An Interview with
Aaron Gerow, Abé Mark Nornes, and Fujiwara Toshifumi
Our second conversation was with Jon Jost, who, with his digital video work London Brief in hand, returned to Yamagata in 1997 for the first time in six years after showing his Plain Talk & Common Sense at the YIDFF '91. Questions were posed by Documentary Box editor Aaron Gerow, University of Michigan Assistant Professor Abé Mark Nornes, and film critic Fujiwara Toshifumi.
Abé Nornes: Could you tell us a little about Newsreel. You were involved in the Chicago group, weren't you?
Jost: Yes, people across the country started doing the same thing, young people in militant filmmaking cooperatives. Because New York is what New York is in America, it moved very quickly. When they started off it was sort of like some umbrella organization of weirdo artsy people and the politicos. Well very quickly the politicos acted the way that politicos act and the artists either got fed up and left or got thrown out for not toeing whatever the party line was. I definitely helped start it and I left after about a year or six months. I was in Chicago and this was 1968.
Gerow: A good time to be in Chicago, what with the Democratic Party Convention, the riots, and all.
J: I was deeply involved in that whole thing and working with the office that organized that stuff which would have been a complete failure aside from the stupid cops. And I was actually the first arrest at the convention-two weeks before-for going with a friend as two raving hippies around in their summer shorts and their beards and popping their Bolex in front of the White House portico they were building on the slaughterhouse area where they had the convention. And we were there and all of a sudden here come the cops-six cars. And they busted us, for what?
G: Having a camera.
J: Well, and it was actually an interesting experience. They bust you, and I was still about a year out of jail for refusing the draft, and the cops just made me quiver like a jellyfish. They came and took us to the precinct house and first the local cops interrogate us. Their view was that we were potential assassins-very subtle assassins with our shorts and camera gear. Then we got interviewed by the Chicago Red Squad-the political oriented thing-the FBI, and the Secret Service. My friend had to stay overnight because the charges they could make stick were that his auto registration had run out. It was rather comic to go up the totem pole of these cops, but that should have been a cue off that the cops were that uptight.
AN: So you saw Newsreel as potentially as much of an art as political movement.
J: I didn't say art movement. There was this division. Half my friends were arty sorts and half were political sorts and even way back then they were like oil and water. They just didn't mesh together, and so my artsy friends always thought I was too political and didn't like all the political things in my films, and my political friends thought I was too fucking artsy. And I still feel like I'm caught in this no man's land where you're supposed to decide to do this, to do that, and just somehow the two are not allowed to co-habitate.
G: Well that's a good place to be, I think.
J: Yeah, well, can you make a living at it?
Anyway, so for the convention, of course, the New Yorkers came to Chicago to make the Chicago film. Here we had our own office, our own little distribution thing, we'd made films which were frankly better than theirs and it was just like we became the tail and the dog in our own city. And shortly after that I said fuck this.
G: What kind of films were you making in Chicago?
J: What we were doing was more like I had films that I had made that were political-artsy and we showed those as Newsreel films. We made films that addressed political issues, they were part of our thing, but we didn't have this hard political thing that emanated more out of New York. We were mostly a bunch of independent filmmakers who were socially involved with things.
G: What were your screenings like?
J: Well we had really good screenings. I was a hot-head at the time. I advocated assassinations. I gave this rather serious speech at the Art Institute, saying it was the time for assassins, and this girl came up and was completely stunned by what I had said and asked me for a copy of my little speech.
But I didn't like to go to demonstrations, and Chicago completely turned me off. I didn't like being surrounded by armies and tanks and barbed wire and guys with guns while you've got a bunch of people on your side who were only there for the teenage hormone fun of it. It completely turned me off mass demonstrations. Aside from the paranoia of being on the obvious losing side any time "they" decide to get serious, and getting gassed and all that stuff, there was realizing your crowd was this completely manipulable bunch of followers half of whom, had somebody gotten up and barked some other nice little rhythmic chanting thing with completely opposite content, would have gone with it, because it no longer mattered. Once you were in the context it didn't matter what was said. It was like being at sort of a rock and roll show. It was all driven by the rhythm, and as for what was inside the rhythm, it didn't matter.
AN: People who want to criticize the left in Japan often say exactly the same thing and then point to America as some counter-example that shows perfect creation of political subjectivity based on individuation.
G: Why did you end up leaving Newsreel?
J: Basically because of the New York intrusion into our Chicago thing which then turned into a policy of not showing our "not Newsreel" films. I didn't like that sort of heavy handed party line attitude and most then my artistic friends gave up as soon as this started happening. They said we don't want to deal with it.
AN: What'd you do from there on?
J: At the time I was living with a woman who was sort of a major figure in the Students for a Democratic Society and knew Weathermen, and right after the convention we went to California. She knew this guy at Stanford who was a heavy radical and they were getting guns. So she got a gun and we were going to be revolutionaries. We go buy ourselves a little Baretta and that's going to save the world. You bet. I mean, I grew up in an army family, and I know what "they've" got. I still hung around because the Bay Area was a hot place, but I was backing away from all that stuff.
G: So you were making films at this time?
J: Yeah, I was making films. I made a few during that period called Primaries: Turning Point, Lunatic China, and then One, Two, Three, Four, which were basically a critique of the American left. You can guess what they thought of that. I felt like completely thrown out because I dared to question the internal schizophrenia of it, all the completely incompatible lines that happen to all pretend that they were one. In later experience in life I noted that political organizers are always trying to cast an umbrella over disparate groups, whom they immediately co-opt. They completely ignore the particular interests of the people they put the umbrella over and try to claim to represent all these people whom they don't represent. I had soured on that kind of politics when I was quite young, and so I went off and made my own films.
They were three films that were meant to go together, and there was supposed to be a fourth film called, What Is to Be Done?, but I realized I didn't have any idea what is to be done. And I didn't think my cohorts had any idea what was to be done.
Lunatic China used Joseph Alsop, who was a right-wing columnist who had some shrill column about what was going on in China during the Cultural Revolution. I sort of juxtaposed that to some not dissimilar left wing thing, just let them balance against each other. The last one was One, Two, Three, Four, which was basically the progression of the four-part thing with the hippie juxtaposed to the revolutionary.
Speaking Directly (1973) was at the time an effective film. Right now it looks very much of its time, but I still I think it's a good film. It's of its time in a way that's interesting to look at. At the time it worked quite well with audiences. It was an example. I think it came out at about the same time Milestones did. Milestones is actually dealing with the same stuff from a totally different vantage point. I didn't like Milestones at all, and that's a Kramer film. I just went on with my little career, whatever my little career has been.
Fujiwara: Why did you move outside of the States? Why did you live in Europe, for instance?
J: Because I was an army kid I spent my first three years here-I was part of the Occupation troops. We lived in Hokkaido, but the only thing I think I may remember is heavy snows and sidewalks that were effectively tunnels, where there was so much snow that after a while it was bridged by snow on top so you were walking through snow tunnels.
I grew up in Japan, in Italy and Germany, so I was always surprised as an army kid. You know, the first time we went to a civilian school I met people who had never been fifty miles away from where they lived. This was incomprehensible to me. When I was younger I took a year trip hitch-hiking: no money, living under bridges, stuff like that. I actually made my first films then. My first film was made when this Italian family picked me up hitch-hiking and I ended up staying three months in their house and made a portrait of their little twelve-year-old daughter, a portrait which I now look at somewhat suspiciously. Something a little too erotic: the way the camera embraces this little girl, coming over her. I don't think that's what I was thinking at the time but looking back, this camera is getting pretty intimate with this girl. Then I made another one in a Salzberg, where I had my first real girlfriend, and there my camera went over her body, but it was unclothed. At least she was older. Actually she was thirty and I was, I think, nineteen.
So I made my first and second film, then I made a film in Mexico because I went back to America via Mexico. I went back to America knowing I would be put in prison for refusing to participate in the draft. And, I didn't have to go back. I think I could have figured out how to stay alive, but I felt morally obliged to go back. I didn't agree with people who went to Canada or Sweden. It was interesting going back to America, the land of the free, when I'd been in Europe for a year and two months bumming around. I had had two experiences with policemen. One was after getting drunk one time in Oslo, Norway. I was living under a bridge and a policeman came by to see if we were okay because they found that one of our friends had collapsed in the middle of this field. I had drank a bottle, went blind, and stepped in the middle of my guitar. My friend was so drunk that he didn't move and they thought he was dead-that's why the cops came. And then in England a cop gave me a little bit of a problem about my papers.
Arriving in America, they stopped the bus. At the time, it wasn't that I didn't know what dope was, and that I hadn't smoked it, but I didn't quite get that I fit their dope smuggler's profile. They stopped the bus and held it up for an hour while they went through my stuff with a fine-toothed comb. Then immigration stopped the bus after the border looking for Mexicans, and I didn't fit their profile of what an American looks like. I was in their mind perhaps a German, someone who jumped ship. And then at the bus station, I got harassed there. So, in a year and a half abroad I had had two little slight-one favorable and one unfavorable-runs in with the cops, and then I arrive in America and within four hours I feel like I'm in a police state.
AN: They didn't really imprison many people for draft-dodging, just a few as examples, right?
J: There were five hundred people that went to prison over draft refusal for so-called political reasons. You know, not including Jehovah's Witnesses and Amish kids. Five hundred for the whole Vietnam War period, which all taken is a rather minuscule number. And supposedly 50,000 who had charges filed against them. I guess we gummed up the works enough for them to stop the draft and decide to basically fill the army with unemployed minorities. I mean, if you look at the U.S. Army these days, one out of two American soldiers is black. If we must have armies, which I don't agree with, but if they must, I don't think filling your ranks with economically deprived people whose only opportunity is to join your foreign legion is quite the appropriate democratic way to handle the question of how to have an army.
AN: Your approach to narrative filmmaking is really interesting for its production method: having no real hard and fast script that actors have to follow, but also, using a lot of non-actors.
AN: Oh, yeah?
J: Well, I've made tightly-scripted ones too.
AN: Oh, I didn't realize that. But you do use a lot of non-actors and usually that's associated with a sort of documentary aesthetic. Did you ever perceive it as such?
J: I'm not certain what I perceived at the time I made them. For example, when I say I made tightly scripted films, most of my earlier films-the short films, not the very first short films, but the ones where I started working with sound-were tightly scripted essentially for economic reasons because the first take was always "the" take unless something horrible technical thing happened and made it unacceptable. A practice which I continued with because I think if you prepare right, your first take should be the good take. So I started that-the surest way to be able to make the film-with what were the very, very limited means I had. Then, you know, Speaking Directly, is not a fiction film, it's an essay film-it was essentially all written visually; it wasn't all completely preconceived. Angel City (1977) was all scripted except for one deliberately improvised sequence. And then Last Chants for a Slow Dance (1977) was more or less completely improvised around a careful plan. You know, here's the five scenes we're going to do, and this is going to do this, and this is going to do that. There was writing involved, but it was a sort of mixture: some of it was written, some of it was to be left open.
And I discovered that I could improvise. If I did the improvising right, I didn't have to do more takes than I did with a script. And then I saw the virtues of improvising: I got things that I saw immediately that I would have never gotten if I had written it and they'd practiced it. There were usually things I found that were in effect more attractive and interesting to me. I then veered off towards improvising in a very open way. I think that a lot of people when they watch these, they would never imagine they were improvised because they don't see anything sloppy or out of control. It's a very clean, lush, seemingly highly controlled work which never had a word on paper about it. Some of the best scenes in it were absolutely wide-open improvising and on the first take. The kind of thing where if you try to do it again, you would just fuck it up-the first take has the magic.
But then The Bed You Sleep In (1993) was scripted, or it was mostly scripted. The word part, like the script, was the dialogue for a handful of scenes without any visual thing; the visual stuff was lots of photographs done with lots of thinking about what to do and how to do it. Maybe little sketches on paper, but never really done while shooting. The actual thing was more spontaneous: "Okay, now we have this very clear idea, lets go find the shots that look right for this thing." For a period I was adamant about only improvising, and now I like whatever works. We're doing this scene tightly scripted, the whole movie tightly scripted-whatever works best, I do that.
Working with non-actors wasn't thought of so much this way at the time. The non-actors were my friends who were willing to be in a movie for free. Later on, I saw what I liked in working with them and got where I liked it. I liked what happened when we juxtaposed a non-actor with an actor. Often times the non-actors feel insecure because they have this supposed professional who supposedly knows what they're doing. I like what the amateur does to the professional because real professionals are essentially lazy. They have their little grab bag of actoring tricks and if you put them with another actor they'll ping pong back and forth their little actor tricks, something I don't like very much. Whereas when you put an actor up with an amateur or a non-professional, he can't assume that if he throws out a riff he'll get back the corresponding actorish thing. So suddenly actors have to start thinking and quit being lazy because they basically have a loose cannon opposite them. I like the shift that it causes in the actors, eliminating the kind of predictable things that they would do if they were working with other actors. It gets sort of jostled around a bit and makes them work a little harder.
AN: Obviously your interests as a filmmaker have gravitated towards narrative modes and I have two questions starting with that point. One is why you made Speaking Directly? It seems like a blip, a diversion compared to where you seemed to be going everywhere else.
J: Well, if you saw my short films you would see they are very much connected to that one. They're just sort of loose, lyrical, sort of urban or place portraits. The one that I'm also in is a kind of vague self- portrait. You know, it's like just before I went to prison: I did the portrait of Chicago in my sort of depressing-but-at-the-same-time- lyrical style. And so I would say the early, or the short films wandered between either completely abstract things, the sort of people-in-a-place type of thing, and attempts at some kind of essays or little stories. Usually the stories were crossed over with essays and Speaking Directly is pretty much an amalgamation of all those things. If you saw my short films, and you saw Speaking Directly, you'd see that there was a pretty natural progression that got me there.
Angel City was a narrative inside some kind of essay/documentary about Los Angeles. That's why The Last Chants for a Slow Dance is more of a straight, experimental narrative-I kept with the narrative, and had a little less essay. And then there is Chameleon (1978) which is again a more or less narrative work, and then Stagefright (1981), a very experimental essay. So it alternates, part of it just to make it interesting for myself. I keep feeling like I got to shuffle the deck, because otherwise I'd get bored. I'm always mentally or literally working on two or three things simultaneously: films, plus painting, plus whatever it is I can manage to do and. Teresa (my wife) can't understand how I can juggle all of these things-she has to sit there and say, "Okay, I'm going to think about 'X' for the next year and a half and do that." I'm just the opposite. I don't have that capacity to concentrate on one thing-to keep it interesting for me, I have to do a bunch of things at the same time, otherwise I get bored.
AN: The other question I have deals with the fact that most people who have economic concerns as artists usually turn to video pretty quickly, but you've only done this very recently. And, at least as far as I know, you've embraced digital video in a big way. But before this did you have a kind of repulsion to the video image that so many people have?
J: I didn't have a repulsion, or I didn't think I did. On Plain Talk & Common Sense (1987, shown at YIDFF '89), for example, there is a kind of raggedy sequence of multiple video screens, which was just a cheap way to get multiple images that I could do at the time. I had a VHS camera at the time that I took around America when I was filming. I didn't shoot much with it, I confess. I got Hi-8 cameras more or less as soon as they came out and had very much the same idea that some people did. George Kuchar made these all in-camera edited things because you have insert editing, and I had exactly the same idea, though a completely different approach. I find his approach much more interesting than mine was.
AN: We showed Cult of the Cubicles at the last Festival.
J: I like his stuff. I particularly like one called Weather Diary-it's like a 90-minute thing completely done in-camera. It's a stunningly beautiful piece of work. Vulgar, as usual for him, but . . .
AN: Toilets, Godzillas, and toenails.
J: But a lovely piece and with a completely different mentality than mine. Mine was "Okay, now you can do this"; it was like I was reverting to the way I started making sound films. It was like, we program very clearly what we want; we have a little latitude about when to cut in and cut out and we can go drop something in the middle. But I never made anything. I've had four Hi-8 cameras and I more or less gave them all away to people, to filmmakers who could no longer afford to make films but whose work I liked. I would end up giving them a Hi-8 camera preaching how good it was and get them to try it out. To my knowledge it didn't succeed. It sort of succeeded with one but her camera got stolen about four months ago. She had it for a number of years and she did thank me for getting her her eyes back. She is very poor and she hadn't shot something for some time and I gave her the camera; she has nice vision of some things and she did a fair amount of footage.
While I had these cameras I shot a little bit, but I never seemed to be able to concentrate. I convinced myself that the problem was that I was so habituated to the economic clip of filmmaking that when it wasn't super costly, my brain took a walk. So I was convinced that the reason I couldn't really do something on the Hi-8 was because I'm not worried about spending money.
J: Well, that was the logic I had and I promise you that I was 100 percent convinced that this was the explanation. I would tell my friends how good Hi-8 was and I was proselytizing for Hi-8 for the reason that you could blow it up to 35mm if you want and it looks good-which it does. But since I never did anything with it, I constructed this rationale that said I don't like what I'm doing with it because I'm not working hard on it.
And then DV came out. Well, DV tape cost marginally more than Hi-8 tape, but not much, and all of a sudden I'm going, "Wow." Obviously I didn't think Hi-8 looked as good as it should. You know, the quantum jump from Hi-8 or even better forms of video to digital video is so big. That's why I don't like it when people here say about London Brief, "You have this video." I cringe, not because I have something against video, but because I would much rather say, "I see you did a new digital piece." I would like to get rid of this because when people think video, they think a particular look, either a raggedy, horrible VHS or equivalent look from an artsy angle or the Betacam, normal TV sterile look. As far as I'm concerned, digital video just doesn't look like that. I don't like to have this sort of albatross of the word "video" stuck on it because people have an instant pre-conception.
AN: Sounds like a repulsion to video to me.
J: Well, no, I don't mind video. Well, frankly, let's put it this way. It isn't that I don't like video for aesthetic qualities. What I don't like about most video is that I don't think much of it is very good. Because video is relatively cheap, it isn't punishing from a financial standpoint, and thus it doesn't squeeze out people who are no good. Basically it is that brutal. And so you get an awful lot of bad video. I'm not interested in wading through a hundred hours of bad video to see one good hour, and that's really the kind of ratio you get when you hit video. With film, it's more like twenty hours to get one good hour. The ratio is pretty different. And lots of it is because video is more accessible for financial reasons. Therefore you get people sticking around in it and getting away with it for a long time. I could name a few right here. Ricky Leacock for example. He doesn't have an eye, you know. He's been proselytizing for Hi-8 for a long time. Trouble is I'm not interested in looking at pictures of his friends, of completely mundane images. It's like the democratic idea that since pencils are cheap, everybody can write. But not everybody is a good writer. Frankly, I'm not interested in reading bad writing, I'm interested in reading the good writing.
AN: I'm not sure I buy your ratios. There are certainly a lot of bad films.
J: I agree. But I think just for pure economic reasons, you can make a bad video for twenty dollars. You cannot make a bad movie for twenty dollars. I mean a bad, feature-length-type movie. If you make one or two bad movies, you'll get tired of spending your own money and getting no reward for it. Or other people will say, "We gave you money once, we gave you money twice, and you gave us a piece of shit once, you gave us a piece of shit twice. And we're not going to give you any more money."
I've been on the festival circuit for years and the hot kids of 1970, 1980, 1985, and 1990 are usually around for three years and I never see them again. Because maybe they made one interesting quirk film and then that was it. Festivals show lots of bad films: the kid went through the festival circuit this year and then you never see him again because he made another bad film and nobody is interested. There's always a new kid coming up. You never see them because they don't do it again: the reward didn't work. I think the people who hang on in the film world are much more restricted; it's more punishing because of the money and because it's literally far more complicated and cumbersome to do film.
F: Any kind of film is complicated while you can easily tape.
J: Right. With film, you've got to buy the film, you've got to put it in the camera, you've got to shoot, you've got to carefully take it to the lab and hope they don't fuck up, and you've got to get it back. And you have to have a support apparatus even if it works. It's punishing if it isn't rewarding. Whereas, you know, with video, you've got your sound and you've got your picture for the price of pushing a button.
AN: You know, I like the fact that you brought up Kuchar because I think what's really special about him is that he's the person using Hi-8 who has really figured out what it's all about. And you can tell it in his work. Everything he does with it is so specific to Hi-8 and not any other medium. It's just spectacular. So, now you're making a distinction here between Hi-8 and digital video. What do you see that is specific about digital, especially the way you've used it?
J: Oh, image and sound quality.
AN: That's simple.
F: Maybe it's the possibility of manipulating things-it's a very plastic medium . . .
J: Hi-8 cameras have certain little digital effects, and you can of course feed Hi-8 into a computer, although nobody, unless you are a Hi-8 visual junkie, would want to feed Hi-8 in when you could buy yourself a digital camera and feed in a better image.
The logic I told you about-telling my friends how good Hi-8 was and here I have a little stack of Hi-8 tapes that I've more or less not looked at-is partially because I have an aversion to looking at shit including my own-film shit. I don't like to look at bad stuff. One of the problems with Hi-8 is that unless you immediately bump up to a higher format like Betacam, then with the first copy you get a major degeneration. And so I have a stack of maybe ten 90-minute tapes of Hi-8 which I may have looked at at the time I shot them but I haven't looked at them since -and I don't know whether I ever will look at them. I think I will. Actually when I was here in Yamagata the last time I actually made one nice little sequence in Hi-8. A little ten-minute slot that was actually really nice.
But anyway, to get back to the technical thing, with film, I long ago ceased the practice of carrying around a camera and shooting, just shooting. When I got the DV, I sort of deliberately said, "Okay, start carrying the camera around, go out and shoot every day-at least think about shooting every day." I carried the camera because it's small and not a hassle to carry around. And the virtue was that I could go shoot each day whether it was ten or thirty minutes. I could look at it that evening and say that's good, that's good and that's good, transfer it to a tape, and now I have probably thirty or forty hours of shot material. I can pick up any cassette and pack it in and say, "You want to see something interesting?" And it's not necessarily all good: some of it I saved because I though it had some quality in it that, even though it isn't so wonderful in-and-of-itself, I could see using. Now I have many, many hours of material, and I wouldn't have done that in Hi-8 because I would have known that I'd have this mountain of shit to wade through at some point. I don't want to wade through a mountain of shit. I like being able to immediately go home, sort it out so that now I have projects A, B, C, and D in little stacks of tapes and say, "Okay, this goes over here, this goes over there," and immediately clean out the junk. I like knowing that if
I'm going to go through this
mountain, it's going to be a mountain of things that I like to look at because it's good. That was a big jump. And then at the same time that was happening, you could see these non-linear editing systems getting within shouting range, economically, and as soon as that happened, it was like, all of a sudden, there was this incredible degree of liberty.
Yes, if someone who absolutely thinks film quality is the only acceptable quality looked at London Brief, they would start quibbling about the occasional little video artifact. The projector here is intended for a much bigger space, so it's too bright for that room: where it should be black, what you get is a slight gray. But that's just a fact of that particular projection system. In another place or with another projector, you would get a nice, rich black from that. Aside from that and except for people who are absolute fetishists who cannot stand to see any kind of little jaggy that comes up once in a while, I cannot see any meaningful grounds for complaint about the aesthetic quality of the image.
G: It is interesting hearing your story because in some ways you're saying that digital is better than Hi-8 because you can in some ways categorize or preserve what you've shot or what you've seen of the world better. But what a lot people say about video in general is that with video you get this big mass, this big flow within which is hard to create distinctions. What do you think of that kind of description of video? How do you find yourself looking at the world using digital?
J: When I'm using a DV camera I'm looking at it the same way I would with a movie camera except suddenly the dollar signs are taken off of it. I feel like I've learned a lot about looking at things and putting them in this bracket of time and the frame. I've learned a lot since I've had this DV camera about how to look at things and I think my visual range has expanded a lot because I'm able to play around and do things without saying, "Well that just cost me five thousand bucks-was it worth that?" Being able to go out every day and look at things through this apparatus, especially without feeling like it must be for some thing. If I were shooting film I would not just go out and say, "Well, that's something interesting to shoot, I'll shoot it," because if I didn't know where it was going to go, I would have felt I couldn't afford to do it.
Here I can just shoot things, experimenting basically, and that's its virtue. It has, for when I'm shooting, helped me look, particularly like the long shot on the Tube in London Brief. I have all this material I shot in Lisbon where I would go find someplace which I thought was visually interesting and then just sit there and let life happen. If it's flat for two minutes, then I'll turn the camera off: just wait and say, "I think something might happen." It isn't even that active: it's just that I like this image. I'll just start shooting and if something happens of interest, something happens of interest. If it doesn't happen I can just go erase it tonight, or I can keep a little clip of it because just the architecture of the image is nice. And this being patient and letting things happen inside is something I just wouldn't have done in film. My friend Fredrick Wiseman can do it. I can't. He's had constant support for all his series that give him a hundred hours of film.
AN: That's interesting because, while watching the piece yesterday I was thinking that, while people talk about films like Koyaanisqatsi as a city symphony, this is much more like what city symphonies were really all about: you have this new medium, you're playing around with it to see what it can do, and you're also discovering new ways of looking at the world through it.
J: I've never seen Berlin, Sym-phony of a City.
J: I've read about it, of course, and I imagine there's some kinship to this film. I think I've probably seen little clips of it, like thirty seconds of this and thirty seconds of that, enough to give me a vague idea that it was an experimental movie look at Berlin.
AN: But it's more than that. It was being really excited about this new apparatus.
J: Well, that's what I meant, experimentally. We have this thing that can make images. The little clips I've seen sort of look like playing around with the movie image and that's exactly what I was doing here.
AN: But also new ways of looking.
J: Well, they come together. The tool opens a different eye. Certainly this camera did.
AN: You should talk about that one shot in the subway. That's the best example of letting things happen. The patience that the medium allows you does also require an amount of patience on the audience's part too.
J: Yeah. And in this case, I think the reason that image works for me-why I kept going-was because, in my films, I almost never use out-of-focus.
Basically it starts out as this mundane shot except for the reflections of this guy sitting on a subway seat. At the beginning-actually, the trouble is I can't accurately describe it-I believe I was looking through two glass panels. I think he was sitting by a window and we're seeing the reflection in that window. Plus, when it comes through to something bright on the back side, you see what's behind him-you know, like when you got up to a station and the window would turn white. I think the image of him is actually a reflection because he disappears every time it pulls into a lighted station-he goes transparent, so he must have been a reflection. When it begins, you feel like he's solid. Part of the magic of the image is you're convinced this guy is solid and then it pulls into a station and suddenly he evaporates. That's a kind of a mundane magic.
At that point you've been watching for a minute and half or so and basically this guy's sort of half asleep and half awake alone by himself in a subway car. But I think if it had just been that, I would have stopped already. There was something going on graphically about the image: the color tonalities, a little bit of granularity because it was dark. And then I had this vertical hold, this metal pole, completely out of focus and it was just sort of this vertical bar of color which you recognize for what it is, but at the same time was completely abstract. The movement of the train, because I was holding it by hand, kept knocking that thing and making it, to me, just very beautiful. There's many parts of that thing that I think of as particularly Japanese aesthetically. Whether I'm completely nuts, I don't know.
J: I showed you the little part of that shot that I think of as most specifically Japanese. There's a place where it pulls into a station and stops for a moment and there's these sort of dark lines that make it look graphically very Japanese: these sort of out-of-focus things and an otherwise very plain, simple image with him in it. Part of the reason I kept shooting was because I was intrigued with something graphic, not having to do with the character. After thirty seconds I really found the character not so interesting. He was interesting, but in a sort of negative, voyeuristic way and that wasn't why I was shooting. I was shooting because I was seeing this sort of layering of graphic things.
And then I decided to keep shooting, but I really do remember very clearly struggling with myself: "Is this interesting enough to keep shooting?" Not for the financial reason but just, "Is this interesting?" Then as I started getting jostled around by the train, I saw there was another person and, while shooting, I was sort of probing around in this image, saying what's that over there? It wasn't a conscious attempt to develop a narrative; it was just like, "Oh, there's another person over there." I did a little zoom-in and the thing got more out of focus and the graphic quality changed. The graphic qualities inside the shot, even though they're consistent, changed so much that, in effect, you might as well have had cuts. If I say look at this part of the shot and look at that part, you would think that they weren't the same thing. You would think this is an abrupt change.
I kept seeing this thing sort of mutate. In my normal work, zooms are a very rare thing and when they're used, they're very thought out and calculated. The camera I was using here doesn't have a smooth zoom apparatus; it has a very quick speed and you can't sneak up on things. But then I saw while I was being jostled around that if I zoomed while I was spinning this way I could sort of sneak up without really revealing the zoom. As I was experimenting with that, this other phenomenon suddenly started happening. Somehow this woman is now beside this guy. And I started seeing this narrative begin to unfold in front of me that I knew to be a completely artificial narrative: you know, a by-product of the graphic phenomenon that was happening. Literally I went five or six stops past where I was intending to go and kept getting more and more fascinated and amazed. In my head I was clicking like I can't believe this thing. Finally the guy gets off and then I went over to her and, when I could see that there probably was not going to be any more development, I finally stopped.
It's something I never would have done on film, for numerous reasons aside from the cost. There isn't a camera that would have let me do it. It would have taken not a four-hundred-foot but a twelve-hundred-foot magazine with giant rabbit ears on it. That, at the time, was one of the phases of having this tool that was like a revelation, that was like, "See what this thing will allow to happen." Well, I'd already done a fair amount of stuff in Lisbon, but much more rigid. One thing good about this camera is that for at least ten years now I've been kicking myself, saying I feel like I've ossified because my stuff is usually pretty formal and precise. I've been telling myself, "I wish I could go out like when I was nineteen and just fucking wave my camera around." I knew part of it was the economics, but part of it, I thought, was because I'm just turning into an old fuddy-duddy who's trapped in this fucking little box of aesthetic things. I'm getting bored with it and I'm getting angry with myself for not being able to loosen up and be a virgin again. Then I get this camera and suddenly I feel quite literally like I'm this nineteen-year-old kid with six months in Paris and no responsibilities. I don't think these days I would have gone out with a movie camera and spun St. Paul's around in the sky like that.
AN: For the techno-fetishists out there, what camera are you using?
J: I don't quite remember, but I think most of this was done with the DV 700, which I believe has already been discontinued. It's interesting, the two cameras are 80% the same: one has three chips, the other has one and gives you a slightly less precise image. Yet the one chip one which is considerable less expensive has several digital effects which I use pretty constantly throughout this film. One is a sort of step motion thing. It has two steps: one is really like a second hold, and I hardly ever used that; but the other is I think probably a third to a quarter of a second. There's another effect where you get a frozen image and another one where it's basically a slow shutter speed: if you set a really slow shutter speed you get a big smear on movement, so it's the frozen thing but with smear. The other one's frozen but pretty clean. I used those quite a lot because I liked them in certain circumstances; I think they're very helpful and expressive, like the sequence in there of this statue of these guys fighting. It uses this frozen step motion and then goes into this mirrored effect. I believe they blend together really well: you see something change graphically, but it isn't like it's inappropriate. It's like a growth, an organic process. But I think they discontinued the DV 700 because of it had a curious focus thing that if you put it out of focus, there is something in the optic system that isn't in the other that causes a sort of bloom around things. They probably thought this was a grotesque flaw but I have like seven hours of stuff shot all out of focus.
G: Of grotesque flaw.
AN: Sounds like the title of the next one.
G: The Grotesque Flaw.
J: But the effect is really beautiful. That I shot in this beach town in southern Portugal. I have this piece ready to be edited.
AN: It sounds like you have a backlog of projects.
J: Yeah, I think I have at least two more things that I could say, "If I could just sit down and edit it, I think I have all the material." I just need to organize it, maybe put in some music or whatever it is, but basically it's editing. And then I have another three or four stacks of things which I think will turn into films but I don't know yet. I mean, it's lots of material, I just don't know quite what it is or will turn into.
AN: And then you're thinking about a digital-video based feature.
J: Yes, a fictional feature. Or I'm thinking about several. Plus I'm certain after six months in Paris I'll doubtless have a Parisian portrait of some sort.
G: You talked a little bit about shooting in digital. What about editing in it? A lot of people are saying that non-linear editing is changing the film world drastically. What has your experience been in using it?
J: Well, I've only edited a few things. Actually, my last finished film which was shot in Rome was edited on an Avid. But it was approached more like traditional editing. The thing itself was more like, "We're doing a more traditional mode of filmmaking and it just happens that we have this non-linear editing system which, in theory should make it faster and easier to edit"-which in fact it does. But the work itself didn't really reflect what this system can do. I will for certain, in the next handful of months, buy one of these digital editing systems, which are actually getting ridiculously low in price.
I see lots of potential for aesthetic things that are inherent in the tool. For example, I am very interested in architecture-like that building you see, the Lloyd's building. Now I think there is a whole breed of architecture that happened as a direct consequence of CAD/CAM, that nobody would have sat there and made unless they had a computer system to draw it or to conceive it. And the computer, this graphic tool, has its own inside logic, and people who use that logic end up making buildings like Lloyd's building. I just don't think that would have come out of traditional drafting.
I think that you'll see the same thing happen with digital non-linear editing. You'll start seeing an awful lot of bad shit, of course, because it's so plastic you're going to see people completely out of control, just throwing anything together. Maybe, it'll take a little while, but maybe in ten years you'll see a general overall shift in how things are done. But you'll see it from me in a year. I like this system quite a lot because your sound tracks are right there. You can manipulate them depending on the system you're using: you can see the sound wave and make it a little line that you can grab and push up and down and thus do fades. On one level it's a minimal mixing system, on the other, it's a hundred times better than a traditional editing table. And there are other systems that you have: you can basically do your EQ-ing and filtering and whatever you want.
When I say it's plastic, there are shots in this film, for example, where I reverse the direction. There's my dirty joke part, where it says, "Mind the gap," and then goes to a shot of a piston going up which, because it was oily and whatever, looks sort of like a penis. I reversed the direction so it looks more like a cock. Then it went to the little sex advertisements: the condom thing. For another example, on the Speaker's Corner thing, I had this shot of the people doing the speaking and it was a certain length, but the background shot I shot for it wasn't long enough to hold and give it a little breathing space. So I just said I'll play the background shot at 85% of speed. I stretched it out. You don't see it at all. For these kind of things you just go twiddle your thumbs, or take care of your daughter for five minutes while it gets rendered. You get a faster computer and it's going to take two minutes for it to get rendered.
Maybe eight or ten years ago when you started getting digital sound editing programs, I saw that, as far as the computer is concerned, this digital sound was merely an image. If you wanted to take the image, turn it around, and run it backwards, no problem, just grab it and do it. So I thought for a long time, it would be fun to make a narrative that starts off seemingly normal and then you would start going into sentences flipping the first part of a word around, then flip a whole word around. If you go word by word, it should appear to be in sync. Basically, English run backwards sounds sort of sloppy, like Russian. After a while it would completely degenerate into a non-communicable language that seemed to be right in somebody's mouth. I thought it would be fun to figure out a narrative that would somehow lead you to this ending with the words backwards.
Right now I'm working on a thing that I would like to shoot in HDTV. A big epic film, wide screen. I might shoot it on film. It depends on what the camera is: how portable and convenient it is to use. But once you get an image like that into a computer you can do what Hollywood does: lay in explosions and all that shit, which is not my interest at all. My interest is different. One of the things I want to do in this film I want to do in Scotland. People go to Scotland and they think, "wild Scotland." Well, this is a completely mangled, man-made landscape; when you go the highlands, it's completely artificial, completely altered by human hands. So what I would like to do is, do shots where you would start off seeing a normal telephoto lens vs. wide angle view. I would then matte the telephotoed sky against the wide-angled mountain in silhouette and slowly start flattening the landscape. It's very much like Japanese and Chinese graphics where things get flattened out. You could do this very subtly in a computer: you have this landscape shot and you're looking at a valley floor, but part of the valley floor has been shot at a different angle and is just matted in. It's the right valley, it's the right everything, it's just seen from an increasingly different angle until finally you would have a literally flattened out landscape. Which is what Scotland is: it's a flattened out landscape. The forests are gone; the people who used to live there got shoved out in the interests of making money on sheep. So I have a narrative thing to go with this, but I want to use the graphic capacity. Just working on this film, when we were laying in the Speaker's Corner stuff, I could see that you could take images and very cleanly just begin to fracture a line here, just move a notch so you would see a completely normal image that would slowly begin to fracture. This might be good for a narrative about somebody cracking up or something like that.
Because of the nature of people and the nature of these tools, most of what you're going to see is going to be grotesque exaggerations of this, like morphing and all that stuff, and yet you could do much more subtle things.
G: Thank you very much.
Born in Chicago in 1943 to a military family, Jon Jost spent his youth in the United States, Japan, Italy and Germany. Quit college in 1963 and began making 16mm films. He was imprisoned for 2 years for draft resistance. Upon his release he became involved in political activities, and, with other leftist student activists, helped found the independent documentary film movement, Newsreel. He has directed a wide range of works including Speaking Directly (1973), Angel City (1977), and Rembrandt Laughing (1988). At YIDFF '89 Plain Talk & Common Sense (1987) was selected for the competition section. In 1991 The Museum of Modern Art in New York held a touring retrospective of all of his work "Jon Jost: American Independent." Currently living in Europe, his London Brief was screened at the YIDFF '97.