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By Mick LaSalle
"Matters of Life and Death: Recent Films by Jay Rosenblatt," is an 85-minute collection of the recent work of this San Francisco filmmaker, all of it dealing, in some way, with essential matters of existence. It opens today at the Roxie, where it will run a week, and then a week from today it opens at the Rafael Film Center. It's no exaggeration to say that Rosenblatt can give you more in one minute than some filmmakers can give you in two hours. "Nine Lives," which imagines and depicts his cat's dreams through brilliantly edited stock footage, shows what a first-rate talent can do in just 60 seconds.
In his most characteristic mode, Rosenblatt takes a subject and explores it by combining music with old footage, much of it from training films, newsreels, industrials and public service films. Through these means, he synthesizes a complexity of meaning and an emotional power that's often astonishing. The fact that much of the footage is old (most from midcentury) creates a sense of timeless truth and loss, a mood difficult to evoke in film but sometimes achievable in music, as in Gorecki's Third Symphony. His short film, "Worms," about a boy's recollection of it raining worms, has that lonely, aching quality. So does "Friend Good," which intersperses moments from "Frankenstein" with quotes from Mary Shelley's novel.
In "Phantom Limb," a 28-minute tour de force, he rolls out a succession of techniques to tell the story of his younger brother's death, at 7 years old. The film is a beautiful and original exploration of grief and loss.
The new collection also contains several "video diary" films, in which no stock footage is used. "A Pregnant Moment" details his dog's pregnancy and birthing and the raising and adoption of her puppies. It's a sweet film, with many good shots of the dogs being born and nursing, but in a way, the much-shorter "Nine Lives" is more satisfying, in that the cat film concentrates on the cat, while "A Pregnant Moment" focuses as much on the humans. When Rosenblatt eschews his familiar approach for the video diary, he risks forgoing poetry for prose, and two of his films featuring his daughter, one about a trip to get ice cream and another about dressing up for Halloween, are more in the nature of home movies.
Yet his earliest daughter film, "I Used to Be a Filmmaker," is a highlight, a series of small, funny and touching vignettes that cover the seemingly miraculous development of a child from early infancy through her first steps. It's lovely, one of the wittiest and most heartfelt films about fatherhood I've seen.
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