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THE 10-MINUTE MASTERPIECE
Short filmmaker Jay Rosenblatt has devoted 20 years to making remarkable movies that hardly anyone will ever see.
By Mark Athitakis
Five Films by Jay Rosenblatt
In Mrs. Bromberg's fifth-grade class at P.S. 194, there were four Richards. The politics of the Brooklyn schoolyard demanded that they distinguish themselves somehow from one another, so almost unthinkingly a pecking order of nicknames was devised. One got to remain Richard. One became Rich. Another Richie. And the fourth Richard -- an ungainly, quiet kid who wore Coke-bottle glasses and got teased by everybody -- got called Dick.
One day -- this was in 1965 -- Mrs. Bromberg held the entire class after school because somebody was misbehaving. The fifth-graders eventually were dismissed, but not before being told that they would have gotten out earlier had Richard not been talking. There was no doubt in anybody's mind which Richard was the perpetrator -- it was, of course, Dick. And so an army of 10-year-olds -- most of Mrs. Bromberg's class -- tailed Dick outside the school, grabbed him, threw him to the ground, beat him up, and spit on him. One of his classmates, Jay Rosenblatt, was one of the popular kids. He joined in. He had to.
In the scheme of the wider world, it was a thoroughly unspectacular incident, one that usually fades like a childhood crush. But it's funny what sticks with us.
Jay Rosenblatt grew up, became a filmmaker, and moved to San Francisco. His chosen style is the "collage" movie -- compiling pieces of other films into wholly different creations. So he was pretty much going about his normal business one day when he went through some old footage of boys roughhousing in a back yard. His eye caught a moment -- a split second, really -- of one boy punching another. And suddenly, the memory of what he had done in that schoolyard flooded back to him after nearly 30 years -- as did a slew of guilts and anxieties about his boyhood.
He expanded the scene into The Smell of Burning Ants, a 20-minute film finished in 1994 that chillingly tackles what it means to grow up male -- how the fear of being called a sissy or a faggot exacts its toll in violence, rape, or suicide. Like most of his work, it is a strange, unnerving movie -- "dreamlike" is a word that comes up often when people discuss his films. The script isn't so much a narrative as it is a catalog of the things certain boys do in their youth -- hang out with the "bad crowd," live in fear of their fathers, fight, have pissing and jerking-off contests, and take out their rage on insects, hence the title. "Richie is a faggot, Marty is a faggot, Eddie is a faggot," says the flat, dispassionate narrator. "Call everyone a faggot, then if they call you one, it won't matter." Jarringly, the statements are set against mundane film footage -- shots of boys playing, fighting, or sitting in classrooms. Most of it is drawn from Eisenhower-era educational films, with their original soundtracks excised. Repurposed and slowed down, the shots become weightier, and in a way even frightening. "A child is told to smile," the voice-over at the end of the film says. "He does not feel happy. In fact, he feels sad. But nonetheless he is told, "Smile -- it won't kill you.' But, in fact, it does." Today, dozens of institutions -- jails, schools, youth and men's groups -- have requested to use the film.
The movie -- and the others that have followed -- have given Rosenblatt a reputation as one of the best and most important short experimental filmmakers working today. He has garnered dozens of awards. He has won prestigious grants from major foundations. And yet outside of a handful of hard-core cinéastes, he is virtually unknown to the moviegoing public. As a filmmaker, he has been straitjacketed by those two adjectives: "short" and "experimental." For better or worse, "short film" suggests mediocrity -- student films or pieces made mostly to get a foot in the door in Hollywood. As for "experimental" -- well, that invokes a whole passel of clichés about beret-wearing Eurotrash making black-and-white movies that get described with German words like Weltschmerz and Schadenfreude.
The short film is the forgotten stepchild of moviemaking. When the films are shown at all, they are relegated to the festival circuit. Mainstream cineplexes won't touch them, and even art houses generally avoid them: Adding a 10-minute film before the main feature can throw off a theater's schedule, pushing a late screening toward midnight and driving away audiences. The short film's latest indignity came last year, when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences tried to get rid of the short documentary Oscar, only to change its mind once heavyweights like Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg leaned on them. The Bay Area has long been considered a hotbed of creativity in experimental shorts and independent documentaries, but even here, with the best efforts of support groups like the Film Arts Foundation, they are rarely seen. Despite the occasional "buzz" that follows Rosenblatt's work, "I don't put much hope or weight in that," he says. "I know my films are" -- he pauses -- "an anomaly."
And yet Rosenblatt has spent the last 20 years making nothing but short films. Even with overtures from Hollywood, he has persevered in the genre with a dedication that is almost perverse. He spent three years -- at no profit and only limited screenings -- making The Smell of Burning Ants, because he couldn't let go of the memories that one image evoked. "It was this traumatic event in all our lives," he says. "Because we were caught, and we were ashamed after it. It stood out." That commitment reflects a compulsion to publicly express our knottiest and most private feelings about relationships, faith, and atrocity. The result has been some of the nerviest and most important experimental short films around. 1998's Human Remains was constructed of footage of the 20th century's most hated dictators -- Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Mao, and Franco -- but focused only on their love lives and personal idiosyncrasies, never once mentioning the horrors that occurred at their hands. Last year's RESTRICTED cataloged our collective unconscious fears about sex, religion, and family in the space of precisely one minute. And this year, his King of the Jews explored the misconceptions about Jesus Christ, and how Rosenblatt feels they led to 2,000 years of routinized atrocities.
But even if his work is challenging the received notions of what the short experimental film is, a few questions linger. Can a short experimental film be just as powerful as a feature? Can it make it to living rooms and movie theaters and mass audiences? If a 45-year-old former therapist is hitting raw nerves so regularly, is he on the right path or just pushing buttons? And if it is the right path, can something so simple as watching a film, in truth, heal?
Rosenblatt's work space is the basement of his apartment building in the Castro District, a spacious room filled with racks of films and high-end editing equipment. A few years back, the San Francisco Unified School District transferred its old educational films to video for the sake of space and preservation. Hearing about this, Rosenblatt cut a deal and happily took the cache of aging celluloid off its hands. He is now in possession of hundreds of movies like The Making of the Golden Gate Bridge and Nixon: From Checkers to Watergate. Except for a few posters for old foreign films on the walls, the place is thoroughly businesslike, which befits the personality of the person who works there. Soft-spoken, polite, and quietly intelligent, Jay Rosenblatt will speak calmly about fascism and anti-Semitism, but get riled up when the subject turns to the so-called boom in independent cinema ("It's a joke, a marketing term"), or the lack of attention that he and other local experimental filmmakers get. "I do feel a little bit of frustration, because I'm working hard," he says, calmly but firmly. "I'm not complaining, because I know I've gotten more attention than other folks. But sometimes it's harder in your hometown. The New York Times did articles, and when I had a screening at the Castro, I couldn't get a single press article."
As best as one can tell, Rosenblatt has no penchant for wearing berets, and though the word "gestalt" does crop up once in a few hours of conversation, there's a lot of Brooklyn in his voice. He is a demure man with graying temples and a subtle sense of humor; he speaks about his work proudly, but not boastfully. Despite the grants and attention, his main source of income is through teaching -- at S.F. State, where he finished his film studies, as well as at Stanford and the College of San Mateo. "He's been a real inspiration to a lot of people," says San Francisco filmmaker Ellen Bruno, who has produced a series of award-winning documentaries about political turmoil in Southeast Asia. "He's been a real guiding light for me. He doesn't shy away from direct criticism; he's very straightforward, and that's very helpful."
On top of his regular teaching duties, he is much in demand at film festivals and events around the world. Most recently, he was asked to go to Barcelona, Spain, to show Human Remains on the anniversary of Franco's death, and to speak about what it's like to be an independent filmmaker. Before he made the trip, he wondered why everybody thinks his profession is such a complex thing. "I can tell them what independent filmmaking is like," he says, "which is having no money and constantly trying to find grant money or donations over a very long period of time, where you're not thinking commercially, and where your vision is the Number 1 part of the work.
"I'll talk about that," he adds, "but that'll take five minutes."
In August, Rosenblatt finally got his media moment -- a weeklong run of five of his films at New York City's 30-year-old Film Forum, the highly respected theater for experimental and repertory film. Film Forum Director Karen Cooper had been a fan of Rosenblatt's work for years -- she was simply waiting for him to produce enough material to put together a 90-minute showcase of his disturbing oeuvre. Thanks to word-of-mouth and a couple of fawning pieces in the Village Voice and New York Times, the Film Forum screenings became what Cooper says was "the most successful week we've had of experimental films ever."
In the opening night crowd was Atom Egoyan, the Canadian director whose 1997 film The Sweet Hereafter earned him Oscar nominations for best adapted screenplay and best director. "He was a really early supporter of my films," says Egoyan, who considers himself one of Rosenblatt's biggest fans. "I think that there's a driving intelligence in his work. He has the highest expectations of his viewers, and he's able to both test and reward the viewer's curiosity. He's uncompromised and extremely confident."
Jay Rosenblatt came to be a filmmaker entirely by accident. When he left his boyhood home in Brooklyn for the University of Buffalo, he studied to be a psychiatrist. "I thought it sort of explained some of my own problems," he says. After he graduated, he moved to Seattle, where he worked in halfway houses as part of a government program. There, the people he worked with were some of the hardest cases therapists face -- patients who were living through lobotomies and the effects of electroshock therapy, struggling with the most basic living skills. "I got to see what the field of psychiatry was really like," he says. "It can both help and hurt people. It deadened them. They were very robotic in many ways."
"It's just difficult," he adds. "You do things like restraining somebody who's really violent. It needs to be done so they don't hurt themselves or someone else, but it's a difficult thing to be a part of. Really difficult."
Soon enough, he realized the work was beginning to take a toll on his psyche, and while there wasn't a moment when he just up and quit ("That's the movies," he smirks), he pursued other career options. Later, while studying for a degree in counseling at the University of Oregon, he signed up for a Super 8 film class. Almost immediately, he felt as though he had found his calling, and he spent the '80s pursuing it.
Rosenblatt's early films are, even by his own admission, pretentious affairs -- at their worst, they showcase that artsy-fartsiness that turns people away from experimental cinema sight unseen. There's The Session, a silent film about a man who goes to a therapist, played by a mime; Blood Test, an overwrought piece about a man confronting his parents about his history and their habits, grilling the kindly looking old couple about their sex lives; and impressionistic fare like Paris X 2 and Brain in the Desert, which only vaguely tackle the subject of love
But if those movies were sometimes rudderless, it's worth knowing that Rosenblatt was working without any mentors or specific inspirations -- he's a fan of Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, and Jean Renoir, but there's little in his work that echoes their stylistic tics. "Jay is pretty much free from direct association with any influence or historical context," says John Turk, a longtime collaborator with Rosenblatt and founder of Resfest, which showcases digitally produced experimental films.
Certainly no filmmaker has attempted to discuss pogroms and the Holocaust the way Rosenblatt did in Human Remains. Imagine, if you can, being completely unfamiliar with the horrifying legacy of Adolf Hitler. The only thing the images of Human Remains show you is a brush-mustached fellow standing around with colleagues, cracking jokes, and sitting down for a meal. And the only thing the movie's voice-over tells you is that he liked chocolate eclairs, was prone to flatulence, enjoyed enemas, loved a woman named Eva, liked the films of somebody named Leni, hated cigarettes, and once dreamed of being an artist. You might figure that Mr. Hitler was perhaps not somebody you'd like to meet -- but you wouldn't know him as a monster who sent millions of innocent people to a horrid slaughter. The other four dictators are presented in similar fashion -- we learn about Mussolini's penchant for pedicures, Stalin's affinity for women in tight-fitting sweaters, Franco's love of fishing, and Mao's lousy dental hygiene. But not the things that made them so vicious, and so viciously hated.
Arguments and accusations of heresy followed. When he screened the movie for a crowd of film programmers at a festival in Halifax, Nova Scotia, one Dutch fellow felt that Rosenblatt had done nothing less than write a cinematic mash note to fascism. "What's your next movie going to be," the man demanded, "a promo for Pol Pot?" Members of the audience began to hurl arguments back and forth across the theater. Rosenblatt, for his part, stepped back. After all, they weren't talking about Jay Rosenblatt anymore. They were talking about how we look at history's greatest monsters. Rosenblatt had done his job. It was similar to the way he'd felt when he premiered the film at the Castro as part of the Film Arts Foundation's 1998 festival. "I think people were disturbed," he recalls. "But in a good way."
Still, the outbursts probably would have been worse had Rosenblatt kept the film's original title: Dictators Are People Too! And it probably wouldn't have mattered much if he'd told the crowd that his grandfather's family were Holocaust victims, or that he made the movie in the first place to confront the nausea that overwhelmed him when he came across footage of Adolf Hitler eating. "It's not that I didn't think of these things while I was making this film," he says. "I thought, "I'm really treading a fine line here.' The last thing I wanted was for people to sympathize with these guys and feel bad for them, even though some of them feel bad for themselves. Hitler has so much self-pity, he's such a victim. I wanted to bring that out, because I find that disgusting, despicable.
"We put them [the dictators] on this "monster' pedestal," he continues. "And even though it's "monster,' it's still a pedestal. They're still untouchable, and it still keeps us from taking any responsibility, because it's ... them -- we wouldn't do something like that. Once you take them off their pedestals, we're forced to look at ourselves."
In other words, if people who are as human as anyone else can be dictators, who's to say the capacity to commit atrocity isn't in each of us?
Human Remains screened at the major film festivals, picking up awards everywhere from Sundance to Portugal to the Hamptons, and getting a broadcast deal with HBO Signature, the cable network's satellite arm. Smelling hype, Hollywood folks started calling -- production companies headed by the likes of Spike Lee and Ivan Reitman were asking to see tapes. In theory, that was the big-break moment a filmmaker spends his career hoping for. Rosenblatt says he is not completely averse to making a straight-ahead feature film, but, "I usually talked them out of it. I asked them, "Have you seen the sort of movies I'm making?'" They asked for tapes anyway, and never called back.
Because Rosenblatt's films are short -- at half an hour, Human Remains is practically epic in terms of his output -- it's easy to forget how much work is involved in putting them together. There were the hours of reading biographies on dictators and collecting footage, and then the drudgery of putting the film together. The archival footage needs to be transferred to another reel, one frame at a time, an extremely lengthy process. John Turk handled much of that daily labor, which gave him a unique look into Rosenblatt's passion and fastidiousness. "Most short-film makers will never achieve the level of success that Jay has achieved," Turk says. "But at the same time, most short-film makers will not invest as much time and passion into the art form as he has invested."
"I think we're so numb now to images of the Holocaust and any atrocity that we just tune it out," says Rosenblatt. "It's another way of just bringing up the issue again, because we can't let it go."
Nor could Rosenblatt. He was so obsessed with presenting the dictators' mundaneness that he abandoned his work on King of the Jews, a 20-minute film about Jesus Christ he had been working on, and finally brought to the screen this year. Growing up in Brooklyn in a Jewish family, uttering Jesus' name was as verboten as uttering Hitler's -- around the house, he was referred to as "Jersey City." In the first section of the film, Rosenblatt recalls going with his mother to Radio City Music Hall to see a movie. The movie turned out to be King of Kings, and when it got to the Crucifixion scene, Rosenblatt's mother excused herself to the ladies' room. Years later, reading about Jesus' life and realizing Christ was a Jew, Rosenblatt was compelled to turn those feelings into a film. "It made me question a lot of things in the rest of my life -- things that look one way on the surface but are different when you look more closely," he says. "You can almost say that about the way I work with found footage -- looking for stuff that's beneath the surface or trying to create stuff out of surface material that has a deeper resonance."
King of the Jews is the most provocative film in the Rosenblatt canon, and the most virtuosic. Using a variety of old films depicting the Passion, it works both subtly and overtly to make its main point: Because Jesus Christ was himself a Jew, the 2,000 years of institutionalized anti-Semitism that led to the Holocaust becomes completely untenable -- as the movie puts it, "Jesus, Peter, and Paul would have perished at Auschwitz."
"I think the Holocaust didn't just happen in Germany," Rosenblatt says. "It happened from a whole gestalt, a whole history -- the deep-rooted anti-Semitism of the world allowed it to happen."
Once again, the arguments started. Because the Sundance Film Festival takes place in Utah, more than a few Mormons and born-again Christians were at screenings of King of the Jews, some of whom told Rosenblatt directly that he had made an anti-Christian film. But when the movie screened at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival in August, Rosenblatt says, "I got these comments that it was too pro-Christian, that I'm doing missionary work, that I'm proselytizing.
"It's provocative. If it stimulates some good, healthy debate, then I feel like I've done my job."
"He got his share of shit for [King of the Jews]," says Ellen Bruno. "He was very courageous in exploring those ideas. It's quite a beautiful film of reconciliation, and of abandoning old ideas. But people get very stuck and threatened by it, thinking it's blasphemous."
"Jay's impetus is to heal," says Jennifer Frame, a longtime collaborator and his ex-wife. "He has a personal connection to the wounds that Hitler created. In looking at the dictators, these people who committed horrible crimes, in seeing that they were people, in seeing the choices they made, he was healing. He was healing himself, and he was healing other people."
Rosenblatt isn't quite sure what his next movie is going to be. "I might do something about grief and loss," he says, then lets out a laugh, as if he's anticipating a so-what-else-is-new response. And there's also a recognition on his part of the public image of what experimental filmmakers have to fight against, mainly a belief that they're making inaccessible work that says nothing about anything except the artist himself. But his films aren't all sober and contemplative. In 1996, Rosenblatt collaborated with Jennifer Frame to make Period Piece, a documentary about menstruation that is built around interviews with women of various races and ages, talking about their personal experiences. The interviews are interspersed with footage from '50s versions of The Film the Girls Saw When They Made the Boys Go Somewhere Else, and for the first time, Rosenblatt played up their campiness (Mother: "Our daughter's becoming a woman." Father, dropping his pipe: "Whaaaat?!").
Though King of the Jews was the main work Rosenblatt presented at Sundance, he also screened his A Pregnant Moment, a light and charming "dog-umentary" that tracked the pregnancy of a neighbor's Rhodesian Ridgeback. And early next year, the Independent Film Channel will start screening Drop, a one-minute film by Rosenblatt and local filmmaker Dana Ciraulo, about a filmmaker's turmoil over getting the perfect shot -- a single drop of water, falling from a spigot.
Still, opportunities for small-time filmmakers have grown in recent years. Web sites now successfully screen shorter films, and there are a healthy number of venues in the Bay Area that can showcase the work. Ellen Bruno notes a lack of dog-eat-dog competitiveness among local filmmakers, and Rosenblatt himself cites the Film Arts Foundation -- which has regularly given him grants to complete his films -- as creating a support system. That doesn't mean his job is any easier -- grants run out fast, and it took lengthy discussions to get full-blown screenings of his short films in the Bay Area next year -- a process whose first hurdle is simply convincing the theaters that showing his movies is commercially viable. "I believe in art for art's sake too," says Rosenblatt. "But some of what fuels my passion is the same thing that led me to wanting to be a therapist, which is doing socially relevant work in an artistic way. There's a strong desire to make an impact."
For The Smell of Burning Ants, Jay Rosenblatt had edited his footage and written a script to match, but he needed a narrator. One of his students at Stanford suggested he get in touch with Richard J. Silberg, an actor who occasionally did voice-over work.
In the kitchen of Silberg's Berkeley home, Rosenblatt handed him the lines. After scanning over a few pages, Silberg ran across a curious phrase. "He is raised on concrete," read the script. "Boxball, stickball, punchball, slapball."
"Boxball," Silberg said, noting the uniquely New Yawk brand of sandlot baseball. "You're from New York?"
"Yeah," Rosenblatt replied.
"Me too. Where in Brooklyn?"
"Really? Me too. Say, how old are you?"
And then things started getting weird.
"Me too," said Silberg. "What elementary school did you go to?"
"Who did you have for fifth grade?"
And then Silberg asked if Rosenblatt remembered Dick.
"Turn the page," Rosenblatt said.
"He learns early about the power and protection of a mob," the script read. "In fifth grade, they pick on this one weak kid -- Allen Dubrow [the boy's real name was changed for the film]. The boy has nothing against this kid, but he knows he will have to punch him. They push him around. They call him names: Dubrow, doofus, spastic, retard, faggot. Then, one by one, as if by performing some ritual, they each punch him, spit on him, and then run away."
Richard J. Silberg -- who in the pecking order of P.S. 194's fifth-grade schoolyard got to keep the name Richard -- had led the assault on Dick. As with Rosenblatt, the memory of the incident flooded back to him just as quickly, with the same anxiety and regret. And like Rosenblatt, he had moved 2,500 miles away from his boyhood home to work in the arts -- in Silberg's case, acting with the Shotgun Players and in other roles. "Working on that film made me aware of how my own childhood was shaped by being male," he says. "While I don't think it created the conflict it did with Jay, this film was about me. We talk about how girls are underrepresented, but we forget about how boys are handcuffed by their own training."
"I never dealt with it," he says. "But I never put it out of my mind."
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