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Cinema iconoclast and vagabond Jon Jost


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As filmmakers go, Jon Jost is off the grid.  The uncompromising artist makes the films he wants to make, the way he wants to make them, and since his approach to story and technique is antithetical to mainstream feature filmmaking, he is pushed to the fringe, but that’s where this contrarian prefers to be anyway.  In one sense, he’s actually far ahead of the cinema establishment in terms of working in video and exploring its expressive possibilities.  He is a digital video guru who does a lot of presenting and teaching at universities.  I caught up with him a couple years ago during a residency he did at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. My story about Jost originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com), and meeting him and writing about him and viewing some of his work confirmed me just how diverse the filmmaking community is.

Cinema iconoclast and vagabond Jon Jost

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Digital cinema guru Jon Jost wears his iconoclasm as a badge of honor. The itinerant artist inhabits the fringes of the indie moviemaking landscape. In truth, he prefers it there. He’s railed against the system from the time he tore up his draft card in the mid-1960s, an act of “resistance” that sent him into exile to do the expatriate thing in Europe and Mexico. Once back, he knew “full well” he’d be arrested. He was, too, earning a stretch in an Illinois federal reformatory.

He got busted again, in Chicago, in the weeks leading up to the ‘68 Democratic National Convention. He was filming at the time of his arrest and the fact he used a camera as a revolutionary tool sealed his fate as a rebel filmmaker.

Ever the outsider, the self-taught Jost disdains the established order in film. Anything smacking of studio or industry or commercial” is “artificial” to him.

“I’m an anarchist. I don’t believe in leaders. I have no interest in commercial film,” he said during a break from his artist-in-residency at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “My view is we’re in a very deep trough of corruption and the corruption runs from the White House down to your local theater and into your film festivals.”

His choice to work in DV or digital video is an expression of his dissent. He fell in love with it the first time he worked a Sony camera. From ‘97 on, celluloid’s been dead for him, something once unthinkable for a serious filmmaker as himself. He described DV as “such an endlessly more, in the positive sense, plastic medium. It’s more malleable. You can do more things with it and you can do it without having to break the bank. The movies I make now, if you made the equivalent in film, they’d cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. And for me they cost a hundred dollars.

The choice is not just about economics, but aesthetics.

“For years it was really like heresy to say, ‘No, I’m not just doing it because it’s cheaper, I’m doing it because it’s better, period.’ It doesn’t look like film, but it has other things…other qualities…that are much better than film.”

He knows his work is out of step with the suits and the masses. Even as Hollywood begins to test the digital waters, he said DV won’t really change anything.

“It depends on who uses it. If Hollywood uses it than the special effects will get zappier. They can blow things up more spectacularly. They’ll do 3D digital but what they say will be lowest common denominator romance-sex-kill. Conventional movies will remain a big business designed to take ten bucks out of your pockets,” he said.

 

 

Since January he’s conducted statewide DV workshops and a UNL seminar. He does workshops all over the world, preaching a credo of “don’t accept their media —  make your own media.” He and his Italian wife/editor Marcella arrived in October. From a mausoleumesque stone building fast off a busy Lincoln intersection, the couple toil away like digital devils; the interior strewn with computers, musical instruments, books, DVDs, paint supplies. Few people will ever see their beautifully realized movies made on the cheap. Festivals turn a cold shoulder to his recent nonlinear, nonnarrative work. Even his last narrative feature, the anti-war Homecoming (2004), got snubbed. He feels it’s too political for these times.

The rejection dismays Jost, who’s enjoyed acclaim for his art films. His All the Vermeers in New York (1989) was a festival darling and aired on PBS.

Festival directors told him Homecoming was “too slow,” ironic, he said, as his previous films “were slow also and they loved” them. So slow is no longer fashionable?” he asked with rhetorical incredulity. On Homecoming he “deliberately” pulled back from his “inclinations and desires” to shoot in an “avant garde” style and still not a single American film festival would accept it.

“On one level that’s depressing,” he said, “and on another level it’s completely liberating because I can say, ‘Fuck it.’ Why should I move even this far to make it more accommodating when there’s nothing to accommodate? I know I’m going to get shut out. For the moment anyway there is no market whatsoever for what I do. So why should you torture yourself chasing this thing that absolutely doesn’t exist? So now I just make what I want to make the way I want to make it.”

He’s made other narrative films: Last Chant for a Slow DanceSure Fire, etc.. He’s shot in Panavision and 35 millimeter. Only his films don’t obey the rules with their lurches toward abstraction.

In his view, commercial filmmaking is a pastiche of old art. “It’s like, Didn’t you ever look at any art since 1650? Oh, so you can do Renaissance single and even double point perspective. So fucking what? They did it 500 years ago, alright,” he said.

“I’m a consumer, if not always liking it, of the arts. When I look at a movie I’m like, These people are so behind what visual language is available. With a computer you can make a completely credible visual representation you can go through of five-dimensional space, and they’re so pleased with managing to make a Renaissance picture,” he said, laughing with derision.

He enjoys dissing Hollywood and scoffs at the idea an Alexander Payne is an indie filmmaker. “No independent person would want to work with them (Hollywood),” Jost said. Even if Payne enjoys final cut, Jost asserts he’s a sell-out. “He’s already controlled because he makes films that are completely commercially palatable.”

“I find the limits of normal filmmaking false. Why can’t we have films that would be the filmic equivalent of Cubist painting?” Jost asked. “I have done some of that myself.” Using modern art devices, he superimposes scrims, images, text over the frame. He points the camera straight down at roads or out windows of moving vehicles, making subjects of the passing tableaux. In Vermeers a marble floor is the object of attention in a long tracking shot.

He eschews such tenets as establishing shots or cutting from one actor’s profile to the other in dialog scenes. He trusts “you’ll figure it out if you’re paying attention.” He prefers improvising to scripting. Natural light. With his new work, including the in-progress Swimming in Nebraska, he uses a digital software program to adorn and enliven a static frame. Slowly, rhythmically, geometric patterns filled with color and shape bleed in from the screen’s edges. These riffs, alone or in collage, correlate to the background’s fixed image, informing and enriching it.

Swimming profiles individuals engaged in various creative pursuits in the state. Jost said, “I’m trying in a very oblique, poetic way to show the creative process” and “to attack the general mentality people have of Nebraska or the Midwest” as a sterile place. “It’s full of interesting, lively things as much as anywhere else.”

He also completed a video installation while in Lincoln.

With his Nebraska stay near an end, Jost looks ahead to a university teaching gig in Seoul, South Korea. “It will be my first job. It’s not in the bag. If it doesn’t work out I’ll figure out something else to do,” he said. “I’ve never had a real job in my life. I’m 63, I don’t have a pension, I don’t have insurance, I’ve got nothing. I’m not going to worry about it now. One way or another, I’ll manage to survive.”

As he told the New York Times, “I’ve spent my life being left out. I’d like to stop, but it’s what I do.” Whatever happens, he’ll be “working, working, working.”

From May 20 through May 24 the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center in Lincoln will host Jon Jost Presents, a sampler program of his work and work by regional DV artists. All screenings are free and open to the public. For details, call the MRRMAC at 402-472-9100 or visit www.TheRoss.org.

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