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RELEASE PRINT INTERVIEW
September, 1998

The Human Condition

Award-winning filmmaker Jay Rosenblatt probes his own psyche and ours

By Sura Wood

The seductive spell cast by Jay Rosenblatt’s films is difficult to articulate, except to say that he ushers viewers in through the back door of the human condition with a conciseness and evocativeness reminiscent of poetry. His short films, which are intensely psychological, fall somewhere between the experimental and the documentary; they are simultaneously literate, impressionistic and mysterious, and they range from the more traditional narrative thrust of such early pieces as Paris X 2 and Blood Test to the sorrowful enigmatic later films Short of Breath, The Smell of Burning Ants and Human Remains, which won an honorable mention in the short filmmaking category at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival. Rosenblatt’s newest work, A Pregnant Moment, which he co-directed with his longtime collaborator Jennifer Frame, will screen at the Film Arts Festival in November.

In April, the 42-year-old filmmaker was awarded a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship in recognition of a body of work that spans 18 years. He says he is planning to use the $30,000 grant to purchase equipment, finance a new film and perhaps take some time off from teaching film at San Francisco State University and the College of San Mateo. Before becoming a teacher, Rosenblatt was a mental health counselor for 15 years at Marin General Hospital and Pacific Presbyterian Medical Center. His insight into psychology continues to heavily inform his filmmaking. He says that his goal as a filmmaker is similar to that of a therapist – to confront people on a subliminal level with things they would prefer to avoid.

Despite their polish and distinctiveness, Rosenblatt’s films have reached only a limited audience. Obtaining wider distribution and achieving higher visibility has been difficult, in part because his films are impossible to classify. Rosenblatt also laments the fact that short films are frequently accorded a second-class citizenship. “Films need to be whatever length they need to be and not fit into some kind of feature-length distribution paradigm. If you’ve made your point and then you continue to make it, you start diminishing it.”
Several of his films are set in the 1950s and early ’60s, the era in which Rosenblatt grew up. “There’s enough distance from that period so that I can really critique it,” he says. In addition to newsreel footage, archival images and home movies, he uses found footage of discarded ’50s educational films. He consciously subverts the material through optical printing, a painstaking process of re-photography that slows down or speeds up time, skips frames and turns medium shots into close-ups. Rosenblatt was the first person to use San Francisco State’s newly installed optical printer in 1987; today he labors in his home studio and is often assisted by his colleague and friend from S.F. State, John Turk. “I look for subtleties in the material I can bring out,” he says. The repetitive, grainy images he produces have a once-removed quality, which heightens the voyeuristic experience of watching his films, reinforcing the spectator’s awareness of the act of looking. Add to that a spare, lyrical narration that functions almost like a musical score, and the overall effect is mesmerizing.

Although there is a striking exactness and seeming inevitability to the ordering of the images in his films, Rosenblatt says he works intuitively, often starting with only emotion and pure feeling to guide him. Once he’s involved, however, he begins to feel a need for structure. The form the structure takes and at what stage it is imposed varies from film to film. “You can almost say that my films are too controlled,” he says. “They are very precise, but I don’t start there. It’s a long process to get that refinement. The technical hurdles add to the refinement because it takes so long to optically print, and the time I take to edit allows things to have time to shift.”

Although his films are sprinkled with references to such filmmakers as Bertolucci and Godard, Rosenblatt says he is not aware of consciously being influenced by any particular master, with the exception of the French experimental filmmaker Chris Marker, whose Sans Soleil (1982) made an indelible impression on him. He says he was struck not so much by the film’s content–it might inadequately be described as a lyrical documentary on modern Japan–as by its intimation that there is another, less conventional way to make a movie. (In his Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thomson characterizes Sans Soleil as “a documentary format that leads into a reverie on Japan, technology and the conjunction of different times and peoples in the world. It shows how rich the potential is for filmmaking, like the writing of essays and the keeping of journals.”) “Up until I saw Sans Soleil, I was thinking I’d just write a script and take it from there,” says Rosenblatt. “But it became clear to me that Marker shot a lot of footage and wrote the film in the editing. So after I made Blood Test, I decided to start shooting even if I had just a mood or a vague idea of where it was going. I decided to see what the footage told me.”

Blood Test (1985), which presaged Rosenblatt’s focus on family and identity, is a send-up of the stilted acting and contrived look of ’50s television. A man confronts his parents–who later turn out to be actors playing his parents–in a pseudo-therapy encounter that has the feel of a tacky, bizarre game show. (Donna Reed, the ultimate TV mom, makes an appearance via a clip.) Shot in black and white, Blood Test has extended dialogue sequences, offbeat humor and a more or less conventional, if skewed, narrative.

In Paris X 2 (1988), Rosenblatt’s inclination towards assemblage emerges, although the film still features a loose narrative dealing with an American man–apparently the filmmaker–and a French woman. With references to Last Tango in Paris, Gilda, An American in Paris, Ninotchka and Born to Be Bad, the film suggests the ways, often unsuccessful, in which we reconcile idealistic images and expectations with real experience. “On one layer it is a critique of Hollywood’s portrayal of romantic love,” says Rosenblatt. “It’s about how you deal with disillusionment.”

Paris X 2 is deliberately grating at times, moving from video to film, using static and distortion as a way of visually expressing the degradation of memory and the way the mind gently rearranges facts over time. “If I stop the memory when we’re still together, then we’re still together,” says the narrator. The film also investigates the inherent subjectivity of the film medium. A film may claim to be a documentary, for instance, but that doesn’t make it one.

“Every time you make a cut, every time you place the camera, the way you frame it, you’re saying something,” Rosenblatt says. “What you place next to a shot changes the meaning of the images. There’s always a point of view; sometimes it’s subtle, it’s masked, it’s undetectable, but every decision has a point of view.”

In one scene, we see the Frenchwoman reclining on a divan, watching old newsreel footage of the Germans marching into Paris. She observes that she doesn’t watch films, they watch her–a statement that implies that neither the creation or viewing of images is an innocent experience. “A lot of that film is about what’s true in cinema and what’s false,” says Rosenblatt. “When you see a film, and it says that it’s a true story, it has always seemed ludicrous to me. What does that really mean?”

For Short of Breath (1990), a multi-layered ten-minute film on depression and suicide, Rosenblatt used footage he had found in a dumpster outside the psychiatric hospital where he was working. What he discovered in this stash were training films designed to help doctors work on their bedside manner. Rosenblatt manipulated those scenes to look like sessions with a psychiatrist, cropping the images on the optical printer, then used them as a structuring device. “A pure find,” he says. He describes the film as being about “grieving and the intergenerational transmission of depression and emotion.” A woman’s sobs permeate the soundtrack, while onscreen she appears to be confiding to her psychiatrist about her depression. True to the sexist assumptions of the era, the male psychiatrist attributes her mental state to her sex life with her husband. We also see a series of provocative images: a woman dashes toward an open window. Is she jumping to her death? A young boy peers into his parents’ bedroom. What does he witness? “Everything will be all right,” a narrator assures us at the close of the film. “Nothing will ever be the same,” would be a more appropriate conclusion.

Brain in the Desert (1990) was made with Jennifer Frame, who has collaborated with Rosenblatt on several films. The short film about a relationship on the skids is laconic and beguiling in its simplicity. In a haunting fashion, emotion and insight are conveyed by the power of suggestion. As in poetry, we are “shown, not told.” A couple, vacationing in the desert, is seen only in long, totemic shadows that resemble cave paintings. They aren’t getting along. In four minutes, the film captures how interminable it can feel to be in the middle of nowhere with someone with whom you have a less than congenial relationship.

Rosenblatt’s recent film Human Remains is in many ways his most accessible film to date. Combining first-person voiceover narration with optically printed newsreel and archival footage, the 30-minute work details the personal habits and proclivities of five of the 20th century’s most reviled dictators. With casual understatement, the dictators reveal the banalities of their lives: most of them were plagued by insomnia; Hitler was an avid reader of pornography; Mao liked to sleep with several women at a time “for refreshment”; Mussolini had a pet lion; Franco and Stalin were five-foot-four; Mussolini and Hitler favored chamomile tea; and Mussolini, Mao and Stalin–but not Hitler–were fans of Charlie Chaplin. “In Human Remains I was interested in gestures and glances,” Rosenblatt says. “I found it fascinating when the dictators made eye contact with the camera. It was the beginning of using film as propaganda, and they grew up at the same time film did.”

Rosenblatt spent eight months exhaustively researching the film, which took four years to complete. His strategy was not to mention anything about the heinous acts committed by these men. He wanted to invoke their atrocities without showing them and to make the viewer feel the force of evil. “I think it’s more frightening that they were people who do the same things we do,” he says. “That’s part of the horror.”

In retrospect, The Smell of Burning Ants (1994), which has won 23 awards and been shown in more than 20 countries, appears to be an artistic precursor to Human Remains. In this fascinating exploration of the roots of male aggression and sadism, young boys torture small animals and torment each other, forced to choose between being predators or becoming prey. Rosenblatt captures the barbarism, isolation and savagery of boyhood. “We all have these aspects, but the degree to which they’re acted out is what separates us. Not everyone who does these things becomes a Hitler.” The film, which Rosenblatt says was triggered by a childhood memory of group violence, chronicles the process by which boys learn to deny their feelings and loose their empathy. At one point the narrator, singling out one of the boys, says, “There he is at the end of the line. He learns to fake interest. This will lead others to believe that he belongs. There he is again, the collaborator.” At the end of the film a boy is told, “Smile, it won’t kill you.” “But,” says the narrator, “it does.” “I wanted there to be a sensitivity to what we go through as men,” explains Rosenblatt. “It’s easy to have no empathy.”

In The Smell of Burning Ants, Rosenblatt not only turns his cool eye toward conformity, he also indicts the complicity of filmmakers. A recurring image of a boy with a camera is juxtaposed with a shot of a boy aiming a gun. Rosenblatt means to implicate the man or woman “behind the curtain.” “What I was dealing with was the idea of the filmmaker as another collaborator. By being an observer and not doing anything, you’re collaborating. I see a camera as a sort of weapon for good and bad purposes. As filmmakers, we can uncover, expose and effect social change; but the medium can be used as an exploitative device that adds to our problems. Filmmakers don’t take enough responsibility for the images they put on the screen.”

Rosenblatt worked with local composer Erik Ian Walker to design the sound for The Smell of Burning Ants. Sound is an important component in all his films. It enhances the atmosphere and grounds the films’ visual lyricism in a concrete environment. “Sound is crucial,” says the filmmaker. “It changes the way you inflect something. It changes the image completely. If the sound is well integrated, it gives the film more roots.”

Rosenblatt, in collaboration with Jennifer Frame, has just completed A Pregnant Moment, a project that was initiated several years ago with a FAF Personal Works Grant awarded to Frame. Frame says, “We conceived the idea together, we shot all the footage together–which is over 20 hours–we raised the puppies and Jay did the edit.” Caveh Zahedi co-edited the piece with Rosenblatt, with Frame acting “as a consultant.” A Pregnant Moment is markedly different from Rosenblatt’s other work. Shot in color and on video, it is a diary about a dog giving birth to seven puppies. Essentially, it’s a high-grade home movie made by pros. “We thought that the film could transcend the subject of dogs and be a vehicle for a journal piece about three neurotic Jews and their relationship to a dog,” says Frame. (The third character in the video is the dog’s owner.)

Rosenblatt is now at work on King of the Jews, a project he considers “daunting.” He describes the premise as being about “my relationship with Jesus as a Jewish boy growing up in Brooklyn.” Stylistically it will draw on techniques developed while making Human Remains and The Smell of Burning Ants. Although he has shot some live action material, he will once again use found footage and old silent films, as well as home movies made by his father.

Though much of his work is suffused with a mournful tone and a distinctly personal longing that cannot be soothed, Rosenblatt’s films are more than a translation of his own idiosyncratic experience. “It’s good to go inside yourself and find something personal, but the trick is how to take it beyond that realm,” he says. “How does something personal become universal, so that a person relating to it is not distanced by it? It takes time and finesse and a lot of introspection. Ideally, it’s something that’s therapeutic for me in making it and healing for the viewer. That’s my goal.”

Sura Wood is the film critic for radio station KPFA in Berkeley. Her profile of filmmaker Julia Loktev appeared in the July/August issue of Release Print.

This article originally appeared in the September 1998 issue of Release Print, the magazine of Film Arts Foundation. It is used here by permission.





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