The Operating System

FIELD NOTES:: FILM :: LINCOLN LETTERS II: PATRICK WANG

Benjamin Wiessner

I met Patrick Wang this summer, as part of a weekend film oasis in Tacoma. Starting then, we have had a running conversation about building the film world that we want to live in, rather than the one that we have begun to inhabit. The blessing and the curse for independent filmmakers remains the open-ended nature of the ever present question, “how?”

As the poet, Antonio Machado, wrote, “Wanderer—there is no path; the path is made by walking.” Patrick Wang is a filmmaker that embodies the steps it takes to make the path forward.

Patrick wrote, directed, and starred in one of my favorite films, In the Family. That wasn’t enough. The film did not get the attention it deserved. He did not settle. He kept showing the film to people. He started traveling with the film to get it in front of more audiences—those audiences responded (as well as the critics). Over 100 cities later, he continues bringing the film to new audiences, treating them as collaborators in the process. I asked Patrick to give us an artifact of where he is on the journey and in his process, a window into his experiences. In this piece, he brings us to Lincoln, Nebraska, “Here I am invigorated, nourished, surprised, stretched, and small…”

Patrick writes:

In mid-afternoon I left the screening. I headed straight home, or more precisely, I headed straight to the bookcase at the foot of the stairs, top shelf. There to the right of the Faulkner collection, to the right of the Cortazar volumes, Life and Works of Abraham Lincoln. There are nine volumes and why not just go to the heart of it. That would be the fifth volume, Letters II.

“Yours of 10:30 p.m. yesterday received, and very satisfactory.” “Yours of the 29th of June was duly received.” “Yours of July 18 was received some time ago.” So Lincoln begins some set of letters, with this flat accounting of time, and I find it endearing. Also endearing the letter than begins, “I am annoyed…” Also endearing the quick mention of his son Bob, “He promises well, considering we never controlled him much.”

A week later, another Lincoln enters the picture: Lincoln, Nebraska.

My film opens hereMargaret & I on our first trip to Telluride together. on Friday. My flight, mine of Thursday, January 17, was received here by Danny Ladely. He wears the cowboy hat he wore in the photograph he sent to me. I think he wears it for my benefit, so I would easily recognize him, but I would later learn this thought was mistaken. For the moment though, it signals to me, ah, this is the person, yes, this is the place.

And suddenly it’s done. I’ve finished speaking to a film production class at the Johnny Carson School of Theatre & Film. It is still Thursday, and the film does not open until Friday. The professor has seen the film, but the class has not. I am always amazed that when I speak to classes or interviewers who have not seen the film, we do still manage a meaningful conversation. But I have the hardest time remembering what we spoke of. This evening I speak to another group of students who have not seen the movie, but they are lovely people nonetheless. They are Spectrum, the campus LGBTQA group, and I also meet their administrative director, Pat. She is a wealth of information. She knows what each of the letters stands for.

Friday begins in Lincoln’s oldest coffeehouse. And here is a beautiful innovation (the rest of the world take note): the radio program on which I am to appear broadcasts from within the coffeehouse. I have my coffee, my pastry, and I am speaking with a host who has seen my movie. Nebraska NPR is the gold standard. The coffeehouse riches do not end there. The Lincoln Arts Council hosts an informal get together for the arts community at the same place and time the radio show broadcasts live. That buzzing you hear in the background of the show is artistic intercourse. The guests get to meet the artistic community in a decidedly midwestern way. I am struck by how everyone seems genuinely glad to see each other, by how everyone seems to know who I am, and by how no one seems to be able to make tonight’s opening because there are a 1,001 art events this evening in Lincoln. Not so for Ying Zhu of Omaha, another guest on today’s radio show. She says she will come tonight.

Danny and I pull up to a building where a plain brick wall is made less plain by a duct labeled “kiln exhaust.” I love the place already. This is the Arts & Humanities focus program of the Lincoln Public Schools. All high school students have a home high school where they engage in core classes, athletics, and social events. For those who would like to study a particular field in more depth, they can travel to other campuses to study Arts & Humanities or Information Technology or Entrepreneurship or Science, also known as Zoo School. Zoo School. I visit the website for Zoo School where I learn that “Zoo School’s open campus is tucked behind the Zoo Cafe and the Rainforest Facility.” They proudly proclaim this guy as their hall monitor:

But today I am at the Arts & Humanities school. A student kindly reads an introduction she has prepared, and I face a crowd of about a hundred students and staff. They have already watched the film. I have already been greeted like I’m just back from the war, and I notice my face on screensavers at the back of the room. The next ninety minutes race by. This conversation I remember, and I will try to hold the memory.

There is a John Cassavetes interview I love, sometimes referred to as the Television Sucks! interview.

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Cassavetes talks about how badly he feels for the youth in America because they are besieged by movies of gunshots and gore that have nothing to do with their lives and how they feel, or what they are capable of feeling. I think of this now as I sit with these high school students, as they passionately recall every minute detail of the film. As we have the most honest and emotionally intelligent conversation I can remember. As they tell me how they are tired of the bromides that smell up cinema. As they tell me their wish list for what movies might looks like. And although I know how many inverted versions of these conversations take place in countless offices where cogs take the name of youths in vain, I am invigorated.

Tonight I have my second steak dinner in Nebraska. I have had no other sort of dinner while in Nebraska. I learned last night that the technology for the flat iron steak was developed by a research team at the University of Nebraska. As a child of Texas and Argentina, there is a special joy to be had thinking about steak technology.

Invigorated and nourished, it is time for the opening night screening. Well, not quite yet. We sneak in a quick tour of the projection booth. The place is clean, well lit, organized, and free of projector sounds. A 35mm projector still holds court over the room’s geography, but tonight it has no reach outside this hidden kingdom. Both films will project the digital DCP format. In the corner, I recognize the well-traveled, orange case that houses the DCP drive for our film, and I take it with me. We’ll save a few dollars in shipping.

The screening begins here at the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center. Generally I find that the back of the auditorium is better for observing audience body language, and the front of the auditorium is better for hearing reactions. Tonight, I sit at the front of the house. Tonight is the 200th time I will have watched In the Family in a movie theater.

I am often asked how I can watch the movie so many times. My first thought is that I love the movie. It is the closest thing I have to a child, and I do not tire of its company. Love, I have learned, is not a given between director and film. There are entire schools of thought training directors not to fall in love with their films. You lose perspective, they say. Rubbish. Love can just as easily teach you perspective.

There is something to be said for a film that cannot be paused, that is the sole light in a darkened place. There is something rare about an extended communal experience we agree not to interrupt. There is something invaluable gained from being in proximity to strangers in a time of crisis. There is nothing better than the good humored laughter of a crowd.

When I first began showing the film, I did not fully appreciate the “theater” element of “movie theater.” I thought, theater is this changing, fleeting thing, and films are fixed and endure. But how much a film can change. Every new audience is a new experience. The matinee can be lively, the evening screening a dud. Audiences perform and converse with the film in ways you must be present in the room to register. And as they leave the theater, the looks on faces tell you so much more than any words they might produce.

Tonight the conversation is tremendous, and after an hour in the theater, it spills out into the hallway. Here is a student about to direct for the first time, a production of The Magic Flute no less. The film has given him ideas. Here is Sharon, bearing gifts of food and souvenirs stuffed in a Cornhusker hat. Her daughter Sarah introduced her to the movie. I met Sharon before when she came to see the film in Kansas City. She knows film, and I do not take her repeated attendance at screenings lightly.

Here is David, the playwright. His enthusiasm for the film is a key reason we are playing in Lincoln. The film has chanLL4ged for him tonight, and he explains to me these surprises. Here is Ying Zhu after all, and her husband has driven from Omaha to be with us tonight. Ying is an artist who has just opened an installation at the Museum of Nebraska called Watch Your Steps.

Her installation is on the second floor of the museum in the Skylight Gallery. In this room, a cloud hovers below a broad skylight. Black and white tiles cover the floor, but each white tile is raised, a potential hazard. I think how this change in the floor draws our focus to a place and a motion we rush past. It tunes us in to the small and the detailed. And the cloud somehow makes us feel huge. We are simultaneously stretched
and small, and there is something so respectful of nature in how the cloud lives below the skylight to catch the sun. Ying and I, it appears, work in similar ways.

In industry parlance, my Nebraska experience falls under the category of distribution. There is no company engaged to conduct the distribution, so with the filmmaker at the helm, this is called self-distribution. I find it interesting how other phases of filmmaking are referred to as “independent” but for distribution, the terminology shifts to “self.” We proclaim its vanity and damn it’s reach from the beginning.

Many self-distributed films are now bypassing the world of movie theaters. Perhaps they should. But for me, my calculus will forever be changed by my experiences here in Lincoln and in the other cities that have hosted my film. The returns are rich, and my understanding of them is green, but I am aware of this much: Here I am invigorated, nourished, surprised, stretched, and small. Voices in the dark have helped me understand my little experiments to sculpt emotional, dramatic events in time. I have new friends and a deeper understanding of a place. I have been to the school of arts and humanity.

It is Saturday, and I am home in New York. I see that an audience member who attended the opening night show has filed a review on a movie website. He writes, “I feel spoiled that I got to see such a rare and gentle film and to have its creator discuss the film afterwards. I wish I could see every movie like this.” Yours of January 20 received, and I share your wish. And I too feel spoiled.

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