Jon Jost: American independent film-marker
The bard said, 'All the world's a stage', and maybe it is, but what they don't tell you is that all of life is stage-managed. You got your TV, radio, theatre, films, and pop music; it's all divertimenti kids, all divertimenti [Stagefright] *
Jon Jost, director of 'Sure Fire' (2002) and 'All the Vermeers in New York' (2002), began making films in the early 1960s. His films, which he made independently and on low budgets, demonstrate a creative imagination and seriousness of purpose which have earned him an important place in the history of American independent cinema.
Jost made his first film in 1963 when he was nineteen, and describes himself as having been: 'A mixed-up kid, alienated from my family and my culture'.* In 1964 he was arrested for draft-evasion, and subsequently spent 27 months in prison. He says that before going into prison he considered himself an artist, but that prison was 'a slap in the face' which gave him the moral right to open his mouth. He emerged no less an artist, but with a strong sense of purpose which gave his work potency and validity as a comment on society.
His purpose was overtly political in some of his early films, his targets being American corporate capitalism, and the American involvement in Vietnam. But the dissemination of propaganda was never his concern, and overt political statement receded into the background as his work progressed. It could be said that politics is part of his radical questioning of our individual and social lives, or that his examination of our lives is part of his politics; either way his definition of what is political is so broad as to be all-inclusive, and therefore, while acknowledging a strong political sub-text to all his work, it seems best to forget the label and concentrate on what the films actually say.
Jost's output during the period under consideration fell roughly into two stages: from 1963 to 1975, when he made a large number of shorts and the feature 'Speaking Directly', and from 1976 to 1983, during which time he focussed almost entirely on feature films. This essay is not intended as a comprehensive account of all of Jost's films. It is, rather, a selective and personal reading of a large and complex body of work which is open to many levels of interpretation. I intend to pick out some of the predominant themes and methods explored in the early shorts, then go on to examine the first features, hoping to show how the early groundwork provided the foundation from which Jost launched into his fascinating and disturbing portraits of contemporary life.
While it is difficult to generalise about work as varied as Jost's, it might be said that in the period under consideration three over-riding concerns emerge: To communicate with us through film, to communicate with us about film, and to offer insights into our society and the lives of some of its individuals.
A short scene from '1, 2, 3, Four' (1968-70) serves as a good introduction to Jost's concern with the possibilities of communication through film:
Perhaps the first thing to notice is that the scene is not self-explanatory, we have to 'read' it, and this is characteristic of all of Jost's work. We cannot, as we do with conventional films, sit back passively and allow the images to pour their meaning into us; we have to participate, and it is through this active participation that real communication takes place between Jost and each individual member of the audience.
One possible reading of the sequence might be: (1) I have some ideas to communicate to you, (2) I have to put the ideas in concrete form (the girl holds the bowl in the same position as the man holds the book) to give you food for thought, (3) I need a means of attracting your attention before I can communicate, (4) Therefore I have made a film.
So the scene can be read as a statement of intent by Jost; he wants us to know exactly what he is doing, and why. This Brechtian quality is a constant in his work, and serves the purpose of deflecting our attention away from the film and onto the reality of our lives.
It is significant that, with the fourth figure in the sequence, Jost is filming a cine camera filming, as a close examination of what film is, and how it conveys meanings to an audience, is a dominant feature of his early work, and a theme which is explored on its most fundamental level in his short film 'Traps' (1967).
In 'Traps' there is a sequence in which all we see on the screen are some bands of shade running from top to bottom. On the sound-track we hear an extract from a work of fiction in which the narrator describes his feelings on realising that the door of his room is slowly opening. As we listen, one of the vertical bands on the screen seems to broaden, and immediately we are trapped into thinking that we are watching the edge of a slowly opening door. We feel suspense; Why is the door opening? Who is behind it? What will happen when the door opens?
The shot is held for some time, and we cannot help but come to the realisation that all we are seeing on the screen is an abstract image; a white rectangle with bands of shade. Jost has made us aware of the gap between an image and its meaning, and of the ease with which a film-maker can cause us to experience the meanings he wants to impose on us. The opening door, and all the attendant suspense, exist only in our minds.
Jost has said that he considers it a primary function of the artist to 're-invent the language'. In a sequence such as this we see him exploring and exposing the basic vocabulary of film language, an exploration which is both a pre-cursor to re-invention, and an act of re-invention in itself.
The relationship between language and meaning is explored further in the short film 'Flower' (1970), in which a direct parallel is drawn between film language and verbal language. The film opens with a quote, in the form of a printed text, from Mallarm saying that when he reads the word 'flower' he experiences a sense of beauty. But there is no flower actually there, only the word, and the associated idea of a flower. Therefore, he concludes, the word 'flower' denotes a beautiful idea.
Jost follows this with many shots of flowers, and again the sequence goes on for a long time, giving us ample time to consider what is taking place. We begin by looking for the flower which matches our idea of a flower, and none of them do. Our idea of a flower does not exist in the real world, only specific individual flowers, such as the ones we are seeing on the screen, exist there. But if we cannot see our idea of a flower on the screen, nor, we realise, can we see any real flowers, all we can see are projected patterns of light shade and colour.
The film ends with a quote praising the beauty of 'hues conceived in the mind', and deploring the folly of men who think such beauty can be represented by mere 'grunts and squeaks', (i.e. language).
Jost is demonstrating that film itself cannot present us with reality, or with meanings, film is a mere language, patterns of light and shade, grunts and squeaks. It is we who attribute meaning to the images, and any reality we might think we are seeing in the film is merely an illusion. Jost continually reminds us of this fact, even in the features, in order that we should see through the illusion to what is being communicated from him to us about our real lives in the real world.
Having established that film is only a language, it follows that everything we see on the screen is determined by the film-maker's intentions towards us, and towards his subject matter. Jost has defined film (In 'Susannah's Film', 1969) as 'light, shade, and bias', and his film '13 Fragments and 3 Narratives from Life' (1968) is a complex and fascinating essay on this subject.
The subject of '13 Fragments and 3 Narratives from Life' is a girl called Katya; not an actress playing a part, but an ordinary girl who has collaborated with Jost in making a film about herself. The film employs the form and techniques of a documentary, but what emerges is a three-way dialogue between Jost, Katya, and ourselves in which it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish fact from bias.
The film opens with a series of establishing shots, which, as in any other film, is designed to introduce the subject in its context. We see an aerial shot of a city, a close-up of a girl fastening her blouse, a telephone cord, (while on the sound-track we hear a girl declining an invitation to go out), a close up of a girl applying make-up to her face, a comic strip, and a record on a turntable.
This pictorial introduction establishes the subject as a girl who lives in a city, but along with this fact we have been given a biased view of her character. The telephone shot implies that she is unsociable, and the other shots, which are from Jost's private stock of images, whose meanings become clear after seeing one or two of his films, are a 'montage of distractions' establishing her as a complacent consumer of popular culture; the comic strip and the record, and a wearer of disguises; the make-up.
Thus, through his selection of images, Jost has established a context of his own bias, a context which will influence the way we see the girl. The process continues with his verbal introduction:
This comment is the verbal equivalent of the shots of make-up and the blouse; it highlights a quality of pretence in the subject, and, while it tells us a fact, it also conveys an attitude of criticism, perhaps even ridicule on behalf of Jost. The commentary continues:
Again, this comment, which is the verbal equivalent of the comic strip, conveys factual information about Katya, but with its parody of the language of popular romance, it also mocks her. So, although nothing overtly biased has been shown or said, and although it has gone by so quickly we might not have noticed it, a distinct bias towards the subject has been imparted. The point is that all films do this, no matter what their subject, or how objective they pretend to be.
Jost then withdraws and allows Katya to take over the narration:
Then in the first narrative, entitled 'The Life of Facts', the camera holds on Katya's coffee cup, and then on her, silent and motionless on a sofa, while on the sound-track she tells us some facts about her life; she gets up in the morning and makes coffee, goes to college, does a part-time job, and so on. This is almost direct communication between Katya and us, and although the separation of image and sound-track might seem like interference, it actually increases our sense of objectivity. We can concentrate on what she has to say all the better for not having to watch her speak, and if she had to speak to the camera she would, presumably, either act or become nervous, which, again, would distract us from the facts. The bias of the film-maker seems to be at a minimum here.
Then Jost takes over again: on the screen we see close-ups of Katya's face, while on the sound-track he reads facts about political events; the war in Vietnam, the Paris riots, and the assassination of Martin Luther King.
The film-maker's bias now comes across strongly, although the information with which he presents us is strictly factual. The portraits of Katya are stark full-face and profile shots, reminiscent of the 'mug-shots' of prison records, conveying the impression that she is being accused of something, or, at least, being held up for examination. We still have in the back of our minds the facts about her life from the first narrative and the juxtaposition of these facts with the facts of political events adds up to a presentation of Katya as insular and complacent, wrapped up in her own world while people in the world around her are fighting and dying for high ideals. Thus, through the selection and juxtaposition of facts, the film-maker has manipulated us into sharing his bias. How often is this done to us in news reports and documentaries?
Jost then gives Katya another say in the matter:
In the second narrative, entitled 'Facts are Tempered by Passion', Katya tells us more about her life, this time adding her feelings to the facts. She is generally fed up, doesn't like the city, wishes she could travel, and, she says, she isn't really very happy. In this section we seem to be getting closer to Katya. She is being honest with us, and we sympathise with her.
More facts from Jost follow:
With this commentary Jost undercuts her honesty and our sympathy, and holds her up as an object for our pity. Then it is Katya's turn again:
The facts are being bounced around so much, acquiring so many different connotations that we hardly know where we are any more. Then in the third narrative Katya says:
Is that true? Or did Jost only write out those words? Now we don't know where we are at all; any idea that we may have been grasping some facts has been undermined, and we are thrown back upon ourselves to sort out the mixture of fact, invention, and bias.
The film ends with Katya strolling through a park, while on the sound-track, with background music playing, she gives us her philosophy of life. Now she seems confident and contented, she seems to know exactly what she wants and what she is doing. We are inclined to feel contented too, the film seems to have a happy ending. But by now we should be suspicious, we are being manipulated by the sentimental music and the idyllic parkland setting; and perhaps Jost wrote out the words she is speaking now too.
Finally the camera stops following Katya and she walks off, not into the sunset, but into the darkness of some woods. We are left feeling cheated, we don't know what to think or what to feel. The film has manipulated us from start to finish. The point is that all films manipulate us all the time, but most film-makers conceal the techniques which Jost has made so conspicuous.
Having said all that it seems a contradiction to say that '13 Fragments and 3 Narratives from Life' functions as a social documentary, a portrait of Katya, and yet it does, and to ignore this aspect would be to deny a large part of the film's interest.
Jost has said that he wants his films to be about the kind of people films usually ignore, and carried this principle from his early shorts 'Leah', '13 Fragments and 3 Narratives from Life', and 'Susannah's Film' into the features 'Last Chants for a Slow Dance' and 'Slow Moves'. Part of his intention in doing this is undoubtedly to break down the barriers to communication which films usually impose, and, according to Susannah in 'Susannah's Film', to convey his belief that ordinary everyday events are beautiful and sacred. She says that Jost wanted to film her sleeping in her room, rather than playing the violin, because playing the violin wasn't mundane enough.
But another aim seems to have been to get the girls to talk as much as possible about themselves, in order to reveal how they see themselves. Katya, for example, 'wants to be an artist'. This theme becomes very important in the features, in which characters are shown to make decisions in accordance with the image of themselves they carry in their minds, images which they have not consciously chosen, but which have been planted there by society.
'1, 2, 3, Four' (1969-70) is another early short from which elements, both thematic and formal, can be traced into the features. It is an essay on political and social problems, constructed as a montage of images, dialogue, printed texts, readings, and action. The arrangement of these elements creates a dialectical process in which points of view are played off against one another both within each scene, and in the juxtaposition of scenes.
One short scene neatly illustrates Jost's aim (discussed earlier in connection with the scene which pans across four people) of translating his ideas into film:
Jost is equating his film with a terrorist's bomb, both being intended to shock us into taking note of a message, and at the same time asserting his belief that a film is a better medium for the communication of his radical ideas than a bomb. Jost's bomb is purely visual, a harmless but potent tool designed to entertain us while he delivers his message.
The main subject of the film, however, is the difficulty of communication between people with polarised attitudes. Subtitled 'An Essay on Domestic Problems', (domestic in two senses), the film looks at private conflict and national conflict, and at the inseparability of the two. Perhaps the most important kind of polarisation, with regard to later development in the features, is that between male and female attitudes. The couple in the film do not talk to, or listen to each other, they are constantly arguing, and therefore not communicating.
He: "Why are we living together?"
She: "Because you don't like to be alone. And because you're good in bed."
Voice: "How do you translate happiness?"
Voice: "How do you translate love?"
She: "F - ."
He: "The dishes are dirty."
She: (angry) "I don't feel like doing the dishes."
A plate is smashed.
Persistent confrontation without communication leads to the impoverishment of human values, such as love and happiness, and to destruction. And any hope of communication is thwarted by their irreconcilable attitudes to life.
He: "I can't be happy while General Motors exists."
She: "What would make you happy?"
He: "To be rid of General Motors. Or to be fighting against General Motors."
He: "What would make you happy?"
She: "A garden, a river, the sky."
We see her walking naked through a wood, but this pastoral fantasy is shattered by the roar of a jet aeroplane overhead.
This fundamental incompatibility of male and female is a recurring theme in Jost's work. The woman is content to exist, and looks for fulfilment in the quality of her day-to-day life, but the man can only define his existence in terms of what he does, he needs to live for something. This view is expounded in the short 'A Man is More than the Sum of His Parts A Woman is . . . ' (1971), in which women are likened to a queen bee, and men to the workers and drones. 'l, 2, 3, Four' takes the insect metaphor even further, likening woman to the female spider which seduces the male then consumes him while he copulates. These daunting, and perhaps misogynistic views might be seen as underlying the male/female relationships in 'Last Chants for a Slow Dance' and 'Slow Moves'.
'1, 2, 3, Four' ends with an attempt at reconciliation. We are given this argument connecting domestic life to political issues: 'If you traced the wires by which electricity reaches your home back to their source, you would find a pile of dead bodies'. Then, coupled with an image of a candle being blown out, a girl says: "I love you, therefore I will never use electricity again." This final conceit synthesises the opposites, male and female, rational and irrational, political awareness and personal love. But it is absurd and impossible. It seems there is no real solution.
The film ends on a close-up of a happy-looking couple, leaning against their house with arms around each other. But how long can such happiness last? How long will it be before irreconcilable conflict sets in?
'Speaking Directly' (1973-75), Jost's first feature, draws together many of the elements mentioned above into one film, and can be seen as his opening statement to a wider public. It does not have the integrity of structure which his later work achieved, and looks like a collection of shorts, but the whole gains an extra quality which the shorts, because of their limited format, did not have.
The guiding theme behind the film is a self-portrait of Jost, his attempt to place himself, as a man and a film-maker, in his social and political context. In one section Jost literally gives us a self-portrait, a head and shoulders, while he introduces himself, speaking directly to the audience. Then the camera pulls back to reveal that the shot we are watching is being filmed by Jost himself, in a mirror. Jost is 'reflecting upon himself'. We are also given a guided tour of his home, and introduced to his friends, each of whom is given a few minutes to speak about their relationship to him.
All of this is fascinating to watch, but what comes across most strongly is that this is an attack on established cinema conventions. All our expectations of a feature film are being ignored: there are no actors, plot, music, or setting. Instead the film-maker is introducing himself to us, and showing us some ordinary people saying ordinary things. The mood is distinctly revolutionary; all the usual barriers between film-maker and audience are being broken down in favour of direct communication on the subject of our real, everyday lives.
The film continues to break the rules, except the cardinal rule that the audience must be entertained, in every scene. There is a powerful montage sequence on Vietnam, in which three short sections of film are shown repeatedly, while on the sound-track we hear a Vietnamese woman's firsthand account of a bomb raid, and statistics about the United States' military involvement. In the third section of the film there are sequences designed to demonstrate the nature of film language, and the way it works on the audience.
At one point film Jost shows us all the equipment that was used in filming, and tells us how much it cost to make. He is de-mystifying and re-inventing cinema, taking it out of the hands of the capitalist exploiters and bringing it closer to the audience in every possible way.
One of the simplest, yet most effective scenes from the third section is an illustration of a prominent feature of all of Jost's work: the long take. Jost says that he started using long takes because they both appealed to his tendency towards formal restraint and helped keep the cost of the film down, and that he continues to use them because he likes to give the viewer time to look for himself. He sees this partly as a political gesture, in that it gives the viewer, and the actors, more freedom of choice.
The use of long takes is also a deliberate attack on the standard practice in conventional film editing, which is to make frequent cuts in order to advance the story as quickly as possible. The attitude towards the viewer implicit in this practice, to hook him firmly into the story, alleviating him of the need to think, either about the film or beyond the film, is exactly what Jost is fighting against.
Some viewers object to long takes, and if the device is misused they have good reason, for they simply alienate us from the film and induce boredom. But when Jost uses them there is always good reason, and viewers who become bored or restless are, in a way, experiencing exactly the point he is making; they are resisting the challenge to think about the contents of the scene, and impatient for the film to carry on distracting them with a story.
A scene in 'Speaking Directly' takes this principle to its logical extreme: A stop-watch is placed before the camera, Jost announces: "End of take five minutes", and that is it, nothing more happens for five minutes.
The viewer is thus thrown completely back upon himself. He might use the time to think about why Jost has done this, he might think about why he is sitting in a cinema, and what he expects from the screen in front of him, or he might simply become restless and impatient for the film to start again. The viewer has been forced into a confrontation with himself, something which rarely happens, either in the cinema or outside it.
When, via the stepping-stone of 'Angel City' Jost completed the transition from shorts to features, his themes and methods coalesced to produce works of subtlety and integrity which, while superficially more accessible than the shorts, carry the same power to fascinate, disturb, and deliver a political message. 'Last Chants for a Slow Dance', 'Chameleon', and 'Slow Moves' are as subversive and inventive as anything else Jost has done, but look more like normal films in that they employ the conventional ingredients of character and narrative continuity, and in that their message is embedded in the story, rather than presented directly.
'Angel City' (1976) appears as a transitional work in that while it is held loosely together by a thread of narrative, it makes many of its overtly political points through digressions, and sequences which deliberately disrupt the narrative. The film is a simultaneous attack on capitalism and Hollywood films, two evils which, in Jost's view, go hand in hand; the latter helping to spread the corrupt and dehumanising values of the former throughout society.
The narrative, featuring the familiar Hollywood figure of a private detective, is used to hold our attention, while at the same time, by playing on our expectations, undermining the conventions of the genre. Frank Goya, the detective, has been hired by a businessman to investigate the murder of his wife, and all the usual stages in the build-up of the drama are undercut and discredited by the fact that Goya explains this directly to the camera, with the already dead body draped over the edge of the pool beside him.
Goya begins his investigations with a visit to the businessman's mistress, and she, perhaps in keeping with Jost's 'female spider' image leads him through the labyrinthine corridors of her house towards the bedroom. She is the feminine embodiment of capitalism, a corrupt, seductive, consumer of men.
But while Goya pursues his investigations at ground level, we, in an interpolated montage sequence, are whisked up to view Los Angeles, including the conspicuous HOLLYWOOD sign, from the air. As the camera drifts slowly across the seemingly endless web of streets and houses, now reduced to an almost abstract pattern of light and shade, the sound-track gives us two contrasting commentaries on the scene; a poem, and a list of statistics.
The function of this sequence is to distance us, in every way, from the action. We look down not just upon the scene of the crime, but on its context, geographical and political. Who, Jost is implicitly asking, is responsible for the murder from this point of view? It cannot be the personified LA evoked by the poem, nor can it be one of the millions of tiny units which go to make up the statistics; births, marriages, divorces etc. It has to be something bigger, something which has power over both the city and its human population.
It doesn't take Goya long to discover that capitalism, represented by the businessman himself, is responsible. The generic convention of the detection has been transformed into the adoption of a political perspective, and the convention of the confession, or unmasking of the villain consists, in Jost's version, of the businessman strolling along the beach extolling the virtues of corporate capitalism. This scene looks and sounds conspicuously like a TV advert, with the businessman using the suave, persuasive, sinister language of a professional public relations job.
The convention of the film chase is also parodied and ridiculed by Jost; the scene cuts back and forth between Goya and the businessman-villain, denuded of cars, running along in front of a painted back-drop shouting: "I'll get you, you son-of-a-bitch." "Oh no you won't." The scene is patently artificial and absurd, and ends with a long-shot which destroys the illusion by showing us the camera, camera crew, and actors working in the street in front of a mural.
'Angel City' is an amusing film, largely due to the cool sardonic manner of Bob Glaudini, who plays Goya. But the underlying message is deadly serious, and an important reference point for the development of themes in later features. The message is that American corporate capitalism is a system which corrupts and destroys human life, and that it has powerful accomplices, such as Hollywood, which both perpetrate its dehumanising values, and distract its victims, (with stories), while the villain goes in for the kill.
Having identified the villain, Jost turns his attention, in 'Last Chants for a Slow Dance' and 'Slow Moves', to the victims, or, as he calls them in 'Stagefright', the casualties.
Tom of 'Last Chants for a Slow Dance' (1977) is one of those statistics; married, father of two, on the verge of divorce, and unemployed. He is also a desperate human being, unable to cope with marriage, fatherhood, or steady employment, and, in the eyes of society, a misfit.
Here, for the first time, Jost has created a convincing character in a convincing situation. The direct communication between film-maker and audience has gone, or at least, taken a step back, and the film presents us with a narrative in more or less the same way that other films present us with a narrative. A deliberate hole, however, is left in the illusion; at the beginning of the film, before the 'character' speaks, we hear the actor say: "Shall I start now? You said thirty seconds." In this, and other ways, Jost reminds us that we are sitting in a cinema watching a film, and therefore that any meanings we perceive have been deliberately put there as a means of communication between himself and us.
'Last Chants for a Slow Dance' works partly as a psychological study, in that Tom's decline from restless young man to murderer can be seen as a function of his own maladjusted personality; we are even given an indication of the origin of his problems: "Everything goes so fast. I don't remember anything. I don't remember my childhood, except that my father was always beating me, and I was always running away." Running away is all he learned to do as a child, and all he knows how to do as an adult. But at the same time, Jost makes it clear that, whatever the reasons for Tom's maladjustment, it is cues from society which prompt him to take the action he does take.
Tom is already desperate when the film opens; in a society which places high value on employment, material wealth, and family life, he is unemployed, broke, and alienated from his wife and children. He resorts to the only way of life he can cope with; driving around in his truck from town to town, ostensibly looking for work, but really seeking the comfort of anonymity, casual sex, and escape from responsibilities.
When Tom does return home it is only to be harangued, and threatened with divorce, by his wife, who is now pregnant for the third time. She verbally attacks him for his long absences from home, his failure to find a job, and his lack of concern for her and the children. Her attack is justified, of course, and she probably shouldn't have married him in the first place, but this is no help to Tom, who cannot help the way he is, and no consolation for the society upon which he will take out his frustration. It is Jost's view, and his case is convincing, that Tom is society's problem.
Having been finally rejected by his wife, Tom hits the road again. He stops at a cafe, and while eating comes across an amusing letter in a newspaper and reads it out to a man sitting next to him. The letter is a sexual joke, and the man says: "You don't believe that's really a letter do you? Those letters are made up by some guy sitting in a back room. The government puts out that trash to keep people's minds off their real problems." This is the nub of Jost's argument; that the media floods society with stories which distract people from their real problems, and perpetuate dehumanised values, in this case that a wife exists as a sexual object for her husband, which encourage them to remain distracted even when the story is forgotten. It is Jost's contention that Tom, with his lack of intellect, and lack of purpose in his life, is a helpless victim of such stories.
In a later scene Tom spends the night with a girl he meets in a bar. The camera is positioned so that, on the right of the screen, we see the couple's legs through an open door, while on the left of the screen we see a TV showing a game show. The scene is in black and white, except, strangely, for the TV screen, which is in colour. Because of this the distribution of values within the frame is curiously and disturbingly balanced, and, being one of Jost's long takes, we have ample time to consider why this should be. When Jost draws attention to colour, such as in his frequent shots of a girl applying make-up, it is nearly always to emphasise its artificiality, its capacity to distract and conceal. In this scene the TV and the rest of the screen vie for our attention. What is going on in the rest of the screen is really terribly bleak; Tom is having a meaningless one-night-stand with a girl he has just met and doesn't care about, and in the morning he will be gone.
But what is happening on the TV screen is depressing too; an audience-participation game show, in which people's lives literally become merged with TV, and which, broadcasting its phoney spirit of competitive bonhomie, is nothing less than a brain-washing exercise, designed to sedate its viewers while instilling values favourable to capitalism.
The whole scene is a depiction of emptiness disguised, and as such is a depiction of Tom's world, in which the distribution of values is out of balance with the needs of reality. Later in the scene, when the girl walks in front of the TV, we see the coloured image of the screen superimposed on her body. This betrayal of the illusion is Jost's way of ensuring that we are not merely fascinated and distracted by his trick photography.
The turning point for Tom comes after he has looked at a folder of criminal records. Each page has a photo of the criminal and a summary of his activities and characteristics, including (the detail which fascinates Tom the most) his tattoos. In Tom's eyes these little 'stories', which situate their subjects in a recognisable relationship to society, give meaning to their subjects' lives. And so he has found a last chance to give meaning to his own life; by becoming a criminal he can become a story, in newspapers, on TV, and preserved for posterity in police records.
Jost only interpolates one 'montage' shot into the narrative, but it is one the viewer will never forget: suddenly we are watching, in merciless close up, a live rabbit having its head forced over a chopping-block. We see the helpless look in its eye as it struggles, then it is decapitated and we see the blood spurt. Then, one by one, its paws are chopped from its still-twitching body. That, Jost implies, is how much chance a man like Tom has against the coercive power of society and its media.
Tom's final, irreversible act is even more disturbing than the slaughter of the rabbit. He comes across a man whose car has broken down in an isolated rural spot, and stops to help him. They chat, and it turns out that the man comes from the same town as Tom, and, like Tom, has a wife and children. They have something in common, but the man has kept all the things Tom has lost, and for the first time we seem to be seeing Tom engaging in a friendly conversation, talking for the pleasure of communicating.
But just when we begin to think he might be human after all, and that this new-found friendship might be the start of an upturn in his life, Tom casually gets a gun from his truck and robs the man. "I can't get work," he explains, "I've got no money, this (the gun) is all I got left." Then he leads the man into the woods, and shoots him. The need to align himself with society's media-perpetrated values has taken precedence over all human values.
The film ends with a long take of Tom's face as he drives his truck, forcing us to contemplate the meaning of what we have just seen. And there is much to contemplate, for, in this film, Jost has produced a convincing account of how society engenders its own crime, and creates its own criminals.
Like Tom, Terry of 'Chameleon' (1978) is a character who seems to have lost touch with normal human feeling, and whose life is devoid of love, happiness, or purpose. But, being more intelligent than Tom, and having a capacity for self-examination, Terry is a more complex character. While Tom was just beginning to find his place in society, Terry is already established in his, he is a dealer in drugs and art (more or less the same thing in Jost's view), and as such is an exploiter as well as a victim of society's dehumanising currents.
Terry is chameleon-like in that he adapts his behaviour to suit the person with whom he is dealing, in order to exploit their weak points. We see him first dealing with a printer, and part of the film's message, that art is a meaningless gloss over a world of corrupt and impoverished human beings, is made in a scene densely packed with meaning.
We see the printer making screen prints, and Jost's recurrent motif of colour is emphasised again as we watch the inks spread across the silk-screen. He then hangs his prints on the wall to dry, praising their colours, apparently indifferent to their subject-matter: a gun. Terry, however, for whom art is a weapon of exploitation, picks up a real gun from the printer's bench and say's he'll take it in lieu of some money the printer owes him. In the ensuing argument it is clear that the printer values the gun because, like a work of art, it is a fine piece of craftsmanship, and worth a lot of money. He seems oblivious to the fact, of which Terry is all-too aware, that the gun is a tool for killing people.
Terry puts pressure on the printer to make some illegal extra copies of a limited edition, and it is clear from the dialogue that the printer has done such work before. The printer resists, in an effort to salvage his professional integrity, but Terry applies pressure remorselessly.
Then Terry leaves, although he will return to resolve the matter at the end of the film, and we see the printer, alone in his workshop, take out a bottle and set about drowning his problems with alcohol. The printer is a craftsman, only marginally involved in art, but this marginal involvement, is enough for Terry to get his hooks into him.
At one point in the sequence Terry, apparently as a joke, aims the gun at his own head and pulls the trigger. This action, equivalent to the printer's heavy drinking, might suggest that no matter who has the upper hand, the art-dealing world, like the drug-dealing world, is a world of people toying with their own self-destructive impulses.
In the rest of the film we follow Terry through a series of meetings; with a girl on a hilltop, a gallery-owner at her house, and an artist living in the desert. Each person Terry meets is, through their profession and environment, located within a recognisable facet of human society. The printer in his workshop is a craftsman. The girl, outdoors with the sunshine and the animals, is a nature-lover. The gallery-owner, in her luxury home, is a business woman and society figure. The artist, with his sculptures, astronomical telescope, and makeshift home in the desert, is a creative recluse, living among the mysteries of the universe. Terry, however, has no fixed place in society. We never see his home; the only space which is his is the inside of his car, and he flits from one to the other of these people, temporarily borrowing their environment, doing his business, then moving on again.
Terry's attachment to society is seen to be even more tenuous when we consider that the people he deals with are themselves coming adrift. The printer has sold his integrity and taken to drink. The girl lives in a dream-world, wandering around the hills catching lizards. The gallery-owner is rapidly becoming a drug addict. And the artist, also taking drugs, has apparently rejected society altogether. Terry's only attachment to society is through its sickness. He feeds on sickness, becomes contaminated by it, and passes it on to others.
With his adaptable character Terry always seems to be in control. With the printer he is a thug, with the girl he displays an almost child-like innocence, with the gallery-owner he becomes a connoisseur of art and good living, and with the artist he is the sub-culture drug dealer. He has the right approach, and the right gift (he gives each a present) for each person he meets, but he has no personality of his own, he is a collapsed individual in a collapsing world, and his various pseudo-personalities are, like the art and the drug experiences he sells, nothing more than a superficial and temporary gloss over a barren reality.
Terry's meeting with the girl on the hilltop is the only purely social meeting of the film. It is an illustration of how love is draining away from Terry's life, and at the same time a de-bunking of 'romantic young love' scenes in Hollywood films. The setting is ideal for film-romance; the young couple climb to the top of a hill together, the girl is pretty, a breeze blows her summer dress and her straw hat catches the sunlight. But all they do is stand around like a pair of excited but awkward children, talking over old times when they used to be happy together.
The scene conveys a sense that whatever romance there might once have been is now irretrievably lost, and although Terry, as always, seems in control, his inner agitation is shown by the hand-held camera shots which jump about frantically, grabbing at random details and irrelevancies, unable to come to rest or to get a grip on the whole. It seems that Terry finds the possibility of love and human warmth a threat, and this potentially romantic scene is transformed into one of anxiety. The scene ends with the couple remembering a song they used to sing. They link arms and, parodying a dance number from a musical, sing a song with the chorus: "I wanna be fake. I wanna be bad." Love has gone, and they have turned to other things instead.
The inner suffering which the inarticulate Tom underwent silently is made painfully apparent in 'Chameleon' in a number of scenes in which we see Terry alone. When alone, Terry's chameleon-like personality has nothing but emptiness to mould itself to, and he is prone to the horror of experiencing himself as an existence without an identity.
The first time we see him alone, driving his car, he is listening to a tape he has made to remind himself of all the visits and 'phone calls he has to make during the day. The tape is extremely long, showing how his life is defined by the dozens of deals he is doing with other people, and also, considering the amount of time he has spent making the tape, and the time he is now spending listening to it, that he is extending his business into as much of his life as possible, putting off the awful moment when there is nothing left to do, and he has to face himself.
When Terry does face himself it is not a pleasant experience for him, or for the audience. We are with him in his car again, and, without any tape to listen to, he is thinking about his life. He knows that he has become emotionally cold, and that nothing means anything to him, and is distressed to find himself so. But, in the absence of any meaningful contact with anything or anyone outside himself, he can see no hope of his own salvation. "Am I human at all?" he wonders. "Maybe I'm just a gorilla. One day someone will come up to me and say 'F - off you gorilla'." He then begins a chant: 'F - off you gorilla, f - off you gorilla,' which goes on and on as if he can't stop. He seems to be trying to hold on to a sense of self through the sound of his own voice, but unable to get out of the trap of equating his own identity with the way others see him. The image is of a man in whom sadness and loneliness have metamorphosed into self-hatred.
Later we see him isolated against a black background. Perhaps it is the middle of the night, or perhaps the darkness is internal, but he is now face to face with his own soul, and delivers a harrowing monologue on the twin horrors of isolation and the fear of death. The scene is theatrical in style, isolating it from the rest of the film, (and anticipates a technique later used in 'Stagefright'.) We see Terry in close-up, isolated by lighting which gives a grey-green corpse-like, (and chameleon-like) pallor to his skin. He talks frantically, not to the camera but, isolated from the audience, to himself. When, as he talks of death, he suddenly reaches up and smears blue paint over his face, Jost demonstrates how effective colour can be when its inherently expressive properties are used to the full.
At the end of the film Terry returns to the printer, finds that, in a last ditch effort to save his integrity, he has neither made the prints nor come up with the money, so Terry kills him. For this scene Jost picks up the motifs introduced in the opening scene, and Terry kills the printer symbolically, both with his own printing inks and with the gun he had used as the subject for his prints.
While this is going on a little scene takes place which gives us perspective on the inhumanity and corruption of the art world Terry inhabits. Terry's partner, a figure we only see at the very beginning and very end of the film, is waiting for Terry in the printer's office, and starts chatting to another man who is also waiting there.
"Oh no," says the man diffidently, "not me."
"What do you do?"
"I'm a builder," says the man, apparently ashamed of the fact. "I build houses. It's not much, but I guess everyone sinks to their own level."
"That's not a bad thing, being a builder."
"I suppose not. People seem to like it."
The point is that the builder seems to be a sensitive, decent, normal human being, the only one we have seen in the whole film. And in the midst of Terry's corrupt and deadly art world it seems a breath of fresh air to meet someone who earns his living through honest labour, doing something constructive. He builds houses for people to live in; it seems so simple, and yet, in this context, quite heart-warming. The irony that his man obviously thinks of artists as superior beings, and that he has sunk to being a builder is almost tragic. It makes us feel that a society in which artists are held in higher esteem than builders must have its values upside-down.
The builder gets in Terry's way when he dashes out after killing the printer, and Terry threatens him with the gun. The scene is reminiscent of the end of 'Last Chants for a Slow Dance', with the empty, desperate character threatening the life of the ordinary decent citizen. But this time, thankfully for the builder, and the audience, Terry does not shoot.
"What happened back there with the printer?" asks Terry's partner as they leave the building. "Don't worry," says Terry, speaking the last line of the film, "it had nothing to do with art."
The photography in 'Chameleon' is conspicuously, even excessively arty, and this makes it an anti-art art-movie, just as 'Angel City' was an anti-detective story detective story. In both cases the self-contradiction is deliberate and in keeping with the message. Jost wants to make sure that we do not simply admire his films as artefacts, he wants us to see through them to what they tell us about our society.
'Chameleon', apart from being a powerful character-study, tells us two things about our society. Firstly that the drug dealer is not an alien being imposing himself on an innocent society, but an integral part of the society we have created for ourselves. And secondly that the value we attach to art like the value drug addicts attach to their drugs, is dangerously misplaced.
The films 'Angel City', 'Last Chants for a Slow Dance', and 'Chameleon' have shown us a society permeated by media; films, newspapers, TV, and the visual arts, which, in the name of capitalism, cause damage to individuals and to society as a whole.
'Stagefright' (1981) continues with this theme, but formally is very different from the other works under discussion. The reason for the difference is two-fold: firstly it was originally made (in shorter form) for German TV, and Jost has adapted his methods to suit the medium, and secondly the subject under examination, the theatre, is examined in close-up, rather than, as in the pervious two films, through its effect on society at large.
The film looks different because it is all shot in a studio with actors performing against a black background. The emphasis, therefore, in on expression through the human figure, which both suits the TV medium and reproduces the methods of the theatre. In fact, since we are made constantly aware that we are watching actors performing, and since the camera does not move, watching the film is almost as much like being at the theatre as like being at the cinema.
The film has no plot, and like 'l, 2, 3, Four' and other early shorts, the sub-text is in essay form. The argument has four stages: an introduction, an exposition, a climax, and a conclusion. The introduction is a short history of human communication, and, like everything else in Jost's films, it can be read on more than one level. Firstly we are made aware that the subject being illustrated is communication as part of the evolution of mankind. Secondly we are aware that the story is being illustrated by actors, and that developments in communication have also taken place in the theatre. And thirdly we are aware that what we are watching is a film, another area in which developments in communication have taken place.
The film opens with a dance representing birth. It can be seen as the birth of mankind, and, in the way the dancer communicates through the use of her body, as the birth of human communication, and of theatre. The following sequences illustrate, visually and aurally, the refinement of this process towards communication through language. First we see the human face, which communicates states of mind through its expressions, then we close in on the mouth, and the extraordinary range of sounds it is capable of making. Then comes the addition of vocal sounds, and finally, as the image cuts back to reveal the full-length naked figure, we hear the first word of the film: 'Human'.
The next sequence follows the development of language, first with a figure clad in a toga reading Latin from a book, illustrating the birth of Western civilisation, the written word, and costume, and then, as letters proliferate wildly on the screen, the arrival of printing. The latter scene is the first with no human figure in it, showing that language has now taken on a life of its own; and the power of this new medium of communication is shown in the next scene: we see a close-up of a text, and, as it is read aloud, drops of blood-red ink fall on the pages, eventually obscuring the words.
So far, other than "Human", not a word of English has been spoken; we have been looking at forms of communication in relation to their source and raison d'tre - the human being - without being distracted by meanings.
The next scene, in which a cabaret hostess welcomes us to the show, marks the beginning of the exposition. We have followed the evolution of language into an important arena of communication: the theatre; in other words, as we sit there watching the performance, into our immediate situation.
The film then takes us through a medley of theatrical entertainment, while at the same time entertaining us with a medley of trick photography. The emphasis in these scenes, in both form and content, is on trickery, illusion, and falseness, showing how, in the world of show business, actors are used to create characters and images which effectively prevent any real person-to-person communication from taking place.
In a scene commenting on cabaret we watch conjuring tricks, while the camera is performing its own conjuring tricks by showing two characters, one shot from a low angle, and one shot from a high angle, simultaneously.
In a scene commenting, perhaps, on psychological drama, we see a young actress, in full-face and profile simultaneously, standing dumbly and nervously as two men, perhaps the director and producer, smother her with advice and instructions. The actress has no voice of her own, she is being manipulated by others, and the only thing which is genuine about the whole scene is the thing they are trying to eliminate; her stagefright.
In a scene commenting, perhaps, on contemporary 'internal monologue' dramas, such as the work of Samuel Beckett, we see two heads, one upside down, one the right way up, arguing with each other, merging, and separating.
In a scene commenting on the theatrical performances of statesmen three actors don masks of politicians and act out the kind of hand-shaking routines we see in TV and newspaper pictures. This scene makes two points: it exposes the public image-making of statesmen as a branch of show business, and it shows actors having to act out roles imposed on them by people with political power.
Every now and then during these scenes an actor doing an absurdly exaggerated James Cagney impression walks across the screen saying: "No wonder there are so many casualties." And every now and then a hand holding a camera reaches down from the top of the screen and takes a photograph of us, the audience in whose name the whole bag of tricks is being performed.
The film's climax is a sequence in which the cheapest trick in show business, the custard pie in the face, is rendered grotesque and terrifying by being shown in extreme slow motion. We see every detail as the pie flies through the air, hits the actor in the face, and begins to fall away. This is a very long take and its effect is deeply disturbing.
The action which is normally supposed to make us laugh is now seen as a vicious and humiliating assault on an actor whose suffering is all-too apparent. He looks as if he is being injured, and, indeed, psychologically he is. As with the scenes of the exposition we are being asked to question the relationship between actors and ourselves. Who are actors? What is being done to them, and, through them, to us? Why are we sitting watching? And who is controlling it all?
Then suddenly the film cuts to the famous newsreel footage of a Vietnamese peasant being shot through the head. We see more of it than is usually shown on TV: the man falls to the ground and blood fountains from the wound. At the same time there is a scream on the sound-track, and the film jumps out of alignment, as if it is about to break. The effect creates a powerful shock, a shock which should make us think and force us into an awareness of the film's message.
The meanings are many. The sudden intrusion of a chunk of reality throws into perspective the artificiality of the rest of the film, and, by implication, of all forms of show business. While people, including ourselves, flock to theatres and cinemas to be entertained and distracted by artifice, wholesale slaughter is going on every day in the real world outside.
The fact that the film appears to break, or come adrift from the screen, both adds to the visual shock, and suggests that the medium of film cannot accommodate reality. It also disrupts our attachment to the screen, reminding us that this is no mere cinematic event.
Finally, a parallel is being drawn between the actor being 'shot' with the custard pie, and the peasant being shot with a bullet; a parallel which suggests that both men are being manipulated and made to suffer by forces beyond their control
'Stagefright' ends with an explicit statement of its message, or at least, part of its message. This is presumably because, being originally made for TV, Jost saw an opportunity for his film to reach a wide audience, large numbers of whom would probably not make head or tail of it.
The message is delivered by the actor doing the exaggerated Cagney impression: a device which reinforces the message by its conspicuousness as a means of holding our attention. The actor, who has already been established in a choric role with his repeated line: "No wonder there are so many casualties", comes close to the camera, as if taking us into his confidence, and says (approximately):
"Those with access to an audience have a tremendous responsibility, which is often abused.
"Everyone wants to be somebody, and in this wonderful world of the theatre they get a chance, but as often as not they betray it to someone else.
"They say theatre holds a mirror up to society, but as often as not it's a vanity mirror.
"The bard said, 'All the world's a stage', and maybe it is, but what they don't tell you is that all of life is stage-managed. You got your TV, radio, theatre, films, and pop music; it's all divertimenti kids, all divertimenti."
Then the actor, obviously thinking the shot is finished, relaxes, drops characterisation, and takes his hat off. Then Jost walks in front of the camera and speaks to the sound man: "Did you get it?" "Is the camera still rolling?" says the confused-looking sound man. "Are you still filming?"
Then, one by one, Jost turns out the studio lamps and the film ends in darkness. This ending, of course, breaks the cinematic illusion, reminding us that everything we have seen on the screen has also been stage-managed, by Jost himself.
With 'Slow Moves' (1983) we are out of the studio and on the 'Last Chants' road again. This time the casualties are a couple, and the stories which distract them and mislead them into making a mess of their lives are the stories of themselves which they carry in their own heads.
'Slow Moves' tells its story through the juxtaposition of a variety of narrative techniques. Along with the action, dialogue, and mise-en-scene, we have a verbal commentary from the actors, both in and out of character, and from Jost a musical commentary in the form of Jost's song lyrics, and a visual commentary in the photography and editing. What emerges is a film which, while offering multiple points of view, sustains a carefully controlled narrative from beginning to end.
The film tells the story of a young couple, Marshall and Roxanne, who meet, live together for a while, then take to the road. This is the first of Jost's films to focus on a personal relationship. It is an implicit criticism of the artificial way relationships are normally portrayed in films, and draws on a number of themes opened up in the early shorts, specifically the male/female conflicts of '1,2,3, Four', and the portrayal of ordinary people and everyday events of '13 Fragments'.
The twin themes of imprisonment and escape, seen both in the characters' lifestyles and states of mind, are responsible for much of the film's structure and imagery. The opening sequence introduces Roxanne as a girl condemned to perpetual imprisonment, and Marshall as a man condemned to perpetual escape.
An early shot is taken over Roxanne's head as she gazes out to sea. Then the camera pulls back to show that she is standing on a bridge, seemingly trapped between the imprisoning bars of the parapet in front of her and the ceaseless flow of traffic behind. Marshall approaches, leans on the parapet beside her, then speaks the first words of the film: "Isn't that Alcatraz over there? I don't see why the prisoners couldn't have swum across." Roxanne doesn't want to know. "I came out here to be alone," she says, and walks off. Marshall chases after her and offers to buy her a coffee, she accepts, and they start chatting, or, in the language of the film, telling each other stories
Marshall's comments: "And they began to dream together," while at the same time we hear a song about the unpredictable effects of time, warning us that this shared dream may not last forever. Marshall's comment is made out of character; he uses the word 'they' rather than 'we', and this temporarily disrupts our attachment to him as a fictional character. Roxanne also gives a commentary in which she shifts her role from character to actress: "I could have lied and told him I was thinking of jumping from the bridge. Actually the day we were out there making this film a woman really did jump. There was a story about it in the paper the next day."
These comments disrupt the conventional relationship between ourselves and characters in a film. The character in the story makes us aware of the actress in the film, who makes us aware of the real world, and its stories in newspapers. Similar disruptions of the illusion have been noted at the beginning of 'Last Chants' and the end of 'Stagefright', but these were made to appear almost as accidents. Here, being situated some way into the narrative, the disruption is conspicuously deliberate, and its effect is to engage us, with Jost and the actor and actress, in the process of creating the film and locating it in relation to our real lives.
The characters in the story are not so aware of the misleading nature of stories as the actor and actress are, and the stories Roxanne and Marshall tell each other form the basis for their relationship and the hopes they build upon each other. Roxanne presents herself to Marshall as something of a drifter, saying that she has lived in San Francisco for four years, but that four years is too long to stay in one place. He presents himself to her as a sailor who has returned from the sea. He says he has worked in construction recently, as a riveter on skyscrapers, but is temporarily out of work.
"And, like most people, they told their stories badly," comments Marshall. Their stories are full of holes, holes which the partner fills in by projecting his or her own fantasies.
The visual metaphor associating the couple's shared dream of freedom is taken one step further when they go into a camera obscura together, and we are treated to a beautiful shot of the sea and the beach taken through a telephoto lens on a camera panning on a tilted axis. The image, reinforced by romantic music on the sound-track, suggests an unreal, distant, dreamlike world in which it seems impossible not to be free. But this dream-world is inaccessible, a point which Jost makes by accompanying the scene with a mini-history of cinematography, suggesting that the world can only look like this in films.
The conflict between the couple is similar to that in '1,2,3, Four', and that between Tom and his wife in 'Last Chants'. For Roxanne life is centred around the home, and she wants Marshall to settle down to a steady job to provide money and security. While Marshall (and Jost provides an amusing commentary on this by letting the camera linger on the kitchen sink) feels imprisoned in Roxanne's world, and has spent money they can ill-afford on a car, telling Roxanne it is to help him look for work.
Marshall's purchase of the car causes an argument between the couple, and by now, thanks to the fragments of commentary, we can see that they are mismatched. But while the multi-layered narrative can give us privileged information, it can also withhold information, and there are times, such as in this argument, when our point of view is limited to that of the characters. We don't know why Marshall has bought the car any more than Roxanne does, and in fact, although we do not realise it until the end of the film, for much of the time we are only seeing Marshall from Roxanne's point of view, and large chunks of his 'story' which he has withheld from her, are also withheld from us.
But there is one important section, in which we are shown their separate activities during the day, where we are given insights into their characters that are unavailable to each other. With Marshall, in a sequence in which he tries to claim money from a workers' compensation board, we are given a complex study of an individual in relation to society.
Marshall says that he can't work on skyscrapers any more because of an accident. His claim, though he is barely able to articulate it, is that although this accident didn't cause any detectable physical injury, it caused him to lose his nerve, in other words that his 'injury' is psychological. The board don't accept this, and don't even understand his claim, and politely show him out of the office,
The insight yielded into Marshall's character through this confrontation is similar to that yielded into Tom's character through his confrontation with his wife. On the one hand we could be critical, seeing him as a lazy irresponsible parasite, trying to con his way into a hand-out rather than looking for an honest job. But on the other hand it is clear that Marshall's choice of behaviour is limited by his personality, which has to a large extent been formed by society. He is doing the only thing he knows how to do, trying to escape responsibility and take the easy way out. On this wider level Marshall's claim to be suffering from psychological injury has some justification, and his approach to the compensation board could be seen as a quasi-legitimate, though misplaced, request for help from society.
With Tom and Marshall Jost is treading the difficult ground which often comes to the fore in murder trials. To what extent can such an abnormal man be considered responsible for his own actions? Is he evil or ill? What is the distinction? And what are society's responsibilities towards such an individual? We have no ready answers, but Jost is presenting the problem more responsibly than the many films which glamorise crime and violence, making it look an attractive proposition for those who have, or who have been made to feel that they have, no other choice.
That this more general reading of the scene is appropriate is suggested by the language with which the manager turns down Marshall's claim: "You're rejected," he says. "Rejected?" says Marshall. All society can do for a man like Marshall is to reject him, brand him as an outcast. Whose fault is it then, when he slips towards the only role that seems to be left for him, that of outlaw?
The episode has political overtones too, for it takes place high up in a skyscraper, just the kind of building Marshall used to work on. Marshall's labour went into the construction, but there is no reward for him, no help when he needs it from those who now occupy the building.
When the turning point comes, and Marshall has decided to take to the road and wants Roxanne to come with him, the scene is set in a dockyard, a location evocative of travel and escape, while at the same time the bar-like pillars and cranes against the sky suggest imprisonment.
Roxanne has a hard time deciding whether or not to go, and when she does decide to go their journey begins, oddly, with an image of her apparently being left behind. This seems to suggest that while she is going along with Marshall's wishes, she is still imprisoned by her need for security, domesticity, and 'divertimenti'. While Marshall was making his compensation claim we saw Roxanne selling theatre tickets and buying a paperback novel. And now, on the journey, she is listening to rock music on a personal stereo.
The couple find temporary happiness and freedom on the road, but, as the contrasting shots taken from the left and right sides of the car suggest, they are really on two separate journeys. From Marshall's side we see the masculine, practical world of the road, lorries, and industrial buildings, while from Roxanne's side we see the feminine, romantic world; the trees, a river, and, occasionally, interpolated shots of the sea.
These two do not really know each other at all. Marshall, as we realise at the end of the film, is acting out his fantasy of their being a couple of outlaws on the run, and thinks Roxanne can be a Bonnie to his Clyde. Roxanne thinks they are just travelling to another town where they will settle down and Marshall will get a job. The contrasting shots from the two sides of the car seem to suggest that their once-shared world is rapidly coming apart.
At the same time the narrative itself starts to come apart. At a motel Marshall suddenly produces a wallet full of bank notes; neither Roxanne nor we know where he got it, and although Roxanne chooses to ignore the fact, we realise that there is something about Marshall that neither she nor we have been told.
In another scene we see them eating in a restaurant. The scene is a long-shot, distancing us from them, and after a while we realise that the dialogue on the sound-track does not match their actions. We are simultaneously losing our grip on the characters and on the narrative. Holes are appearing in the story which equate to the holes left in the stories they told each other.
In a later sequence the narrative breaks down altogether. Marshall and Roxanne have stopped in a little roadside town, but their visit is presented to us in a sequence of disconnected shots separated by frames of black, giving an impression more like a slide-show than a film. We don't know what is going on, the gaps are taking over from the narrative, and our story, like theirs, is breaking up.
The scene only comes together when Marshall and Roxanne are having their final confrontation. They are 'on the rocks', literally, beside a river. "I've got to have a house!" shouts Roxanne. "You've got to settle down and get a job!"' The river flows behind her, a reminder of the beautiful open sea seen at the beginning.
"OK," says Marshall, "I'll settle down and get a job. I love you." This proposition, like the one at the end of '1,2,3, Four' (I love you, therefore I'll never use electricity again.) comes across as a statement of the impossible.
Later they stop at a grocery store. Marshall enters alone, while we and Roxanne, who is totally wrapped up in the music on her personal stereo, lose sight of him. We have arrived at the gap in the narrative, which is filled in when Roxanne eventually goes into the store and finds Marshall dead on the floor with a gun beside him. He has apparently tried to rob the store and been shot in the process.
Roxanne, in a belated expression of the need for real communication, tries to rouse Marshall and weeps over his body, while the camera pans in a circle, revealing a man, absorbed in a book, sitting beside the body, and the paltry commodities in the shop, commodities for which Marshall has died.
The 'romance' between Marshall and Roxanne has, by conventional cinema standards, been underplayed almost to the point of non-existence, and when they try to talk about love they seem to be talking about different things. Marshall says he finds Roxanne a source of inspiration, while she is looking for a feeling of personal attachment. But, different as their ideas are, something holds them together, and Jost superimposes the word 'Lovers' over our last sight of them, while on the sound-track we hear a bitter, cynical song about love. Perhaps love, or the badly told story of love, is the most insidious 'divertimenti' of all.
'Slow Moves' is an anti-love story love story, 'Stagefright' is an anti-theatre theatrical piece, 'Chameleon' is an anti-art art-movie, 'Angel City' is an anti-detective story detective story, and 'Speaking Directly' is an anti-feature-film feature-film. It may appear that Jost, and he has been accused of this, is an anti-film film-maker. Jean Luc Godard has come to Jost's defence on this point, saying: "He is not against the movies, he makes them move," the point being that it is only the conventions Jost is attacking, not cinema itself, his aim being not to destroy, but to re-invent.
Looking at Jost's first twenty years of work then, we can see a development of themes and methods which is remarkable for its consistency, and for its progress from short 'single idea' films to complex multi-layered narratives. He is always exploring the medium and extending its potential for communication.
His films, though always rewarding, are not always pleasant to watch, and, as he has said himself, if they were so they would have failed in their purpose. Jost is concerned that we live in a society riddled with conflict, alienation, loss of meaning, and the debasement of values, and he sees that our reluctance to face these problems is half the reason for their existence. His films are disturbing because they are an attempt to face these things which we, to our detriment, prefer not to think about.
Perhaps what most distinguishes Jost's work from that of commercial directors is his uncompromising respect for both the medium and the audience; he never abuses either, and his comment, (from 'Susannah's Film'), defines the point at which the viewing, and the criticism of his films must start and finish: 'Film is like a mirror. If an ape looks in an apostle cannot look out'.
* All quotes from the films and the interview are approximations taken from notes made immediately after seeing the films.
13 Fragments and 3 Narratives From Life 1968
A Turning Point in Lunatic China II 1968-70
l, 2, 3, Four 1968-70
Susannah's Film 1969
Fall Creek 1970
A Man is More Than the Sum of His Parts/A Woman is . . . 1971
Beauty Sells Best 1976
X2: 2 Dances by Nancy Karp 1980
Speaking Directly 1973-75
Angel City 1976
Last Chants For a Slow Dance 1977
Slow Moves 1983
Jon Jost GB 1982. Directed by Keith Griffiths and Jon Jost. Made for Channel 4's 'Late Hour'.
© Ian Mackean, January 2006