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FILM; Times When Less Is More Profound
By B. Ruby Rich
"HITLER killed them.'' That's the answer Jay Rosenblatt used to get as a boy whenever he asked his grandfather about the rest of his family.
Decades later, Mr. Rosenblatt was researching a film on religious faith when he suddenly found himself face to face with Hitler, the evil man himself, calmly munching a crust of bread.
The impact of this archival clip was as devastating as it was unexpected. ''The hair on the back of my neck stood up,'' he recalls. ''I realized for the first time that Hitler had a mundane side to him, an everyday humanity, that had been erased by the image of him as a monster.''
Mr. Rosenblatt began to research Hitler and his fellow tyrants for a film he jokingly took to calling, ''Dictators Are People, Too!'' Another filmmaker might have made a solemn Holocaust documentary of the kind that shows up on the History Channel. Not Jay Rosenblatt. This artist follows his own style, a signature form of collage that uses found footage to tell strikingly original stories that are anything but formulaic. The decidedly whimsical, half-hour piece he created, ''Human Remains,'' won the award for best film in the highly competitive short-film category at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival.
A one-week retrospective of Mr. Rosenblatt's classic works as well as his new ones, starting on Wednesday at Film Forum, will include ''Human Remains,'' ''The Smell of Burning Ants'' and ''King of the Jews.'' While hardly a household name, he has long been admired on the film-festival circuit and by other filmmakers. The Canadian director Atom Egoyan said, ''He's an exquisite artist who makes beautifully crafted miniatures.'' Mr. Egoyan, himself well known for such features as ''The Sweet Hereafter,'' particularly values the form Mr. Rosenblatt has chosen: ''Jay Rosenblatt isn't making 'calling card movies.' In the current climate of everyone wanting to make an indie feature, he's devoted himself to the very endangered form of the short film. He has stayed pure.''
Mr. Rosenblatt's dedication is hard won. He didn't start out to be a filmmaker. He studied literature and psychology. Inspired by a stint as a Vista volunteer that spirited him out of his native New York, he settled down to pursue a career as a psychotherapist in Seattle. Well into a graduate degree in counseling, he happened to take a film production class, and that was that. ''It was passion at first sight,'' Mr. Rosenblatt remembers. ''From that moment, I couldn't not make films.''
He relocated in the mid-80's to San Francisco, a perfect city for a guy like him, given its penchant for therapies, a respected film school at San Francisco State University and a welcoming community of renegade filmmakers. Soon Mr. Rosenblatt had a new film degree, enough work teaching film to quit his day job, and the kind of identifiable style that might be considered branding if it didn't come in such quirky lengths as, say, 21 or 18 minutes.
Gail Silva, executive director of the Film Arts Foundation, an organization that nurtures Bay Area filmmakers, says that it is easy to understand why Mr. Rosenblatt chose to live there: ''The good thing about San Francisco is that you can choose to follow your own course, whether it's popular or not, and be valued for it.'' Even so, she added, Mr. Rosenblatt stands out: ''He's been funded by F.A.F. more often than anyone else, four times in all.''
Early on, Mr. Rosenblatt started avoiding traditional film production, which he found ''too stressful'' on a low budget. He decided instead to make something new out of old educational films (''They have a lot to do with memory and the past, especially childhood,'' he points out). In ''The Smell of Burning Ants,'' for example, Mr. Rosenblatt used old instructional films about bullying and fights between boys to explore a disturbing beating incident from his own youth. His resulting meditation on masculinity and the drive to domination is eerily effective, not least, he said, because those old black-and-white films connect with viewers' forgotten experiences ''by delving into the image bank of our collective unconscious.''
What is most striking about his masterpiece, ''Human Remains,'' is his audacity in choosing to address atrocity entirely by omission. The audience journeys through archival film of Hitler, Mao, Stalin, Franco and Mussolini, guided only by a soundtrack of quotations and biographical data about their personal habits, all synthesized into an amusing but unlikely confessional. These everyday glimpses of world rulers sneak under the radar of audience expectation, so that unexpected revelations about Mao's taste for women, Hitler's flatulence or Stalin's stature (5 feet 4 inches) provoke a realignment of sensibility.
Mr. Rosenblatt's charming Victorian house here has an editing room downstairs and a windowsill full of festival trophies upstairs. John Cooper, the Sundance Festival's associate director of programming, says that Mr. Rosenblatt's films have been shown there more than those of any other maker of short films: ''We've shown almost all of his films since we began including shorts a decade ago, because he's so inventive. And he matches his style to his subject. He doesn't just pick a form and repeat it over and over.''
There are those who can be discomfited by his complex approach. When ''Human Remains'' was shown at Input, the international public television conference, a Dutch programmer took issue with the film's entertaining take on its subjects and challenged Mr. Rosenblatt: ''Is your next project a promo for Pol Pot?''
NO, Jesus, actually. Mr. Rosenblatt's latest film, ''King of the Jews,'' was inspired by a childhood trip to Radio City Music Hall with his mother for a sneak preview of a movie that turned out to be Nicholas Ray's ''King of Kings.'' His mother, a devout Jew who wouldn't even utter Christ's name (substituting ''Jersey City'') was horrified. But the young Mr. Rosenblatt was transfixed. His world was turned upside down by the revelation that Jesus was a Jew. Now, culling images from a range of old religious movies, Mr. Rosenblatt wanted to make a film that could set the historical record straight yet still communicate a spiritual message. But again he encountered doubters. ''Have you converted?'' asked one friend. ''This is profoundly anti-Christian,'' complained a Sundance viewer this year.
Given his fabled purity and dedication to the craft of film, it follows that Mr. Rosenblatt must be shunning the Internet and all that dot-coms stand for, right? Well, not exactly. While he's cynical about the start-ups that plan to upload films onto the Web free on the promise of exposure (''That's so exploitative!''), Mr. Rosenblatt can't help but enjoy, a little, a medium that actually favors the short film.
Finally, he confesses that he's just made a one-minute film, ''Nine Lives,'' for a Web site named Icuna. Developed by a Peruvian-Belgian filmmaker turned Los Angeles Web impresario, Mary Jimenez, Icuna.com commissions one-minute works by well known filmmakers like Percy Adlon, Alex Cox and Paul Mazursky. Ms. Jimenez pronounces Mr. Rosenblatt's ''Nine Lives,'' an inspired view into a cat's daydream, to be her favorite of all his films.
''You need a lot of confidence in what you are saying and doing to make films like he does, so simple and straightforward, yet building to a subjective level,'' Ms. Jimenez says. ''When people see 'Nine Lives,' they open their mouths in amazement that he can say so much about life and death and imagination through a real cat in one single minute. In the crossing between time and space, where the mystery of film originates, that is where the art of Jay lives.''
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