Saturday, June 19, 2010

There's hardly a place in the world where we don't have some preconceptions. The mediation of media images infects everything: we've already seen Tokyo, we've already seen Prague, we've already seen Rome. If not in physical fact, at least in some facsimile which has given us the sense that we know something about the world.

So i have to say that, before coming to stay in Berlin for ten months, i had some preconceptions about Berlin. I had visited the city before (to attend the Berlinale more than a decade ago) and so i was familar with a few areas of the city (principally the area around Zoologischer Garten; at that time, the Zoo Palast was the central movie theater of the Berlinale, before the move to the newly built spaces at Potsdamer Platz). And here's where Berlin tricked me up: the other time i had come to the Berlinale, the press office people i dealt with were actually nice and helpful; this time, they were snooty and rude and obnoxious. Wow: who spiked the Kool-Aid? And this winter, i wasn't in the mood to deal with any more horrible behavior. I'd had enough of it all throughout my stay.

But the last few weeks, i've had a wonderful time in Berlin. And i can see why people love it. Ok, i've got to say this about the much-hyped art scene. It ain't happening. No, seriously. It's lively, but... i don't know. So far, i haven't found any rich people. I know that seems like a joke, but i was thinking about it. Even in New York City in the late 1940s, when someone like Jackson Pollock would use whatever money he had on paint and booze, so that he often couldn't pay his rent and had to flop with friends, there were still people like Peggy Guggenheim. And you always had trust-fund babies. Sure, Kerouac and Ginsberg weren't rolling in dough, but William Burroughs was a trust-fund baby. Even with avantgarde filmmakers. Bruce Baillie always needed jobs or grants, and even then, he had to live on the bare minimum, but Warren Sonbert and even Jack Smith were trust-fund babies.

It's like with Bruce, if he was in town, maybe you'd meet up with him at a cheapo Chinese restaurant, and if he had been teaching or something like that, and had a little money, he'd pick up the tab. But sometimes, you knew he didn't have the money, so you picked up the tab, and he was always grateful but it was no big deal. With Warren, if he called and he was in town, you knew you'd go to a really nice, fancy restaurant, you didn't have to worry about what you ordered and you knew he'd take care of the bill. That was the deal.

But Warren was very scrupulous about that fact: he knew that other people didn't have the resources he had, and so he never applied for grants. Ever. He felt that people like Bruce or Ernie Gehr, who needed the grants, didn't need him as competition. For them, grant money was crucial, for him, it wouldn't have made a difference, so that was that. Just as long as his work was appreciated (i remember when Paul Arthur wrote something about Warren's films - was it in The Downtown Review? - and Warren was so pleased, all throughout dinner, Warren kept showing us the piece because he was so happy that Paul was able to write so perceptively about the films), Warren was fine.

And i did what i could. There was the time i was one of the advisors on a series that was sponsored by PBS... it was a series of programs featuring short films which dealt with American filmmakers who had made films about "foreign" cultures. My job was to suggest films. There was a whole agenda which had been given to us, so we knew the criteria. And two filmmakers i suggested were Bruce and Warren. And both were chosen. For Bruce, the money that he got for the film turned out to be really important: that was when his wife was pregnant, and the money turned out to be a "blessing-in-disguise" because they were able to use the money to pay the medical expenses (the hospital stay for the birth, etc.); for Warren, he was thrilled at the prospect of the film getting a broader audience, at the honor of being included in this prestigious series, but the money wasn't that important.

But i always did what i could. (Hell, i even helped Jack Smith get the only grant he ever got in his life!) I tried to find ways of using the system so that artists really could get some help from it.

But everything's changed. It's not that easy. The systems that were set up are on the verge of extinction. So in a very real sense, i came to Berlin to recharge my batteries. And then i got hit by the toughest winter ever. And now it's the summer, and i'm getting ready to leave, and yet finally there was the thaw, and Berlin does seem to be in bloom.


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