DINNER WITH DOSTOEVSKY

The Memoir

(This is chapter 19 of my ongoing memoir of the Internet industry.)

I love Fyodor Dostoevsky's Notes From Underground because it may be the most honest novel ever written. It begins as a madman's rant -- "two plus two equals five!" -- but the madman soon reveals himself as a mere poseur, an ineffectual urban nobody, not a real madman at all but just a frustrated and lonely adult, confused about his past and starved for attention.

The "Underground Man" looks back at his own history and concludes that human beings must be essentially irrational, because he has tried to live a rational and honorable life, and his good intentions have been blocked at every turn. The climax of this beautiful and rambling narrative is the terrible tale of a dinner party with friends that turns into a disaster, followed by an attempt at a romantic encounter that ends in complete humiliation. Dostoevsky wrote Notes From Underground about himself, but when I read it in the mid-1990s I couldn't help feeling echoes of my own life.

I guess it was Dostoevsky's gift to make many readers feel this kind of personal connection. I got the idea to direct a modern-day Notes From Underground when I found out that Phil Zampino, a fellow computer programmer who'd performed at my Biblio's web writers reading in February 1996, was also a Dostoevsky freak. So I said it as a lark: "Let's make a movie of Notes From Underground. You can be the star and I'll direct."

It was just a wacky idea, nothing more. I did not realize I was beginning a project that would soon consume my life, that would misdirect my career and help to end my marriage, that would also turn into my biggest success so far. I just thought it was a fun idea. Hah.

I'd always been interested in video. Several years earlier I took a course in video production at a Greenwich Village school Film/Video Arts and directed a 5 minute comedy called Lucius, starring my friends Mary Saliba and Dan Wasserburg, about an over-eager filmmaker who wants to make a cinema verite film about a homeless guy and ends up causing his death.

I hadn't done any video work recently, but became interested in an emerging video format called Quicktime after seeing a CD-Rom of the Beatles' movie A Hard Day's Night produced by a company called Voyager. I liked the sharp but soft tones produced by Quicktime compression, and I had an urge to experiment with this medium. My first idea when I conceived Notes From Underground was to try to sell the work to Voyager, a New York company that also produced CD-Roms by Gary Panter and Art Spiegelman. But I learned that Voyager, like many of the more experimental media/technology firms in New York, wasn't doing too well financially, so I didn't bother submitting the idea to them. I figured I'd just do it myself.

Phil and I met on 10th Avenue in the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood of west Midtown Manhattan to shoot walking scenes all over the neighborhood, up and down the sidewalk, inside candy shops, up to a dance studio on Broadway where he looked longingly in at the moving figures in the window (I was lucky to get that shot).

Phil and I communicated well and I didn't have to "direct" him much on that first outing. My main instruction was "pretend I'm Martin Scorsese." He gave me the performance I wanted, and I took it home to digitize on my Mac 7500. The scene came together after I added some music from Georges Enesco's "Romanion Rhapsody". I played it back and liked the way it worked. Now I was stuck: I would have to make the movie.

Our next session took us to Tompkins Square, the grungy park at the center of the East Village, so Phil could deliver the confessional speech that begins "I'm a sick man" by the chess tables near Avenue A. Phil and I had agreed to depict the Underground Man as an aging urban hipster in New York City, a typical unappreciated "artistic genius" who lives in the East Village, has a mundane day job, never gets married, never gets famous, collects a lot of books. Tompkins Square Park was the perfect place to film the opening monologue, because that description captures about half the people who live nearby.

I liked working with Phil because he was able to bring out the quiet and restrained side of Dostoevsky's character. It's all too easy for an actor to turn the Underground Man into a ranting, spitting lunatic. But I believed the Underground Man should be played as timid, unremarkable, a quiet face in the crowd. He's one in a million: the near-bum on Bleecker Street with the blanket full of books, the old guy on the subway angrily reading "New Republic", the businesswoman eating alone in a vegetarian restaurant hiding when she sees her friends. Phil agreed to underplay the role, to let the anger seethe. I was very happy with his work, and I don't think Robert DeNiro could have done it any better.

We videotaped most of the solo scenes first, then tackled the group scenes. I recruited my friend Liza Sabater, another Dostoevsky fan and also a writer and sometime-actress, to play the lead female role, a prostitute. She was superb in the role. Liza was not involved in the Internet at this time, but I would run into her again years later after she created a popular blog called Culture Kitchen.

My brother-in-law Jeff Groth put on a suit and played the stranger who bumps into the Underground Man on the street during the book's (and the movie's) first extended comic scene.

Phil's friend Will Perez played the foil -- a servant in the book, here an incompetent office intern -- for the later comic scenes. We shot the office scenes in the Pathfinder basement.

Several of my friends from Pathfinder agreed to play the snobby dinner party companions -- Matt Urbania as "Steve", Nathaniel Wice as "Freddy", Mike Coble as "Robert", John Satriale as "Zorko" -- for the climactic scene, which we videotaped in the lobby of the swankiest hip hotel in New York City, the Royalton on 44th Street. I liked the swooping white chairs in this pristine lobby, and we had a great time videotaping and drinking (on me, of course) until we were kicked out. Luckily, I got all the footage I needed before my group got the boot.

Phil and I shot the final scene at Trinity Church on Wall Street in downtown Manhattan. I guess I wanted to add a subtle religious touch to the film to correspond to Dostoevsky's own religious purpose in writing this powerful book. I also wanted to end the movie with something other than total bleak hopelessness. The spires and gravestones of Trinity Church provided the resonance I needed.

We did a lot of our taping in the downtown financial district, where Phil lived, and I also shot some prescient footage of the World Trade Center for several of the voice-over scenes. One of the central motifs in the book is the image of a "Crystal Palace", a grand edifice in a noble city (there was a real building known as the Crystal Palace in London at the time Dostoevsky wrote the book). I used the World Trade Center to represent the Crystal Palace in my New York version of the story. This was my original mockup for the CD-Rom cover:

"In the Crystal Palace suffering is unthinkable. Suffering means doubt, negation, and what would be the good of a Crystal Palace if there could be any doubt about it? And yet I think man will never renounce real suffering, that is, destruction and chaos. Why, suffering is the sole origin of consciousness. Though I did say before that consciousness is the greatest misfortune for man, yet I know man prizes his suffering, and would not give it up for any satisfaction."
-- Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes From Underground

This article is part of the series The Memoir. The next post in the series is WEBBY VALLEY. The previous post in the series is DISNEYWORLD.
17 Responses to "DINNER WITH DOSTOEVSKY"

by warren_weappa on

Is this available from netflix?
Good synopsis! I don't know if this is the same synopsis as what I read before here.
I like Chapter 18 best and its foreshadowing for the divorce "The only music we both liked was 4 Non-Blondes" and the divorce-foreshadowing here.

by BookCrazy on

I consider Dostoevsky the most powerful writer. His books have stuck with me and I find a strange powerful sensation running through me whenever I read him. One author that could create masterpieces without ever having to think in terms of plots or characters. My theory is he only thinks in terms of ideas and psychology.

Notes from the Underground was my introduction to Dostoevsky. I had goose bumps reading this! It is heartening to see people chase their dreams and actually realize it, and that too a creative one at that. Congratulations! By the way, is the movie available for a download anywhere?

by Levi Asher on

Thanks for the feedback. I am trying to put the movie onto YouTube, one section at a time (there are ten sections in the film, adding up to 64 minutes). I've already put the first section up here:

Notes From Underground: A Sick Man

But I have to solve some technical problems before I put the rest up. Because the videos were originally compressed for CD-Rom, they get doubly compressed for YouTube, and lose some sharpness. Also, the audio sync is off due to the double compression. I'm hoping to find the time this summer to work on this some more and get all ten sections up -- till then, the 5 minute video above gives some flavor for the work, and for Phil's performance.

Does the Creative Commons website accept videos as well as the written word?

I remember you gave me a copy of this movie one time when I visited you in New York and when I came home, I sat and watched it on my computer. I loved it, really. Still have that CD, too.

by Duncan Brown on

My partner Sheila and I made a couple of films on video tape about the poetry of Robert Burns in 1996 and 97 respectively. It had the opposite consequence to yourself, It destroyed our friendship with everyone round about us, but Sheila and I are still together, and still doing art and literature.
Art is tough, and filmaking is tougher still, especially in our case as we knew absolutely nothing about it. It can sometimes operate in opposite conseqence to its essential princple, it destroys those involved in its creation.
Creation and destruction seem to happen simultaneously and you seldom get one without the other kicking in. Knowing that increases my respect for atrists and their art, it also makes me very wary of them.

I think I used to hold back the creativity inside me because I subconsciously sensed that it would destroy me in some way. Maybe it would deplete me, change me, expose me, or eat up my time on Earth. But when I realized that, sooner or later I'll die anyway, I was able to fling myself fearlessly into the ecstacy of creation.

Duncan, if you don't mind my asking, I am intrigued to know more about how the making of Robert Burns poetry videos destroyed friendships. Was it a passive thing, like, you just never saw your friends anymore? Or an active thing, like, the two of you became people who your friends no longer wanted to be around, or vice versa? Again, I hope I'm not being too personal.

Levi great addition!

You might also look into veoh, i know they have much better quality video than youtube.

veoh.com i believe.

by Duncan Brown on

Bill, it was a combination of things, fatigue was the main culprit. People just couldn't keep up, they had another life, careers ,mortgages etc. Neither Sheila nor myself was overburdened by any of these things. I was on an arts course for unemployed people and managed to integrate filmmaking as part of it while Sheila was doing some part time teaching. We worked mainly from a two bedroomed apartment in Paisley, we also brought up the our two daughters there, using public transport to get about. The second film was the same arrangement 'cept everyone was a year older, and we got a small grant from the Scottish Arts Council.

Both films comprised of getting people to sew Robert Burns's poetry on to washing lines of their own clothes and hang them out on Glasgow Green during the 'Fair Fortnight'.

The second film was the same idea, a year later and comprised of one poem, Tam'o'Shanter. That was displayed in a wonderful Charles Rennie Mackintosh school museum building in Glasgow. In between times it was shown in Ayr, Paisley. the Edinburgh Festival and other parts of Scotland.

It's difficult to hang on to people through things like that, unhelped by my ability to ruthlessly exploit any useful talent they had that was going spare.

This year is the 250th anniversary of Burns's birth, and Sheila and I have declined an invitation to make a third version, but you never know...

Sounds like time well spent, indeed. Thanks for sharing. You always have something cool happening, Duncan.

You should do more Dostoevsky adaptations. I'll be Ivan Karamazov. I've always wanted to give the devil a piece of my mind.

by Levi Asher on

Good deal, Eric.

To quote Allen Ginsberg (or was it Carl Solomon) ... "I'm Raskolnikov".

by judih on

Thanks for the link, Levi. Enjoyed seeing this after imagining it for a long while. Hope you get it all online.
Seems like a dostoevsky kind of repercussion that your entire personal life disintegrated as you pursued filming this.

by Duncan Brown on

To quote Kirk Douglas (or was it Tony Curtis)... "I'm Spartacus"

Depends whether it's a crime or a punishment.

by Kevin on

I remember when you sent this to me for free and I spent a wonderful afternoon at work watching it and avoiding my job. Like Jamelah, I too still have the CD.

I am Myshkin.

by TKG on

Yeah, I still have the original CD, and as I mentioned last time, coincidentally fround it last week when cleaning up.

I am Tiger Woods

(Not really)

by mike on

can you do the Bittorrent thing ? or skydrive or email it ? Sounds like it would be cool to check out at the Highest quality possible with the sound insynch.

I was gonna make a zombie movie once.,
(I hope I don't need a theory of grammer ok grammar to write this)
well we did some filming with a small acting troupe one time. It was fun, we hit one with my car at my mother's house, they had pyrotechnics and as fake chest and a shot gun, the director who also happened to be the star would yell action and then hilariously jump into character. Well... back to my own movie, when you killed my zombies they turned to dust(flour) as far as I got was buying six bags of flour at one time. It didn't end my marriage but having six extra bags of flour around for a few years caused some unneeded tension on it.

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