Jon Jost, Independent Film-maker – Introduction

Jon Jost, independent film-maker. The early films

1. Introduction

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:

‘The camera pans from left to right, revealing four people. The first holds a book open in his palms while looking at us. The second offers us a bowl of food. The third lights a flare. The fourth films us with a cine camera.’

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).

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