This I Believe

mark - brooklyn, New York
Entered on January 21, 2008

Who is asking?

A few months ago I attended a dinner put on by my daughter’s private school in Park Slope. Intended to build community, these events are meant to get parents together, chatting over wine and food. This night was hosted by some parents I barely knew: we were to have dinner at their house and then dessert at a bar near the school. At best these are awkward affairs, at worst they’re unsettling. Still I go because as my daughter gets older (she’s 13 now) I have little contact with the school and I’m left to peer in from the outside at her world.

In fairness, I have had interesting conversations at these events in the past, too. All in all it’s a good way to contemplate that strange mix of connection and alienation one feels when brushing up against members of that huge subset of humanity who are parents. I remember feeling that way at a birthing class eons ago, looking out over the sea of expectant fathers thinking “I have nothing in common with these men except for the most basic choice: procreation.”

The evening started out well enough with wine and Filipino food. People flitted in and out of conversations, making geographical connections (“Oh really, my sister’s country house is right NEAR there!”) and comparing notes on teachers (“I just don’t understand why the quizzes count almost as much as the tests!”).

As the evening progressed, the wine flowed and people deflected attention and modestly introduced their working lives. (“It’s a small practice, really.” “I just punch numbers all day long.”) As we finished our plates and glasses I noticed people looking at watches and wondering when they could leave.

Emily, a pretty woman who’d seemed particularly intent on us knowing where she rented a country house turned to me and broke the silence.

“You say you’re a filmmaker, are you actually working on some sort of film?”

“I’m filming a series of portraits of cities around the world. Urban sketches, really, just about observing street life in these locales.” I replied.

Attention turned towards me in a way that it never had on the stockbrokers.

“What cities?” “How large of a crew do you use?” “How long is the film?”

All fair and engaged questions from the group and I was happy to answer as best I could as I felt a twinge of performance anxiety in the social spotlight.

As Emily let others ask their questions I noticed her squirming in her chair, barely contained irritation bubbling to the surface. Finally she could hold back no longer.

“I just don’t get it, Mark. Who’s asking you to make this film? Is anyone paying for it?”

I was momentarily stunned by the snarkiness of her question, and just let the moment sink in. I make experimental documentary films, and the idea of waiting for institutional support has always been anathema to me. I try to make films “out of necessity” as the late Stan Brakhage wrote, who also decried the goal of professionalism, noting that the word amateur connotes the LOVE of something rather than a hope of financial rewards.

I never expect to make money on my films, and never wait to be asked to make them. You wouldn’t ask a poet or painter about his financial backing, and probably not a novelist. But for most people filmmaking finds itself more squarely in the province of capitalist production. In the industry there are money people and craftspeople and paid artists and producers and workers. And then out on the periphery there are people like me who try to do it all, albeit on a very minor, ragtag scale. It’s hard to communicate this ethos of self-sufficiency at a parents party, but I trust in it.

The evening ended without my having to address her question, and people gathered their coats, thanked our hosts and put forth the dubious proposition that we’d all have something to talk about the next time we saw each other on the street.

On the way home my wife Lynne and I reconstructed the evening. As usual, she tried to paint as rosy a picture of my antagonist as she could.

“Maybe she just didn’t know much about how films are made in the digital age. Or she didn’t understand the concept of personal, fine art filmmaking” she said. After a few moments even she had to admit that Emily’s question was aggressive.

The question points to a gulf in ideologies that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. Do you need societal backing to do what you want to do, or can you shrink the scale and create on your own terms? Do you need a financial directive, or (in my case) can you shoot something for several hundred dollars and find it pleasing and communicative? Do you jump in and create, or wait for support and infrastructure? In a way I think it’s as much about how we see the world as it is about money. Are you answering a command with your artwork, or are you howling at the moon almost despite yourself? For better or worse, as unimpressive as it is at dinner parties, I’m firmly in the latter category. I wish I could have garnered Emily’s respect that night, but I’m happy where I am.