Jon Jost, Independent Film-maker – Stagefright

Jon Jost, independent film-maker. The early films

9. Stagefright

‘Stagefright’ (1981) is very different from the other early Jost films. The reason for the difference is two-fold: firstly it was originally made (in shorter form) for German TV, and Jost has adapted his methods to suit the medium, and secondly the subject under examination, the theatre, is examined in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’être – 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 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):

“You see, to communicate you’ve got to entertain. The great playwrights, like the Greeks, and Shakespeare knew that, but today intellectuals seem afraid of it, as if to entertain was to cheapen, and this leaves the way open for cheap entertainment, I mean entertainment with cheap intentions.

“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.

* All quotes, from the films and the interview, are approximations taken from notes made immediately after seeing the films.

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