Hi Res Press Photos
Filmmaker Jay Rosenblatt emerges from shadows
By Edward Guthmann, Chronicle Staff Writer
Looking at Jay Rosenblatt's films, one enters a limbo between dreams and waking, a place that's unprotected and fraught with fear.
A boy is told not to cry, and made to feel that he will be loved only when he stops. A Jewish kid sees "King of Kings" at Radio City Music Hall and is amazed to learn that Jesus, a man he was taught to fear, was also a Jew.
The themes that occupy Rosenblatt -- childhood, memory and emotional tyranny -- are particularly evident when grouped together, as they are now in a program of five shorts that opens Friday at the Roxie Cinema, the Fine Arts in Berkeley and the Rafael Film Center in San Rafael.
This is the first major Bay Area showcase for Rosenblatt, a Brooklyn native who moved here in 1983 and worked as a mental health counselor before he made films and taught at San Francisco State and Stanford. Until recently, it was only film festivals and the occasional school or museum that would play his finely tuned, artistically rigorous films.
Last August, when the same program showed at the Film Forum in New York and the New York Times ran both a profile and a glowing review, Rosenblatt emerged somewhat from the cold shadows that experimental filmmakers inhabit. Critic Stephen Holden called his work "an unblinking, surreal post-Freudian meditation on evil from a Jewish perspective."
Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan was quoted in the profile, calling Rosenblatt "an exquisite artist who makes beautifully crafted miniatures."
In the wake of his New York success, Rosenblatt booked his retrospective into Chicago, Seattle, Boston and Cleveland. "If it weren't for the Film Forum gig this wouldn't be happening," he says. "I've found, at least in this city, that it has to happen somewhere else first before it happens here."
Rosenblatt, 46, spoke in the Castro District home that he shares with his wife, Stephanie Rapp, and their 2-month-old daughter, Ella. A gentle, soft- spoken man, he appears slight and meek in person -- in contrast to the bold nature of his films, which confront the viewer with the kind of thorny emotional content that most of us would rather ignore.
In his basement Rosenblatt has built a large, comfortable studio with a treasure of equipment, some of it purchased with the $35,000 Guggenheim fellowship he received in 1998. He has an AVID nonlinear digital editing deck, an optical printer and several shelves where he stocks his collection of 500- plus educational films from the '50s and '60s.
Rosenblatt works in collage and frequently borrows scenes from those old films with names like "Klan Youth Core'' and "Terrible Twos and Trusting Threes." On his optical printer he manipulates the images, frame by frame: stretching or shrinking time, cropping images, creating double-exposures and freeze frames.
For "The Smell of Burning Ants'' (1994), he took moments from an arcane, Eisenhower-era film called "The Bully,'' molded them to his purpose and combined them with sound effects, narration and a haunting soundtrack. The result: a sobering meditation on the ways in which boys are conditioned to embrace violence.
It was a single image in "The Bully" -- a bystander who throws a punch at a bully's victim -- that triggered a painful memory and inspired "The Smell of Burning of Ants." When Rosenblatt was 10, a fifth-grader at P.S. 194 in Brooklyn, he joined a mob of boys and girls that beat up a school misfit.
"I was a very sensitive kid," he says, "but I think if I had to say my role at that age, it was more of a collaborator." Making the film, he says, was in part cathartic -- a way to atone for having joined that mob and for his cowardice in not defending the victim.
Amazingly, when Rosenblatt was looking for someone to read the narration for "Smell," he hired actor Richard Silberg of Berkeley. Silberg, it turned out, had been in Rosenblatt's fifth-grade class -- 36 years ago, 3,000 miles away -- and in fact was part of the same mob.
"The Smell of Burning Ants" isn't the only Rosenblatt film inspired by an old piece of film. "Short of Breath" (1990) came about when he retrieved a film can out of a Dumpster and discovered a doctor's training film about bedside manner.
He says his most celebrated film, "Human Remains" (1998), began "(when) I came across this image of Hitler eating that triggered this whole emotional response." What evolved was a 30-minute essay on the banality of evil, in which actors voicing Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Mussolini and Franco describe their mundane personal lives (Hitler was flatulent, Stalin relished practical jokes, etc.).
The film has won 26 awards, including a prize from the International Documentary Association. "It definitely hit a nerve,'' Rosenblatt says, by reminding the viewer "not that we're no different (from the despots) but that we're part of it, we're not separate from it. A lot of people were involved in the Holocaust just by the fact that they did nothing to prevent it."
Rosenblatt knows that audiences are often disturbed by his films, but finds gratification in the emotions they provoke.
"I really hope they can be used as healing tools. If people see the work and then go home and have an hour or two-hour discussion about the issues raised, or if they're moved in a way that makes them see something a little bit differently than they did, then I feel like the work is doing what I hope for it."
Site by Ladd Media