of introductions. But how do you solve the problem? Do you play the music while people are talking? Yuck. Dice it up and alternate it with comments? Sacrilege. I tried the movie without music at all, but that was a big let-down. And I tried playing the music over a black screen, and that failed too. So then I discovered the Saramago novel, and that passage listing the martyrs and the way they died seemed like the perfect partner, expressing both the pathos and horror of so much death and suffering while retaining the crucial distance of skepticism.
It's so important for me, as a filmmaker, to preserve that skepticism while allowing the pathos and the sublimity of the music to reach the heart. Messiaen complained of four "tragedies" or "dramas" in his life--that he wrote bird music for city dwellers, who never heard a bird sing in their lives; that he had elaborated a profound technique of rhythm, which people confused with jazz, which he hated; that he had this powerful synaesthetic sense that turned every chord into a distinct color, which nobody but he could see; and that he was a religious composer writing, for the most part, for nonbelievers. This movie is about Messiaen's last tragedy: What do the nonbelievers see when they hear his music? I would hope that if Messiaen could see this movie, he wouldn't consider it such a tragedy after all.
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