Vertigo Café: Jon Jost and ‘Dokumenta’

By WR and MD

The ‘Dokumenta’ art exhibition to be held in Kassel next year has recently commissioned films for the cinema. Jon Jost is one of the film-makers who has been offered an open-ended brief whereby ‘Dokumenta’ will raise the necessary finance from TV and other sources. His project is to be shot in the Scottish Highlands and Vertigo spoke to him just before he was setting out to research it.

Jost is not as well known in Britain as his long career and impressive filmography merits, possibly because his films are hard to categorise in relation to other American Independents and do not fit comfortably in the catalogues of either the Co-op or Newsreel. Jost has been active in both organisations but is too interested in formal structure to be at home with Newsreel. Peter Wollen’s essay, Two Avant Gardes (1975), cites an early film, Speaking Directly, as one of the very few North American films that shows the influence of the European avant-garde cinema of Godard or Straub.

The films show a preoccupation with light and colour which suggests a background in painting. It turns out, however, that the relationship is the other way around: Jost began painting a few years ago when he was finding it increasingly difficult to finance his films. As a film-maker he is self-taught. He dropped out of studying architecture in 1963 and went to Europe with a Bolex. On his return he was imprisoned for refusing the draft for the Vietnam war. Released in 1967, he set up a co-op in Chicago and was later involved with Canyon Cinematheque in San Francisco, but for much of his career has promoted his own films – largely through doing one-man shows at universities and art galleries.

One of the most interesting hallmarks of Jost’s work is the ability to fuse a formalist fascination for the material qualities of film within a narrative and non-marginalised practice. For example, in his last film, The Bed You Sleep In, he uses a range of in-camera effects based on double-exposing the negative in a systematic way in order to create a series of subtle yet deliberate fragmentations of the image to evoke extremes of mental stress. There are numerous scenes in which the frame is bisected by strong verticals – splitting the screen into two equal halves. In the closing shot, as the camera rotates round a telegraph post, we become disturbingly aware that the two halves of the screen do not quite conjoin but seem instead to slip in and out of synchronisation. It is the kind of elegant yet deceptively simple camera-trick that Jost clearly enjoys.

In the preceding film, Bell Diamond, formal elements and narrative are combined. The Bed You Sleep In adopts a different strategy: dialogue-led narrative, non-verbal sequences, mostly exterior, mostly of the landscapes in and around the small Oregon town where the story is set. It is tempting to read from this arrangement a hierarchy of interest suggesting that the narrative is devised to satisfy audience expectations or a backers’ requirements and has been grafted on to the film that the author really wanted to make. Jost vigorously denies this, claiming that the story is carefully constructed and central to his purpose. Yet he is not entirely consistent. He says that the starting point for The Bed You Sleep In was a desire to make a film in which the colour green is predominant. When discussing the ‘Dokumenta’ project he admits that he would be happy to spend the whole budget on clouds and landscape if he did not have to worry about the attitude of potential backers.

The choice of landscape is critical to Jost’s work and in Scotland he is looking for an oppressive ‘wilderness’ – like some Western American landscapes where what first appears to be wild and original, turns out in fact to be completely man-made, largely destroyed and with all the original flora gone. The narrative in this case will evidently function differently from those of his two most recent films. He describes the new project as a film that does not talk (except, perhaps, in Gaelic) for all its two and a half hours, set in some indeterminate period into which contemporary features – a jet trail, perhaps, or satellite dish – will gradually encroach as the film progresses.