Portrait of the Artist as an Artist
Jack Feldstein makes the most delightful animated films: writing the scripts, constructing the visuals, narrating the stories and even composing the soundtracks. With running times spanning from a few minutes to approximately half an hour, Feldstein films cover some very serious topics on the life and death continuum, including love and religion. They also contain quite a bit of nonsense, as befits any observation of daily life, and that makes them funny. They are multi-layered with irony, which sometimes also makes them funny and always thought-provoking. Feldstein is equally comfortable with a bizarre romp through classical Greek territory (Rescuing Oedipus Rex 2007, 19 min 24 sec), or a contemporary morality tale in a mundane setting (Rock Hard 2003, 2005, 6 min 44 sec). If you are not entertained by the diverting observations, you will be amused by the dancing skeletons (The Psychology of Script Writing 2009, 14min 40 sec). A Jack Feldstein film is a unique visual, aural and intellectual experience. It looks like a cartoon drawn in bright outlines on a black background. The images are a mix of original graphics and live action video mixed with filmed and graphic elements including cartoons from the public domain.
As creator of what is now known as neon films, Jack Feldstein is a new type of artist, whose emergence has been wholly enabled by the advent of digital technology. While he is a word artist who specialises in narrative fiction, using script writing as his primary medium, he has been able to harness digital technology to create a secondary medium through which he can realise his art in its totality, on his own. Although he still writes both plays and film scripts for others to stage and film, through his neon films, he can create whole works by himself. The films have found success internationally through various film festivals, opening up opportunities for Feldstein overseas. At the end of March he is moving to live and work in New York. I only came across his work last year through The Group Online Magazine (current issue features Feldstein’sThe Ectasy of Gary Green 2005, 15 min 9 sec), and finding it intriguing, I was keen to discuss it with him while he was still here in Australia.
Jack Feldstein is an upbeat sort of guy and yet he has submitted to psychoanalysis. He ruminates intellectually but loves an easy laugh. A self-confessed talker, he is a sharp listener, wanting to ensure that he is answering the question being asked. This turns into an amiable wrestle as he throws questions back for clarification in an effort to pin down what is really being asked. He turned his back on his day job as a pharmacist – an area of very exacting, quantifiable measures and precise scientific formulas – for the giddy uncertainty of pursuing artistic impulses. In this interview he talks frankly about his work and his methodology as a creative person. After the interview concludes, he goes on to say, “For anyone to make any thing, you have to be brave. You have to have courage and you have to be gutsy, I wish it to you and I wish it to everyone. Obviously, I don’t always have it but I can see I need it and if there’s any sort of qualities for an artist, these are the ones and they will keep you positive without becoming embittered. I don’t mean to sound all namby-pamby and up in the air but that’s what I believe.”
INTERVIEW – recorded on Tuesday, February 9, 2010.
In the documentary Rebels, Radicals and Renegades: Jack Feldstein, you say your work is driven by an explosive urge. What sort of things set it off and what is the fallout, in practical terms. In other words, how does the genesis of any work begin and how do you tackle its realization?
The genesis of any work is that a person has to have something to express. They have to be very clear about what they want to communicate to other people, an audience, then if they’ve got that impulse, they will execute it. I can only speak personally and I think it is different for everyone – and I’m quite analytical – it’s something, a feeling that has to be translated somehow.
Take an example of any one of your works. What sparked it? Let’s take The Great Oz Love Yarn (2006, 4 min 57 sec)…
The Great Oz Love Yarn is about unrequited love. It’s funny and it’s silly and it has wonderful Australianisms. This is how it happened: someone spoke to me. I just met some random guy and he said a funny Australianism, like, you know, ‘a handbreak on a Holden’ and he was only young. It was wonderful and I said ‘How come you say that? Where did you get it?’ And he said to me, that’s what his grandpa used to say. The guy was only maybe 19 and he was full of these sayings.
Was he speaking about unrequited love?
So, you just latched on to the expressions?
Yes and I love that they were uniquely Australian; it was marvellous, I felt. Then I did more research, I went and spoke to old diggers in pubs to get more. I went on a quest. As I spoke to them they would tell you a story and you’d have a beer and a bit of a yarn with them. One guy in particular told me a story, but not that particular story (ie The Great Oz Love Yarn), of unrequited love. I relate to that; I love unrequited love and resonate with it. That was the genesis.
Your first writing effort was a short story, followed by a play, then you became a script writer. You took that to a style of film making in which the script completely takes over, so that in effect, you are a writer who makes films. Why have you favoured script writing?
I’m born that way. I love scripts, I’m literary, I love literature. I truly believe a person is born who they’re born, with their own passions and their own likes and loves – and I have to say loves because I love it – and admire great scripts and plays, the writing of them and when someone does write them, I’m in awe.
Can I just jump in with a question related to this? You went through the first two decades of your life and became a pharmacist, then just turned around and became a writer. Why did your inner writer not come out before, or did he?
That is a perplexing question. I’m going to be very honest, I’m leaving the country now and I feel I have to be very honest. I duxed my school, so the curse of being bright, for a guy in particular, is that you’re pushed into the sciences and the maths. I was very good at maths and science, don’t get me wrong, and I love them but that was really the only option. It wasn’t presented that there might be other options that I could follow.
You were crippled by academic ability…
Absolutely, but I wouldn’t say ‘crippled’ that’s too harsh and I love the fact that I have that background.
Do you think that you will ever do a mad scientist animation? You’ve got a lot of information that you could tap into…
Probably. In the future I might use all that in a character; all that background could be really helpful.
In which year did you make your first neon film and what is it called? Was it Three Months with Pook, 2002?
You describe your production method as ‘a combination of rotoscoping, computer effects and flash.’ You also use a mix of original live action video and other filmed material from the public domain. How much did practical reasons influence your choice of style (eg neon films as opposed to drawn graphics or all live action)? For example if you were a graphics artist you might tell your story just in pictures but neon animation combines lots of different things. Was that a practical choice?
It was practical and theoretical. I’d just finished studying at COFA (the College of Fine Arts, Sydney). I’d done the Theory of Modern Art and the Theory of Post Modern Art. I’d done the theory because I was fascinated by it and didn’t know much about it. So, I spent two years doing those courses. At the culmination of that, it opened me up because post modernism is appropriation and postmodernism was – because it’s now post-postmodernism – wonderfully freeing.
I was greatly influenced by postmodernism and learning about it. I loved it; I found it freeing and enlightening.
You don’t access government grants, how do you fund your work?
I have managed to sell my work in North America to cable television, not all of it, but some.
How did you do that? What is the process?
OK. My stuff was shown in film festivals, like Rotterdam and it was nominated for an award; it was out there in the world. In the Lincoln Centre in New York, one of my films was chosen and that was a huge help. Because of that it got some recognition and because of that, distributors approached me.
Can I ask how lucrative has it been? In Australia the population is so small that the creative artist struggles for an income from creative work.
It’s far more lucrative, if you look outside Australia. And that’s the reason I’ve not concentrated on Australia in this way; maybe I’m not such a bad businessman! At the end of the day, I’m not interested in the nuts and bolts but my mind tells me that a market with so many people in it is greater than the market here. So, I’ve concentrated on overseas because I’ve found it more rewarding financially. Also, through that, I got a producer in New York to like my work and he gets me gigs. So, if someone likes what I do, they hire me to do some stuff for them.
At the end of March you are going to New York. For how long ?
For how long? I don’t know…
You told me you have a Green Card. How long does that go for?
Are you moving your whole household?
Yes, my partner is going with me.
Was it hard to organise everything?
What do you think (he laughs)? It is a huge, adventurous step but I look at it as an adventure. I’m a humanist, so I look at the world as one place; I don’t look at it as little nations. I love the idea of a cosmopolitan world. I know that it sounds like crap and that it’s ideologically ridiculous and naïve, even, but I can’t help it. I’ve studied in France and I’ve studied in New York and I can see like a big picture, like everyone is trying to do the same thing.
Yet your work is very distinctly Australian-flavoured…
Absolutely and which is as it has to be.
Judging by your work, your literary frame of reference is strongly highbrow, western cannon, Proust, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce. What else do you read?
I do read the Americans like Jack Kerouac…
But that’s considered highbrow, western canon…
From a literary point of view, I’m afraid it is…
I read JD Salinger…What’s the question? Do I read crap? (he laughs good-naturedly) What’s the question?
Well, in my case, western cannon is my entire background but I also read what I call ‘trash journalism – for example in my childhood I read a lot of Women’s Weekly, Women’s Day, The Herald (a daily broadsheet).
Well, I’m not an exclusivist, a snob or an elitist at all. It’s just that I admire these people. I love the way these people write, they’re geniuses.
What about our own Australian geniuses, people like George Johnston, Katherine Susannah Pritchard…
Absolutely, as well.
But they’re western cannon highbrow, which is interesting…
Great musicians are to be admired. Anyone great in any area is to be admired. When I read something, or when I’m affected by something else that someone else has made, I’m in awe of it and I do my little bit to show that. I do it tongue in cheek as well, I’m humorous.
Going on from that, what films do you enjoy and which do you admire – are they the same? I ask that because I very much enjoy Hong Kong action movies (Jack: “Ouch!” roars laughing) and up to a point admire them but then there’s that whole ‘great films’ thing…
I enjoy animations, like all the Pixar ones. I enjoy them greatly and there’s a spate coming now that are not even Pixar, they’re Dreamworks, everyone’s trying to do it.
How do you regard a film like Avatar, which is lauded for its technical achievements and whose content has an anti-militaristic and environmentalist thrust? You obviously admire it technically…
I have no problem with the script, it was adequate, on a technical level it was absolutely fine, it served it’s purpose of hanging a marvellous, genius visual experience on it. Politically, you’re asking me? Politically, it was very interesting as a metaphor, it worked to get people to think. And it’s interesting because it got everyone to put their own interpretation into it, which shows me that it’s a very universal, classic piece. Like Oedipus Rex. It’s not just a story about Oedipus and his mother, it becomes universal from the specific.
Avatar is a populist triumph but at a serious critical level the concept of ‘populist’ is a very troubling and ambiguous one that now carries a pejorative overtone. You touch on this in your delicate treatment of religion in The Populist Adventures of Jesus (2007, 2 min 54 sec), in which Jesus, then Moses and Mohammad become Holywood celebs and inspire their followers to replace weaponry with consumer goods like fancy TVs. What’s your position in relation to all this? You say you use humour but that’s an interesting position because, for example, Jesus becomes a popular celebrity, which is something that you might question…
Well…OK…what’s my position? Clearly, it’s as in the film, in other words, it is an ironic situation because I see the irony behind all of it, behind celebrity…I try not to judge too much because, to be very honest, to judge is already to not be an artist. An artist accepts, accepts what the world is. To judge it, is already a little arrogant. Thus, perhaps to point out some ironies of situations, I’m gentler than a harsh political artist. However, there are huge ironies and absurdities…
That you do like to expose?
Yes, and that’s how I see the world as quite absurd. My political view of the world is: absurdity.
That takes us to the next question, which is about psychology. In The Psychology of Scriptwriting you identify various psychological profiles like autistic fantasy, narcissistic, id and empowerment theories that can be used to categorise script writers. When my sister saw the film she wondered where you would see yourself fitting?
I fit in all of them. I’ve got a little bit of all of it in me. My partner is a psychiatrist and I’ve had quite a lot of therapy and psychotherapy. I’m not averse to it and I’m not scared of it. It’s not taboo for me either.
Can I ask, why have you had a lot of psychoanalysis?
Because I think it’s a luxury to have been able to work things out that were perplexing me. And rather than continue to make the same mistakes, I wanted to make new mistakes. Psychotherapy seemed very helpful to me.
As an aid to personal development?
As an aid to understanding why one might perhaps do what one does and being able to change it. It’s an aid in changing.
In this day and age there’s a lot of so-called mental illness – I use the term to define things like depression, bi-polar condition – would you have suffered from any of those to a clinical level? Or have you gone in for psychoanalysis because you were just interested?
A clinical level? OK, you’re asking me a medical question and I’m going to answer it as a medical person. At a clinical level, let’s say, I would have had the odd bit on medication and in a…
In an institution, for want of a better word?
No, that’s not my background. However, I am disymic or cyclothymic, which means sub-clinical. Now everyone is on a spectrum of everything. Now cyclothymic, it’s not bi-polar – people can be moody, up and down but not manic and comatose. But I think that any creative person must face themselves, and back to the psychotherapy, it’s really facing oneself. It’s probably what every artist must do because you have to grapple with yourself, every time you sit down. Psychotherapy has helped me do that.
Were still on the feelings side, psychology – your films are irrepressibly positive, even Virginia Woolf snaps out of suicidal depression (The Adventures of Virginia Woolf, 2007, 3 min 29sec). Is this positivity something you deliberately engineer?
It is something I aim for. I try not to be a nihilist or to let the negative darkness…look you can always choose, even an existentialist can choose, where you go in life. The choice of positivity is, I believe, helpful to people.
Your work is also riddled with ambiguity and multi-layered with irony. You have Proust engaging with a Proustian memory sequence as he struggles to remember something important (The Adventures of Marcel Proust 2007, 3 min 47 sec). Your James Joyce is in a prosaic funk and offered as a purile whinger, slagging off Hemingway but quoting a few vindicating words from Ulysseys (The Adventures of James Joyce 2007, 2 min 51 sec, co-written with Daniel T Metz). How easily does this stuff come to you and how much do you have to work it into shape?
How does it come to me?
Yes, do you just start with a strand, does it come as a grand revelation? How easily does it come to you?
How easily does it come to me?
Are you ‘exploding’ all the time? Or, do you have big patches of no erruptions?
OK. Often I’m exploding. When I say I’m cyclothymic, obviously there is a time when I’m not – there is a cycle – but let’s say 75% of me is more of that explosive nature. Then there’s the 25% that is hopeless.
Then let’s get back to the idea of how you work it into shape. There’s the old adage that ‘genius is…
1% inspiration, 99% perspiration…
Yes, of course, and I believe that. How do I get it into shape? I just do it and then I re-do it.
Do you work long hours at a stretch?
So, you’ll stay up till ridiculous hours?
Yeah, all of that.
How does your storyline evolve: does it work towards a conclusion or is the conclusion the result of the way the story unfolds? Do you sometimes start with an idea for a conclusion and work up to it?
No. I try for a conclusion that is organic from the story.
In The Adventures of J.D. and the Rye Guy (2009, 4 min 52 sec), Mr Antolini, the possibly pedophillic and therefore controversial character from The Catcher in the Rye, is offered as a model in that the Rye Guy becomes like him. Tell me a bit about that?
That character is very strong and disturbing (in the novel).
From your animation, I thought I must have remembered it wrongly…
No you were correct in that he (the Rye Guy) turned into a possibly questionable character…
But your version is this happy chappy with a cocktail…
Well, I’m sure he was that because a ‘happy chappy with a cocktail’ could be fiddling about very easily.
So what is your position on him? Because you do say you find him creepy.
Of course, he’s creepy!
I found him creepy; kids don’t like someone touching them…
So did Holden! It’s an ironic situation. Sometimes a person becomes something creepy and I’m sure that a creepy fellow didn’t start off as a kid thinking he would be. He would be horrified to think that that’s what he would turn into.
All your animations are narrated. How much is the narrator you? The words and voice are yours but how much is the narrator a created character? I’m thinking specifically about Rock Hard because you presume that the narrator, who is telling the story about himself and has a peculiar fetish for female pubic topiary, is a creation.
It is a creation. It’s a creation that I understand. As someone who makes things – even the word artist is so weird now – I try not to judge. The more I can understand everybody – of course, that’s impossible and I’m setting myself an impossible task – but I’m trying to understand everybody and the more I understand all sorts of people, the better I’ll be at presenting them.
So, how much is the narrator Jack Feldstein and how much is the narrator a creation that morphs from animation to animation?
It’s a hybrid. It’s not me, you’re talking to me now, which I am similar to my animations and I do talk at a million miles a minute and I love ‘highbrow’ intellectual sort of stuff, and funniness and absurdity and all those things, as you can tell as we’re speaking. I’m a very playful person. Verbally.
However, do I have a schtick about (pubic topiary)? No. However, a friend of mine did.
The moral of this animation seems to be: “judge not lest ye, yourselves, be judged….”
That is exactly right.
So, there is a moral there but you’re not judging and yet it is about judgement. That’s what I’m talking about when I refer to the multi-layered irony…
And I do believe that – be careful with your judging, ‘lest ye yourself be judged.’ Just be careful when you’re being arrogant and judging and harsh because it could be that one minute you’re not that and the next minute you are. Like with drug addicts or whatever…
Boy George was like that, he proclaimed his love for a cup of tea and then he became a heroin addict…
It’s the same with everybody. It’s like The Bacchae. The Bacchae is one of my favourite plays because that is the moral of it. He (Pentheus) tries to stop all the dionysian cavorting but instead was consumed by it because he wanted to see it. He thought he could just see it and keep away but that’s not the truth because as soon as you look at something, you become it in a way. We’re not as compartmentalised as we think. The Bacchae is a very psychological play; it’s a genius play actually.
Your sound tracks, which have a whimsical digitised quality, are never credited so I presume that you create them yourself along the lines of your use of public domain image. Is that so?
Yes and I also compose my own music.
Do you have a formal musical background?
No, not at all.
Your work is better known overseas than in Australia. Does that bother you?
Does it bother me? It wasn’t my plan; I had no idea that that would have to be the way.
But does it bother you?
You see, I’m not answering the question. It would be nice (to be recognised here), it would have been easier for me, if it had worked out. But that forced me to look elsewhere, so, it’s a blessing and a curse. The curse is that it would have been nice; the blessing is that it’s forced me to look overseas, to go there and to sell myself there and to succeed there, which is not a bad thing. My rational mind tells me that I”m not the only one in this situation – there’s lots like me. My positivity tells me, look, you were forced to do this and you did it. But my heart, because I am Australian, would have liked it.
So, you still love a sunburnt country, despite everything?
How could you not?
What work are you hoping to produce in New York?
Well, I’m a film maker and a script writer as well. So I am going there a lot for my scripts and I hope to be working as a script writer as well, just a script writer because I do love it.
And scripts for films?
For films and theatre because I love theatre as well. So, I’m going to explore those areas; I’ve got a lot of scripts, that I’ve written, in my draw, that I have not sold or done anything with because they’re not for…the challenge is too much for me here but I know that overseas, it’s easier for me. I don’t know why and I can’t explain it.
The photograph of you to be used with this interview, you say ‘emphasises your aesthetic.’ Tell me a little about how you relate to that photograph, which shows your back and shows you in front of the Warhol famous soup can work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
When I did that course of modern art, pop art really impressed me and I loved it. I’d always loved it but learning about it really made me love it more – really as an epiphany, as an explosion. I ‘get’ pop art and my films are time-based pop art.
When you say ‘time-based’ what do you mean?
Andy Warhol did visual art, which is stationary. Time-based is just a term for any sort of filmic work over the time axis – work that is not stationary. And I love it so much. When I love something, I appropriate it or I transform it with my own direction.
One question has just occurred to me in relation to time-based work. All artists, all creative people self-edit, deciding what they are putting in and what they’re not; I’ve come across an interview with you in which you talk about script writing and not being precious, about throwing stuff away. Now I’ve noticed that your films vary greatly in length. They can be only a few minutes or even half an hour. I guess I’m asking how long is a piece of string…
The story tells you how long. The narrative tells you if you’re open to it.
In A Wondrous Film About Emma Brooks (2006, 17 min 36 sec), the bird tells Emma that ‘the truth isn’t in words.’ Where is the truth for you?
It’s in actions. The truth is in actions, which is ironic as well because I’m full of words but I’m well aware that the truth is not in my words; it’s in my actions and not just me but everyone.
So, your art is not true?
No, the art is true because I did an action, I made the art.