Jon Jost, Independent Film-maker – Speaking Directly

Jon Jost, independent film-maker. The early films

5. Speaking Directly

‘Speaking Directly’ (1973-75), Jon Jost’s first feature film, draws together many of the elements explored in his short films, 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.

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Jon Jost, Independent Film-maker – Flower

Jon Jost, independent film-maker. The early films

2. Flower

Jon Jost’s short film ‘Flower’ (1970) explores the relationship between language and meaning. 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 MallarmĂ© 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.

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The Genesis of Boomer Literature

Starting in December 2012, Boomer Literature, or baby boomer novels, suddenly became the talk of the town. A couple of articles were published and the blogosphere was quick to pick up the story. People began discussing the birth of boomer literature as a new genre on many heavily trafficked websites, from Boomer Café to The Passive Voice, Gawker Media, The Kindle Nation Daily, Digital Book Today and many others.

Suddenly retirees were fun, even sexy. Stories about them had found a market even if some disgruntled voices were heard, expressing discontent at the idea of having to grapple with yet another genre in books.

What had happened? Why the controversy?

You’d think the publishing industry would be the first to notice that a new genre was in the making, yet that is not the case. Hollywood preceded publishing. Perhaps it’s in the nature of the beast. Hollywood has access to a much larger public (everyone views films and videos) than the publishing industry (limited to people who read). As a result, one may expect that new trends in the general public, new tastes, new interests emerge first at the level of movies before they are reflected in book sales.

In any case, film directors were the first to take the plunge some ten years ago and aim movies at a silver-haired audience, taking, as is often the case, a novel as a starting point. Begley’s About Schmidt inspired a hilarious film made in 2002 starring an unforgettable Jack Nicholson. Although the film is rather far away from the book, there is little doubt that its success marked an early turning point. This change was noticed in the media some years ago, including by the New York Times.

A film market for silver-haired audiences was born and many films followed exploiting the same marketing vein, some humorous and suspenseful like RED (i.e. Retired Extremely Dangerous), others more emotional and historical like The King’s Speech. But they all were centered on challenges facing the over-50 generation.

2012 was a special year, starting with a fun film that came out of England,The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Featuring Maggie Smith and Judi Dench, it focused on a bunch of British retirees on a romp in India. By year end, Amour, Michael Haneke’s film starring Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, took the trend one step further, featuring a somber story about a couple of music teachers in their 80s (the wife is dying). It won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Festival and it is widely expected to win an Oscar for best foreign film.

This signals a major change in the tastes of the general public – and in this case, what is noteworthy is that the film features much older people than boomers. Indeed the only boomer here is the couple’s daughter, beautifully played by Isabelle Huppert. Moreover, the trend promises to continue in 2013 with Quartet, Dustin Hoffman’s brilliant film about retired opera singers.

Such movies suggest that the range of boomer interests is expanding: the themes can be either light or dark and likely to cover boomers themselves but also their relationships with people around them, both younger and older.

But how to define this new genre? And more to the point, how to avoid the negative connotations of such terms as “aging”, “old age”, “silver haired”?

After all, novels featuring older people have been around for some time without registering any particular success and the publishing industry has been in the habit of ignoring them, relying instead on its traditional range of genres. In particular, since the 1960s and 70s, the industry has kept a strong focus on the young: that was the time Young Adult literature became a huge success as boomers themselves – technically defined as those born between 1946 and 1964 – were leaving their teen years behind and wanted to read coming of age stories. With the exception of YA lit (and more recently New Adult lit focused on adults in their twenties), no other major genre is audience-centric. The industry has always relied on theme-related genres like romance, thrillers, sci-fi etc., to assist readers in book discovery. Indeed,YA lit itself is sub-divided in theme-related genres, from paranormal YA to dystopian YA, romantic YA etc.

Now that boomers are getting older, some 78 million of them in the US alone, and hitting retirement age at the rate of some 3.5 million every year, there is once again a need to meet their interests as readers. They want to read stories relevant to them at this stage in their life, stories that feature people facing the same kind of challenges that they do.

Thus the new boomer lit genre could be defined as addressing “coming of old age”. Boomers, who in their young years were rebellious and keen to change to world of their parents, still see themselves as an active, dynamic lot. They are convinced that their third slice of life, made longer (and often better) by medical advances, is a chance for them to do amazing things, even start on a second career. And it is certainly a moment when people ask themselves existential questions again: now that my career is behind me, who am I? What can I do in my remaining years?

Books, to stay relevant, need to accompany these changes in their lives, meeting the new demands, putting forth characters boomers can identify with, characters who face those existential questions.

Hence the term boomer literature or Baby Boomer novels (BB novels), a term that eschews the negative connotations of “aged” and “aging.”

Why is there the expectation that boomer lit will become a major genre? This is a simple matter of demographics. The same generation that made the success of YA lit will be responsible for the success of boomer lit. In that sense, boomer lit or BB novels are a true pendant of YA novels, with BB stories occurring on the other side of maturity. But the similarities don’t stop there. Like YA lit, boomer lit is a vast and flexible genre that can accommodate all kinds of sub-genres, from light comedy to tragedy, from romance to thrillers and more. Beyond novels and graphic novels, it also covers poetry, short stories and non-fiction. And like YA, boomer lit is likely to attract the interest of people outside its age group, in this case younger people, both as readers and writers.

In the fall of 2012, the movement towards the creation of a new BB genre gathered speed. In September, a thread was started on the Amazon Kindle fora for authors to list their BB novels and it immediately began to grow. In November, a group was created to discuss BB novels on Goodreads, the largest online reading club in the world. It began very small but at the start of 2013, the group had attracted close to 200 members and it featured over 50 titles on its bookshelf, including many from NYT bestselling authors and at least one runner up to the Man Booker Prize (The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce). The group is actively reading a BB novel every month, democratically selected through a poll, as a practical way of exploring the confines of boomer literature.

A definition has already been put forward by two writers, Stephen Woodfin and Caleb Pirtle who are members of the group:”Boomer books reflect fundamental human issues and can be any genre, but they are character-driven stories centered around those who have the experience to understand life: its trials, its tribulations, its triumphs, and its contradictions.” And that understanding can only come about with the accumulation of years and experience…