No Man’s Zone: An Interview with Jon Jost

Jon Jost is a self-taught, no-budget filmmaker, who rose to prominence with the release of his terminal road movie ‘Last Chants for a Slow Dance’ in 1977 which was hailed as ‘powerful’ and ‘provocative’ by film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum and is featured in the bestselling omnibus ‘1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die’. Jost has since continued to direct films for more than four decades, exploring a wide range of American issues. His films have been presented at retrospectives around the world from New York City to Jerusalem and can be purchased through Vimeo or by contacting Jon directly at claraandjon@msn.com

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F: While you also work in painting and photography, what attracted you to film as your primary outlet of self-expression?

Jon: I have no idea. As a young kid/child had no particular interest in film, nor did I on going to college (IIT, Chicago, 1960). I studied architecture and realised in short order that it was “a business” and I would never fit in. One year. Then I studied design/art, saw a few experimental films, and at the end of the Cuban missile crisis, during which with my friends I smoked lousy weed and drank equally lousy red wine and waited to be incinerated, I suddenly decided to buy a Bolex, go to Europe and make films. I spent a month looking at European and Japanese and old Hollywood classic films, some experimental, and went to Milano where in January-February 1963 made my first film. I have no idea why, and these days I sort of regret it, though I still make them

F: Have any specific filmmakers influenced your work? I personally see comparisons to the atmosphere of Wender’s road trilogy in ‘Last Chants…’, Godard’s editing in ‘Frame Up’ and Rohmer’s dialogue in ‘All the Vermeers…:

Jon: Wenders I do not like at all, and can’t see any relationship of his work to Last Chants; Godard in early work – Speaking Directly and Angel City particularly. I guess in Frameup though I think the relationship is more about how to make films quickly and inexpensively, which has a limited range of aesthetic options. Rohmer, yes though only some of his films. In my own view, I’d include Robert Rossen with The Hustler, Bresson, Antonioni, Italian neo-realists, and if my memory worked perhaps a few others. I also like Tarkovsky, Bergman (Winter Light, Persona – in B&W, not colour; ditto for Antonioni). And others I suppose. My biggest influence is the experience of making my own films and learning from that.

F: I’ve often heard your films being discussed in relation to the pre-independent cinema movement ‘The New Talkies’ alongside other filmmakers such as Mark Rappaport and Yvonne Rainer. The films during this movement focused on ‘ideas, provocations and new ways of combining images, sounds, performance and fragments of fiction’ while dabbling in ‘oppositional, Marxist, feminist and queer politics of the 1960s and 70s, but also by the intellectual rise of semiotic and psychoanalytic theories’. Are you familiar with the movement and would you consider yourself a part of it?

Jon: I long ago lost track of the words used to categorise people such as myself: experimental, underground, independent, American Independent, etc. Way back when – 60’s – 80’s more or less – making films was technically a pain in the ass, and relatively speaking, costly. These two-things windowed out most people and back then those who made longer film were quite limited. And being of the same time, under the influence of the same things, there were commonalities intellectually, aesthetically, etc. I never thought myself part of a movement, and those who imagined one were outside, critics, academics, etc. They saw a movement. Filmmakers just did what they did in the time and circumstances they existed in. Rainer is in my view a rather bad filmmaker, but she had the leverage of being NYC based, and catching the “feminist” wave. Maybe she was a better dancer, I don’t know (doubt it though). Mark Rappaport is a friend (now – way back then we just “knew” each other from festival passings-in-the-night). The period of the 60’s to late 70’s, and maybe into the early 80’s was culturally explorative, experimental – in the arts, all of them, in social relations, etc. Those of us in the middle of that made work expressive of that reality. Then things turned conservative across the board, and only a stupid handful of us carried on with our interests, while culture swooned to $$$$ and making $$$$$, and has remained that way since.

F: This question is for personal reference since she is a personal favourite and also considered part of ‘The New Talkies’. Are you a fan of Chantal Akerman?

Jon: I have seen a handful of her films, but not Rue whatever Bruxelles. I liked some of those I saw, don’t recall titles, except for the D’Est, which I liked but not as much as others (Rosenbaum) did – it had no pace or sense of orchestration and could have cut off, as it did, just anywhere. The others I saw were minor things. I saw one of her last ones, shot in Israel and thought it was rather bad. The concept of “fan” is not something I concur with nor do I consider myself a “fan” of anyone or thing…

F: That’s fascinating that you don’t consider you a fan of anything or anyone, could you please expand on that statement?

Jon: Hmmm… I am interested in many things. I like, admire, even love, some things. But being a “fan” seems to be something else, something which seems to dispense with mindfulness, with thinking. Being a fan is it seems a purely emotional thing, appealing to a very primal element inside of us, and it is something I am very sceptical about. I dislike being in mass groups (rock concerts, sports events, political rallies, etc.) in which this kind of appeal is dominant. Being a fan seems to delete being capable of being critical, of seeing the flaws, downsides, etc. of something. Not for me.

F: In preparation for this interview, I read your ‘Electoral Post Mortems’ and was pondering the question. Do you think that independent cinema will revolt against the policies of the Trump presidency as the New Queer Cinema movement did against the Reagan presidency or will they be more pacified?

Jon: Is there a meaningful “independent cinema” in the USA today? I have my doubts. Most so-called “indie” work I know of is conventional in its aesthetics, even if it thinks its content is out there/weird/gay/trans etc. Most of it is sit-com of Euro minimalism, tired and old and for me boring as shit. I do imagine those of the liberal/left will indeed make counter-Trump things, but it will reflect their essentially narrow and conservative senses. And in turn probably will only have the effect of making them feel better about themselves without altering the social/political reality they imagine to effect.

F: To conclude on a cliché note, what advice would you give to young independent filmmakers who are interested in self-releasing their own no-budget films?

Jon: I have no real advice to offer young filmmakers about releasing their work. The net provides an outlet, yes, but at the same time it does so for 5 million others, and those that succeed there operate on TV sitcom cat video levels, where, yes, you can make a million, but it has nothing at all to do with art, or with what I am interested in. It is simply feeding our ravenous consumption machine more shit to eat and spit out in 2 seconds.

Afterword from Jon: Sorry to seem so cynical, but after 73 years, facing the world today, it seems the only honest response. Making films is a very modest, almost meaningless activity in the face of the species problems. It is, in fact, one of those problems.

Autobiography in Chantal Akerman’s ‘Portrait of a Young Girl in the Late ’60s, in Brussels’

After a decade of economic difficulties and escalating production costs due to the newfound prevalence of television. French cinema was experiencing a period of stagnation during the early 1990s, lacking new voices and neglecting the perennial canon, in favour of films that share similar aesthetic qualities during the ‘Cinema du Look’ movement of the 1980s. In a radical pursuit to return French cinema to its origins, newly launched Franco-German channel ‘Arte’ commissioned an anthology series ‘All the boys and girls of their age [Tous les garçons et les filles de leur âge]’.  The objective of the series was to propel a new generation of actors and directors into the public consciousness[Grégoire Colin, Olivier Assayas] while simultaneously modernising the careers of bygone directors [Chantal Akerman, Claire Denis]. The connective motifs between each individual episode of the series was a focus on adolescent characters living during the 1960s-1990s who ruminate about living altered lives from the ones they know.

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Chantal Akerman’s inclusion to the anthology series ‘Portrait of a Young Girl at the End of the ‘60s in Brusseles [Portrait d’une jeune fille de la fin des années 60 à Bruxelles] is generally examined as a minor work in her extensive oeuvre due to the elusive status of the film only being available through a substandard analogue television recording accessible on the internet. Despite its notoriety, Portrait of a Young Girl… remains an intimate opus of an artist ruminating upon their past existence.  In an interview with A.V. Club, Akerman fondly reminiscences skipping school and devoting her days to walking the streets of Brussel’s, agonizing over existential philosophy in cafés and picking up her girlfriend for dates at the cinématheque.  She recalls the revelation of watching Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot Le Fou when she was 15 years’ old and considering cinema for the first time as a poetic rhapsody defining love and liberty. These transformative experiences are typified through Michelle [Circé Lethem] skipping school and spending her days wandering the avenues, debating philosophical doctrine with Paul [Julien Rassam] seeking to liberate herself through words.

Akerman’s identity as a queer woman has been at the forefront of her work since her first narrative feature film ‘Je, Tu, Il, Elle [I, You, He, She]’ which is acclaimed for its hyper-realistic lesbian sex scene, detached from the male gaze which dominates queer films in the 2010s. Due to Portrait of a Young Girl… debuting on television amid the 1990’s when homosexuality was still considered a taboo subject for mainstream audiences, allusions to Michele’s bisexuality are implicit. In the pivotal scene when Paul caresses Michele in an affectionate embrace during their slow dance to Leonard Cohen’s ‘Suzanne’.The song refers to the discovery of beauty within the self, forming an affecting antithesis to the encounter shown and implied onscreen, signifying Michele’s first sexual encounter and the subconscious presence of Michelle’s best friend Mirelle. During the climatic party scene, Akerman relives the rapture and confusions of youth, the isolation of being alone in a crowded room when Michelle confronts her unrequited emotions towards Mirelle.  She attempts to leave the group dance which embodies the unification of friendship to dance alone with her, only to have the pair separated by Mirelle’s boyfriend. The diegetic soundtrack of James Brown’s ‘It’s a Man’s World’ accompanied by static close-ups of Michelle longingly gazing at Mirelle as she leaves, suggests that a woman’s place in 1960’s society is to be beside her man.

The time period influences character in Portrait of a Young Girl…, references to Jean-Paul Sarte and forthcoming revolution through dialogue along with the haircut and clothing the character’s wear, convey to the audience the film is set in pre-May 1968 Europe. While Akerman’s film is not an overtly political film, there are passing references to demonstrations such as Michele chanting ‘Ho Chi Min’ at an anti-Vietnam War protest. These images feel evocative of the French New Wave specifically the sequence Agnes Varda’s ‘Cléo from 5 to 7’ when pop star Cléo takes a mosey stroll with an officer on leave from the Algerian war. Akerman also allows for a vision of the evolution of French society over thirty years, while the film takes place in 1968, the characters evolve in 1990s Brussels. Akerman uses anachronisms such as substituting LP records for compact discs and Cutlass automobiles for Peugeot 205s. She does not try to hide these chronological errors, rather employing them to create a link between the memories of different eras, merging past and present. This culminates at the contention that despite their generation and their surroundings, adolescences face the same dilemma’s such as alienation and existential anxiety.

Egalité! Liberté! Sexualité! Léaud! in Jean Eustache’s ‘The Mother and the Whore’

The year was 1968. The New Wave had been bookended in December 1967 with the release of Jean-Luc Godard’s ‘Weekend’ and it had been two years since François Truffaut had released a film in the archetypal cinematic stylings of the movement. French cinema was experiencing a transitory period influenced by imminent sociopolitical disorder, as President Charles de Gaulle  had moved from creating a ‘united Europe’ into amending French cultural discourse.

In Feburary, the regressive legislation of de Gaulle’s cultural minister and novelist Andrè Malraux angered local and international cinéastes when he attempted to fire popular cinema preservationist Henri Langlois. After two months of violence and petitions, Langlois was reinstated but this confrontation was merely a rehearsal for the student and worker demonstrations that were set to virtually shut down the country during the following month.  On May 18th, Jean-Luc Godard called a cancellation of the prestigious Cannes Film Festival to show solidarity with the rioting working class who stormed the Parisian streets searching for ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’.

Despite the bohemians and labourers leading some social change in May, de Gaulle maintained power and the revolution was concluded to be a failure. The anarchy of this turbulent period in French culture was epitomised in the opening shot of Truffaut’s 1968 film ‘Stolen Kisses’  reproducing the image of the locked Cinémathèque Française, signifying that French cinema had been forever altered.

Five years to the date in May 1973, Jean Eustache, a comrade of the Cahiers du cinéma’ writers and ardent observer of the abandoned revolution of May 68′, premiered his first feature ‘The Mother and the Whore’ at the Cannes Film Festival to divided critical acclaim. While the film makes terse reference to the cataclysmic events of 68′, it eulogises the disillusionment that was felt by an entire generation in the aftermath.

In 1973,  the notions of monogamy vs. polygamy as well as women’s suffrage were controversial concerns that were explored with sincerity by Eustache.  The film’s protagonist Alexandre (Jean-Pierre Léaud) is a retrogressive anarchist, who criticises the modern support of women’s rights and laments the failed revolution. He yearningly cerebrates upon May 68′, meditating on a morning in Saint-Michel where he observed an entire cafe wailing in unison after a tear gas grenade had fallen. In contrast, he views his current predicament with contempt, taking out his incompetence on Marie (Bernadette Lafont) and Veronika (Françoise Lebrun) through physical and psychological vilification. Eustache who is often labelled a ‘misogynist’ by dissenting critics, denounces Alexandre’s unpleasant ego, by portraying the two female characters as sensible by comparison. Marie and Veronika, are self sufficient and force Alexandre to be dependent on them both financially and romantically. Veronika’s famous “why shouldn’t women be able to say they want to fuck?” monologue is a exasperated attack on sexist men like Alexandre. She debases the traditionalist expectations of women by using profane language to proclaim that in a post-sexually revolutionised society, sex is no longer purely for the males pleasure and rebels against the conservative ideology of male domination as liberation.

Secondary to it’s position as a time capsule of the post 68′ waywardness, ‘The Mother and the Whore’ is also an elegy to the New Wave that influenced Eustache. While talking to a fourteen year old Jean-Pierre Léaud on the set of Truffaut’s ‘The 400 Blows’,  he observed a madness beneath the surface of the young actors mannerisms that he one day hoped to unveil on celluloid. Léaud as an individual is the physical embodiment of the metaphysical New Wave spirit,  consistently modernising his previous acting roles throughout his six decade spanning career. Alexandre can be examined as the inverse of Léaud’s recurring Antoine Doinel character though both characters can be imagined to hold a paving stone in their hand during the demonstrations of 68′, their dispositions are dissimilar.  Doniel as we see him in 1970’s ‘Bed and Board’ is a endearing buffoon whose politics can be described as egalitarian. He sees himself as having benefited from the women’s suffrage and allows his spouse Christine Darbon (Claude Jade) to be the matriarch of the family, earning the bulk of the income by teaching violin to children while he finds casual employment artificially dyeing flowers. Despite his love for Christine however, he submits to lustful passions and has an affair with a Japanese woman Kyoko (Hiroko Berghauer) though he appears to feel remorse for his immediate actions. This is in direct opposition to Alexandre who scorns at Marie and Veronika’s emancipation and views them as the supporting cast in his life, taking advantage of them for the financial security and carnal pleasures they can provide. Alexandre’s makes superficial observations while on a date with Veronika, discussing that he “may like a girl because she was in a Bresson film”, demonstrating to the audience again that he is only interested in women for what they can provide to him. Marie and Veronika while self-sustaining in their careers, fall back into patriarchal roles when Alexandre is present, completing chores that he is too incompetent to even begin.

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Eustache directed one more feature film after ‘The Mother and the Whore’ before dying by his own hand in 1981.  Despite his limited theatrical output, the structural dichotomy presented between the masculine and feminine characters in the film, continues to be embolden directors including Alex Ross Perry and Mia Hansen-Løve, more than four decades later.