Jay Rosenblatt Films - Locomotion Films
The Kodachrome Elegies When You Awake The Darkness of Day The Claustrum The D Train Phantom Limb Human Remains The Smell of Burning Ants King of the Jews Period Piece I Just Wanted to Be Somebody Beginning Filmmaking I Used to Be a Filmmaker The Films of Jay Rosenblatt - Vol 1 The Films of Jay Rosenblatt - Vol 2


May 9, 2001

Boy plunder
Jay Rosenblatt wonders what makes a man

By Johnny Ray Huston

THERE'S A MOMENT in one of Jay Rosenblatt's films ("The Smell of Burning Ants") when a shadow passes over a childlike smiling face that's been chalked onto a sidewalk. The glimpse only lasts a second or two, but it captures the overall mood of Rosenblatt's work and symbolizes his obsession with cruelty as a rite in the passage from boyhood to manhood. Boys are often seen on the verge of crossing a threshold — usually a doorway — in Rosenblatt's films, and the director's use of found footage cleverly combines dozens of scruffy, striped-shirted youngsters into one typical child; to put it a different way, in Rosenblatt's movies a boy is another boy is another boy beating up another boy is another boy ...

Examined under a magnifying glass lit by sizzling sun in "Ants," these Beaver Cleaver-ed boys could can still grow up to stretch the definition of cruel manhood to the breaking point. Rosenblatt's "Human Remains" begins with footage of what seems like a typical bit of father-daughter affection. But when the man kneeling by the little girl turns away from her and faces the camera, he turns out to be Adolph Hitler. For a few minutes, as we see Adolph eating, smiling, and reading a newspaper on a park bench, he shares with us, in a curiously layered dramatic voice-over (a Scots-inflected English voice mixed louder than the German one behind it), some details from his life: he drank mineral water and chamomile instead of coffee, he hated the smell of tobacco, he loved chocolate éclairs. When he observes, in a gravely knowing tone of voice, that "A woman's love is deeper than a man's," the statement seems almost touching, until one thinks of the man saying it — when one does, the statement becomes one small part of a mind-set that justified genocide.

This friction is "Human Remains" 's achievement: it doesn't simply present the banality of evil, it draws one into sometimes-monstrous psyches to wonder if telltale fault lines are detectable. The film's cast of dictators avoid discussing the horrific acts that gave them infamy, instead inviting the viewer in for a one-sided teatime confessional. Mussolini, shown cavorting with cute pets and sledding shirtless, talks about bowler hats and his interest in séances. Occasionally a creepy disclosure punctuates and punctures the friendly intimacy. Franco, an avid hunter, boasts that he killed 8,423 partridges in one year. Regarding the death of his first wife, Stalin remarks, "With her died all my feelings for other humans." Mao comes off as the most egomaniacal: instead of brushing his teeth, he "cleaned" them with tea, and he also avoided bathing, claiming, "my genitals were washed inside the bodies of my women."

Largely composed of newsreel clips, the 30-minute "Human Remains" is visually the least interesting of Rosenblatt's films; its achievement is in finding "human" images of tyrants. Elsewhere Rosenblatt's optical printer manipulation of found footage is more overt. His approach doesn't have the connection-crazed kineticism of Craig Baldwin's reconstructions, or the otherworldly wackiness of Animal Charm's use of corporate training and infomercial material — his most florid work, the purplish-blue "Short of Breath," is closest to the tic-ridden films of Martin Arnold, who slows down and micro-investigates brief scenes from old Hollywood movies to reveal psychosexual undercurrents within chaste situations. Before turning to film, Rosenblatt was a mental health professional, and the 10-minute "Short of Breath" doubles as both a dark portrait of a primal scene and a parody of therapy.

Rosenblatt sometimes uses celluloid to conjure archetypal dream states, but he also tweaks psychoanalytic convention. In the 21-minute "Ants," a shot of an umbilical cord being cut is replaced by a shot of scissors cutting a roll of film. In "Short of Breath," a sleepy pajama-clad boy walks slowly toward a bedroom door; initially, he witnesses parental sex, but that spy's-eye view gives way to another vision: a mother figure repeatedly racing to jump out a window. "Short of Breath" 's soundtrack is dominated by two unnerving, looped motifs: a woman gasping and sobbing, and a vibrating-bell jar noise. The gasping, sobbing woman — enacting a textbook case of postpartum depression — is shown counseled by a doctor whose face brightens on the mention of sex; Rosenblatt re-edits the doctor's three possible programmatic responses to the interaction ("Choice 1," "Choice 2," and "Choice 3") to create comic non sequiturs that emphasize the misogyny of the doctor's approach.

Gone in 60 seconds, "Restricted" 's barrage of conflicting audiovisual suggestions (via voice-over the phrase "Take a chance, don't do it" is jumbled in a variety of ways) adds up to little more than a 'moted MTV sniglet. But with the 18-minute "King of the Jews," Rosenblatt sustains an epic tone even as he mischievously undercuts it. In the last of that film's three sections Rosenblatt juxtaposes silent-film crucifixion scenes with Holocaust and war images. Compositions by Benjamin Britten (whose preoccupation with tortured masculinity matches Rosenblatt's), Bela Bartók, and Arvo Pärt are interwoven into one funereal piece that free-falls from the heights of anxiety to the depths of melancholy. Then Rosenblatt adds one more juxtaposition to the already-loaded montage: clips of men sawing down gargantuan redwood trees. The tree footage is ambiguous: it could function as earnest humanist hyperbole or as an audacious visual pun connected to the cross Christ is nailed on.

Pun or no pun, "King of the Jews" 's third part attains the gravity of Dreyer's Passion of Joan of Arc and Alain Resnais's Night and Fog; the funereal rhythm of its editing transforms a variety of footage into a single horrible ritual. It's also Rosenblatt's longest dialogue-free stretch, proof that he's refined the autobiographical intent of his work to a degree that he's capable of speaking without voice-over (although his use of voice-over has grown increasingly subtle and sophisticated). According to the first-person narration of "King" 's first section, it took a matinee showing of Nicholas Ray's King of Kings to show Rosenblatt that Christ was in fact Jewish. Beginning with that Technicolor evidence (in Rosenblatt's work, all film, dramatic or documentary, functions as history), he's condensed "2000 years of anti-Semitism" into less than a half hour.

During "Short of Breath," rewound stock allows a baby to crawl back into the womb, an act mimicked by a boy who — after viewing a primal scene and/or his mother's suicide — unhappily cocoons himself beneath the blankets of his bed. Cumulatively, Jay Rosenblatt's short works have a distinct personality — as playful as kids that leap ghostlike from car top to car top and at the same time as fatalistic as a scorpion surrounded by fire.

'5 Films by Jay Rosenblatt' plays Fri/11-Thurs/17, Roxie Cinema, 3117 16th St., S.F. (415) 863-1087; Fri/11-Thurs/17, Rafael Film Center, 1118 Fourth St., San Rafael. (415) 454-1222.

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