In a way, his first film, the experimental documentary Apparition of the Eternal Church  (2006), did for Paul Festa what years of classical musical training and fiction writing never yet had: it put him squarely before the eyes and ears of the world as a serious artist. Ironically, he'd never trained as a filmmaker. He was following a musical muse, to be sure, but down an unfamiliar path.
Asking how we listen — why we listen — to music, Apparition gathered an eclectic assortment of interview-subjects (friends, drag queens, his Juilliard mentor Albert Fuller, even his old college prof, renowned critic-scholar Harold Bloom), had them strap on headphones, and then describe their reactions to Olivier Messiaen's Apparition de l'église éternelle, the composer's unrelentingly intense 1932 piece for organ. It was a simple notion that produced complex, and completely absorbing, results.
That unscheduled journey through film has been to the benefit of audiences literally around the world, as Apparition not only received awards and enthusiastic reviews but also toured widely in the lead-up to the centenary of Messiaen's birth in 2008. In April of that year, it screened at San Francisco's Grace Cathedral as part of a larger program that included Festa on violin, performing the West Coast premiere of Messiaen's 1933 Fantasy for violin and piano (only published in 2007).
It also marked a vital new turn in Festa's career, which continues this weekend with the world premiere of Tie It Into My Hand, his new experimental documentary and a fascinating exploration of the artistic life, as rollickingly entertaining as it is insightful and stirring. The premise is again cunningly straightforward: ask a wide range of artists (but no violinists) to give the filmmaker a violin lesson. (After many years of serious study at Juilliard and elsewhere, Festa had retired from playing music in the wake of a hand injury. In the film, he attempts passages from Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto.)
Going from the insular world of Juilliard, with its disciplinary rigor and institutional certitudes, to the wide-open prairie of independent filmmaking, is not a typical trajectory for an artist. Festa's work both expresses and investigates precisely those tensions — between professionalism and amateurism, mentorship and independence, success and failure, glamor and alienation, opinion and taste, beauty and pain — stirred up in his own unconventional path through life and art.
Among the film's invariably interesting interlocutors are many local artists as well as prominent national figures, but the variety lies as much in the breadth of artistic disciplines represented: actors, drag queens, performance artists (including an uncompromisingly blunt but ever-precise Penny Arcade), poets, musicians (barring only violinists), writers (Daniel Handler, for instance, an old friend from middle and high school years in San Francisco), at least one historian, dancers, theater directors, and playwrights (ACT's Carey Perloff and Theatre Rhinoceros's John Fisher being examples in both categories), and painters (including the last recorded interview with the late William Theophilus Brown, for whom Festa had previously modeled and who, as part of the project, produced three color drawings of the violinist-filmmaker).
"It's a combination of people with whom I've had a long acquaintance, some people I had just met at [the Yaddo] artist colony, or wherever else, and then people I was referred to. Apparition of the Eternal Church was really skewed more toward people in my circle. There were only two people in Apparition of the Eternal Church who I met for the first time at the interview."
If Apparition of the Eternal Church asked questions about the perception of art, and specifically music, for different people, Tie It Into My Hand asks questions about the artistic impulse itself. But the conversations, culled from roughly 120 interviews, range widely, and Festa's shrewd editing clusters the themes that arise in purposefully harmonic and dissonant clusters, while threading certain leitmotifs throughout. Tie It Into My Hand screens tonight and Sat/22  as part of a triptych of short films (the full program is discussed below), culminating Festa's theater residency at ODC.
The filmmaker talked about his process, and his circuitous artistic career, while attending to some final color corrections at ODC a couple of days ago. Sitting in the control booth at the back of ODC's theater, Festa admits he's not gotten enough sleep of late, but speaks thoughtfully about the necessity of bridging strikingly different artistic terrains.
SFBG You were saying how this project transitioned from a theater piece to a film?
Paul Festa How it went from a theater piece into this film. It's funny. Carey Perloff has this wonderful line in the film about how men have their nervous breakdowns ten years earlier than women. Well, I had mine right on schedule, six months from my 40th birthday. It had to do with the theater piece, and it had to do with the death of three of four really central mentors to me. Three people died in a four-year period. The first one was George Dusheck, who used to be a reporter here in San Francisco and he dated my mother. He became a really central father figure and mentor. He moved up to Mendocino and introduced me to this whole group of amazing artists and musicians up there. And he died in 2005.
And then Albert Fuller, who you see in this film, who was also the star of Apparition of the Eternal Church, who was the great mentor whose philosophy and whose teaching about music, ostensibly about music, is really what created me as a filmmaker. His imagination about music, his harpsichord music — it had nothing to do with opera or ballet, it wasn't like he was in the theater, but he had his own theater going on up here. Exposing that to us, he was the origin, and he was the first interview of Apparition of the Eternal Church. And in a sense that whole film is an expression or a crystallization of his teaching. And he died in 2007.
And then this woman Juliette died in 2009. And about three weeks later I had a conversation [about the proposed theater piece at ODC] with a guy who had helped me put on the Grace Cathedral evening. And he kind of looked at me like I'd lost my mind. "What are you talking about? First you did music, and you didn't make a debut or cut a record. And then you were a writer and you didn't finish the novel."
He basically accused me of being a dilettante. He said, "Wow. You're middle-aged. Do you know that? Are you aware that it's difficult to get funders and audiences and everyone else to take you seriously?" He didn't phrase it in quite such a judgmental way; that's how I took it. He was more amazed that I had the nerve to do that. He's very wealthy, and he said, "I would be concerned about my own security. Do you have no concern for your own security?"
Well, that's how I had my nervous breakdown. I became morbidly concerned with my own security. "Holy shit. What have I been doing? Have I been asleep for the last 25 years?" And so at that point I stopped sleeping. There were a lot of practical things [concerning me]. One of the practical things was you can't even apply to an artist residency or a lot of different things unless you have work that is less than four years old. And Apparition of the Eternal Church, my only film, was about to age-out of that system. So I'd lay awake just trying to think my way out of this disaster that I had somehow engineered for myself. You know, kind of the worst-case nervous-breakdown anxieties.
And I thought, "OK, I'll make a film, and I'll introduce the theater piece with this film, and I'll sort of kill two birds with one stone or I'll sort of rescue the theater piece and rescue my career with this movie. And it'll be a silent film comedy, and I'll accompany it live on the violin. So I'll keep all the things in the air at once. Kind of like the Grace Cathedral thing, I'll finally bring everything together. So that became this silent film called The Glitter Emergency, which is set to the second and third movement of the Tchaikovsky violin concerto. So the idea was that that would be the prelude to the theater piece.
What wound up happening was that it ended up being the conclusion to a triptych of films called Three Short Films by Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky. The first of which is this thing. The second of which is a ballet fantasy, which we'll watch a text-based storyboard of, with me playing live, on [Fri/21]. And then there's The Glitter Emergency. So it's one kind of enormous short film and two 20-minute short films.
So that's how it all came about. And every step of the way, ODC was right with me. When I told [former ODC Theater Director] Rob [Bailis] the theater piece had really evolved and would now be a series of short films, he was totally down. ODC has been a really incredible partner for the last three years.
SFBG Tie It Into My Hand does have elements of self-examination of course, which resonates with the context you describe, but part of why it is so very approachable and compelling is the way it invariably goes much further in what it explores. Did you have a sense of what you'd find?
PF It was like Apparition of the Eternal Church in that it was this big experiment. I didn't know what the hell was going to happen when I walked into these lessons. I mean, I had an idea: I wanted to accomplish what Apparition of the Eternal Church had accomplished, which was to get people to forget that there was a camera on them. When the headphones went on, I realized that's why you can watch Apparition of the Eternal Church and just watch talking heads for 35 of those minutes: because they're doing something, and responding to something.
When you get the download from people, usually they become very cerebral and very careful and they speak in measured tones — and these people were kind of losing it, and that was fun to watch. So I wanted to give them something to do, and that's what the violin lesson did — and it involved music without the headphone conceit. But also I learned, from everywhere I'd been to music school, that the best way to get someone talking is to have them teach. I heard so many great stories from my teachers.
So I hoped, and I think I was right, it would turn out to be a really productive pretext or device for an interview.
SFBG I would agree. In addition to longer conversations, there are just so many wonderful lines in the film; some very funny, others very perceptive, and often both.
PF What are some you remember?
SFBG For instance, one question was, "Is that as painful to play as it is to listen to?"
PF [Laughs] And the answer to that question is, actually, yes. Thank you, Mink Stole.
Tie It Into My Hand
Fri/21-Sat/22, 7pm, $15-$35
3153 17th St, SF