Tuesday, November 23, 2010


I stayed on in Florence for a year after we all left the Villa Ulivi but that story will go into my autobio when I get around to filling in the many blanks in time and space. Right now we're talking about my Papa. In the photo below he's arriving at an airport - I'm not sure where or when - but it's so characteristic of him: the eternal traveller, always arriving or leaving 

My father had many theories and one which he wrote, re-wrote and talked a great deal about over the years was called: The Focus of Perception . It was the basis for his next project and also influenced his observations of people in general. Here are some edited quotes which I've selected from his notes:

The premise of The Focus of Perception is that the mind contains a mechanism or process similar to a camera lens which, by its aperture and angle, determines the way people, situations and events are perceived and thus one's emotional and intellectual responses to them. This process is psychological, not visual, but the camera is a useful metaphor to describe it. 

Not only do we contradict one another, but we also tend to contradict ourselves. Human contradiction and its effects, whether on a personal or a global scale, might be better understood if the Focus of Perception was observed in action within one's self and in others' behavior and attitudes. Relationships, whether between individuals, groups or nations, often undergo a cavalcade of contradictory states, affirmations and negations, depending on the angle at which the Focus is set, how wide the angle is and whether it is static or fluctuating. 

There is a great difference between understanding another person through their focus and trying to understand them only through one's own. In the absence of a strong motivation - such as love, a specific goal, or the desire for truth - we see no reason to change our Focus of Perception and we passively accept whatever focus is provided by our upbringing, environment, or the winds of fashion. But if we become aware of our focal position in relation to others, it becomes possible to change what had seemed immutable in ourselves.

We are prisoners within the boundaries of our current focus only if we accept to be imprisoned in this optic. To change one's focal position, it is necessary first of all to change it on a specific subject or problem: to make a leap. This might result in moving to a position diametrically opposed to our current stance. With further small steps, a change may occur in our perception of the particular issue, and thence a gradual opening of our understanding of the larger picture.

Sacha's new undertaking, although rooted in the above premise, took shape in a less theoretical way. He called it Who Do You Think You Are . This happens to be the name of a current television series but I'm fairly sure they don't know that my father thought of the title long ago. Anyway the TV series is about celebrities looking into their genealogical history. Sacha's project was something else entirely. 

He began by contacting three people: Françoise Sagan, whose slim first novel Bonjour Tristesse  had propelled her to instant fame; Art Buchwald, the witty satirist whose regular column in the Washington Post my father loved; and Gipsy Rose Lee, the burlesque stripper/actress. When his project was described to them they agreed to take part. There was no connection between these three and I have no idea what prompted Sacha to choose them as subjects for his enquiry. 

He recorded audio interviews with each of them, asking them to describe how they saw themselves. Separate interviews were then arranged with some of their friends, acquaintances and colleagues, to record their own views of these individuals. The aim of the exercise was to demonstrate that the image we have of ourselves frequently contradicts the impressions others have of us. No conclusions or judgements were offered as to which views were the 'truer' ones. We were simply asked to consider the possibility that 'who we think we are' is open to many interpretations. 

In one of those amazing synchronicities that the blogosphere occasionally generates, Jean in her perceptive review of Summertime by J.M. Coetzee, seems to have tuned into my father's thinking and into what I was about to blog concerning it. She wrote on 19 November:

It's something we could all do: speculate on how our intimates might describe us. But, think about it, put yourself there... I can quickly see that I'd do one of two things: construct a rosy, seamless image - the wish-fulfilment version, or go way the other way and indulge my darkest fantasies of how they all disliked and despised me really. 

The audio interviews were only the preliminary stage: Sacha's intention was to make a film, if funding could be raised. This didn't happen and Who DoYou Think You Are was shelved and forgotten. But at least the memory of it now lives on, here in this tiny corner of cyberspace. 

Before ending this flashback into some of my father's creative adventures, there's one more I must mention: the thirteen minute film, Report on Love , a comic commentary on the Kinsey Report, produced and directed by Sacha in 1955.

When Dr. Kinsey first heard of the film he prepared to sue, without having seen it. But after a preview was arranged especially for him at Indiana University (where he was Professor of Zoology) he changed his mind and the film went ahead, screened in cinemas across the USA as the 'featurette' along with major films; it was even nominated for an Academy Award. Below is a write-up from Picture Week in New York. 

I have a copy of the film on VHS tape and watched it again a few days ago. It is extremely dated conceptually and technically but quite clever, combining animation and live action. Light-weight stuff compared to Sacha's other projects but I think he was hoping this one would achieve commercial success. It didn't, but so what? It was not gold but a little glitter never hurt anyone. 

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