A Brush with Art

I was despondent. In spite of all my work, no one was reading my stuff. I know that I was not being read because I would submit my essays, stories, and poems to my friends and relatives and then I would begin a discussion that sooner or later I could direct over the same ground covered in the mailing. No one was doing their homework.

Generously, I supposed that the fault was mine and so ventured forth to correct my artistic mistakes. Happening on a a brochure describing a festival of recent German film productions, I noticed a panel discussion held at the San Francisco Goethe Institute composed of German film producers, directors, critics, and actors. I seized on the opportunity. Here, at last, I would be introduced to the high-level secret mystery that joined art and entertainment. I would learn to make my art interesting.

The Goethe Institute is on Bush street in San Francisco. The panel was composed of Hark Bohm, founder of the Hamburg Film Institute and inclined to lecture, Dani Levy, a Swiss director inclined to the ironies of the American marketplace, Elfriede Schmidt, program director of the Lunen Kinofest Film Festival, Michael Verhoeven, who turned down an offer to produce Goodfellows II because he knew neither New York City nor the Mafia, Jon Boorstin, panel moderator, film critic, screen-writer, and author, Udo Kier, who played a role in Breaking Waves, Raimund Krumme, a world-class animator, and Frances Schoenberger, a German film critic living in LA. These folks, I surmised, knew what they were doing.

They quickly laid out the issues. German actors in American films were reduced to three possible roles: the mad scientist, the villain, or the klutzy clown with a German accent. German-Americans did not oppose this stereotype while Italian-Americans, Jewish-Americans, Afro-Americans, and American Indians revolted as soon as the slightest derogatory stereotype raised its ugly head.

American film-makers did not take chances. It was claimed that American film genius was spent on terrible productions such as Independence Day, an ethnically correct film that exploited an enemy that would not picket the theaters.

German film-makers were blessed and damned by the German government's $150 million dollar-a-year film industry subsidy. It was a blessing because young film-makers could get started with no money and cursed because there was no push to make polished, competitive films. America was blessed and cursed by government ignorance, blessed by the competition to make highly-polished commercial successes and cursed by the high price of polish.

German film-makers and artists in general had made the mistake of divorcing art from entertainment while Americans confused the two.

Germans were more likely to produce auteur art, produced by a single artist and thus subject to ego- effects, while Americans produced by committee, which was subject to other diseases.

There was a shortage of German film schools and German film producers while America had many of business-smart producers and many film schools.

German directors worked without the able assistance of producers who took responsibility for the entire production. American producers, when they did show up, cleansed the work of all art and fired those who obstinately defended it.

German films were not taken seriously by audiences anywhere, who preferred American movies, or by the production personnel, who preferred to knock off at 2 in the afternoon for beer and braggadocio.

American film, produced in the same way as hamburgers and other commodities, produced professional, highly polished garbage that everybody wanted to see. German independent film producers produced introspective, revolutionary art that few wanted to see. At the American film festivals, Americans wanted to see French movies 20:1.

Germany did not have the story-telling tradition of the Anglo-Saxon and the French.

When the discussion was opened for Q&A, one young man grew incensed at the depth of American garbage and vowed never again to go to the movies with his parents. Another man asserted that, since the annual budget for German film was about the same as a single Hollywood blockbuster, laws should be passed to take money from the big American producers and distribute it to art film producers. A film student complained about the lack of funding and the expense of making a film, that while one man who produced a film on a budget might go on to make blockbusters, another thousand disappeared into oblivion. Darwin was invoked.

I raised my hand. I said that we were describing a system whereby German independent film producers were engaged in basic research and development on film while Americans were picking up the profits. Could some way be found to market art films, perhaps by educating the movie-going public here and abroad. Art film theaters and small stages in San Francisco were starving while the big houses raked in the dough. I ended by insisting that we not involve the government.

Elfrieda said that film festivals were successful to that purpose. The representative for the Institute harmonized, saying that the Festival and the Institute were engaged in just that enterprise. We ran out of time and were invited to a reception at the Cafe Metropol on Sutter for a party. Before I left, a film student interviewed me. I repeated my question and answered according to what I had heard. She asked me if I was a theater owner.

I walked to the Cafe with Hark Bohm and two other gentlemen. Bohm asked me how I had come to the Institute and I said that I had been in Munich that summer and had read Goethe's Faust.

He asked me, "What, 20 years ago?" and I replied, "No, this morning," and went on to explain that Goethe had diagnosed the art-and-entertainment dichotomy in his prologue. Goethe's answer to the dilemma, I said, was to embed the problem into the play, to turn the irritant into a pearl. Art was an answer to the question. The artist must use his art in a commercial way. He asked me if I was a theater owner. I said no and he repeated that the Germans had never got the connection between art and entertainment and left my company.

At the party, several people asked me if I was a theater owner and then disappeared after my negative answer. I talked longest with a Jewish hippy on a bicycle and a lawyer who was a part-time film student. The film student with a camera came around again and I held forth once again on art, politics, and the price of beans. As I made up my mind to leave, Hark Bohm pushed past me towing the man who had demanded that the American government fund the arts. As they passed, Bohm told him "I want you to meet a man who is really interested in art."

Jim Strope