Jon Jost: Cinema’s Hardest Working Dissident

“In hindsight, I think I was a bit crazy, and it seems by some measures I still am. I vaguely knew I was some kind of artist, and I knew somewhat the price that would involve”. 

Jon Jost is probably the greatest American contemporary filmmaker you’re never going to see on the red carpet. His name isn’t likely to be illuminated in any bright neon lights; nor will his pictures ever make so much as a ripple at the box office. And yet, his contribution to cinema is truly one-of-a-kind…a gift that the studio director would only spoil with fancy ribbons and superfluous glitter. Encapsulating the American psyche as succinctly and as eloquently as a Raymond Carver short story – his films are breathtakingly beautiful, painstakingly simple, and effortlessly poetic. Working free from the marionette strings of the Hollywood institution, the majority of Jost’s filmography is widely accessible to those that seek to sniff it out. But because his independent brand is not trumpeted by any of the major studios, the tragic irony is his work remains largely overlooked. 

But Jost’s uncompromising, unyielding and often recalcitrant idealism has seen him branded as being everything from obnoxious, self-righteous, unpatriotic and polemical. A convicted ‘draft dodger’ who was incarcerated in the mid-1960’s for refusing to participate in the Vietnam War, Jost was also heavily instrumental in antiwar activism and the creation of the New Left Cinema movement. Now in his late 70’s – and despite several announcements of his plans to put down the camera for good, Jost continues to push boundaries with the moving image (his Vimeo page alone boasts over 130 videos). 

An highly intuitive and spontaneous creative that never considered himself a filmmaker as such, Jost’s introduction to the medium began after his college expulsion in the early 1960’s. With nationwide paranoia of a Communist invasion at an unprecedented high, the then 19 year-old purchased a 16mm Bolex camera and decided to hit the open road – travelling first across parts of America, and then hitchhiking through Europe and Scandinavia. His first short film (a silent and mostly experimental piece) was filmed around this time, with the daughter of a Milanese family he was temporarily boarding with as his muse. 

This idea of roving from one town to the next was nothing novel or particularly new to Jost (to this day he rarely keeps to a fixed address, and has often described himself as ‘a professional guest’). The son of a US military colonel, he’d already had residences in Chicago, Georgia, Kansas, Japan, Italy, Germany and Virginia. He even did a 4-year stint in South Korea, working as a lecturer at a Seoul university. 

“I was 19 when I made it (his first short film) and had no thought or idea of a career, of making a living, or any such thing, nor did I know that I would become a filmmaker. I was young and reckless and foolish and perhaps of a little minority of my era, diving into the 60’s”

In 1977, Jon Jost independently released what many regard as his breakout full-length picture: Last Chants for a Slow Dance; the first in a loose trilogy of pictures that would star lead actor Tom Blair. Produced on a bargain budget of just $2000USD, Jost personally wrote, directed, shot, edited and even contributed 6 original songs for the film. Riding on the back of the US counterculture movement that had gained momentum through the late 60’s and early 70’s, ‘Last Chants’ is a modern fable of failed hopes, underachieved dreams and fraught relationships – all set against the backdrop of the wide-open Mountain West regions of middle America. The film possesses much of the stylised hallmarks that would make Jost’s cinema so distinctive: natural lighting, meditative long takes, non-scripted dialogue, and music as narrative. Loosely inspired by the criminal case of Gary Gilmore, it’s scandalous that Last Chants for a Slow Dance isn’t placed beside such similar cult films as Terrence Malick’s Badlands, or Jean-Luc Godard’s Bande à part for instance. 

Jost’s second instalment in his ‘Tom Blair Trilogy’ is his 1990 film Sure Fire. This time around, Blair plays Wes: an opportunistic wheeler-dealer that seeks to strike it rich by enticing Californians to relocate to the cleaner air of his native Utah home. Wes’ outlandish visions of the American dream are dangerously clouding his handle on reality, whilst his role as a husband, father and friend are falling apart at the seams. Once again, Jost underlines the fragility of human relationships and the timelessness of nature; remarkably managing to stick the landing without the implementation of a script. 

Lastly, 1993’s The Bed You Sleep In takes place in a small timber-manufacturing town in Oregon – where lumber mill worker Ray (played once again by Blair) and his wife Jean are struggling just to keep their heads above water. A long-distance phone call from their daughter in college soon threatens to send the couple’s life spiralling into devastation and ruin, as the hidden bones are dug from out their closet and dragged into the open. 

Two other highly-recommended (and widely improvised) feature-length pictures from Jost’s catalogue have got to be 1986’s Bell Diamond, and 1988’s Rembrandt Laughing. As the title of the former suggests, the film is centred around the antiquated and inoperative Bell Diamond copper mine in rural Montana, of which Vietnam veteran Jeff (played by Marshall Gaddis) was formerly employed.

Aside from televised sports and beer, Jeff’s existence already appears aimless and misguided. But when wife Cathy (Sarah Wyss) decides to walk out on him, his life is derailed altogether. What’s painfully obvious from the offset is the physical distance between the two (Cathy cites their communication breakdown and her intention to have kids as her reasons in leaving). But there is a looming cloud of futility and powerlessness hanging over Jeff – made all-the-more visceral when we learn that his sterility is due to him being exposed to chemical agents whilst serving his country. 

Rembrandt Laughing is a wonderful example of Jost’s dexterous ability to stack lighter comedic elements on top of more weightier themes; and yet still succeed in keeping the framework structurally sound. The story follows a small group of Bay Area friends over the course of one year – and features an ensemble of Jost’s colleagues and friends (mostly non-professional actors who fleshed-out the drama over a month-long period of improvisation). This includes Jon A. English (Jost’s composer on a number of his films), experimental filmmaker Nathaniel Dorsky, and Kate Dezina (who also featured in Sure Fire).  

“I don’t know what makes me do films…it certainly isn’t to make any money”. 

Of the 40+ feature pictures in Jost’s filmography, All the Vermeers in New York (1990) garnered him the most recognition and acclaim. It’s also one of his only full-length films set amongst a non-rural backdrop. 

At its core, the plot of All the Vermeers is heinously simplistic: in the Vermeer section of a Manhattan art gallery, an aspiring French actress crosses paths with a jaded financial broker. The pair contemplate a relationship, but in the end nothing materialises. Whilst any attempt of a more thorough analysis would probably encourage the scorn of Jost himself, All the Vermeers appears ostensibly to explore the exchange between the work of art and the observer – with the artist managing to cheat death through the varied interpretation of the work they leave behind.

Johannes Vermeer, a Dutch painter of the Baroque period and the inspiration behind the film’s title, had received little fame for his work during his own lifetime (when he died, he left his wife and children debt-ridden). It wasn’t until some 2 centuries after his death that his work was rediscovered by a new generation; and since then his reputation has steadily climbed to where it is today – as one of the greatest Dutch painters of the Golden Age. Perhaps the irony of Johannes Vermeer’s predicament had resonated with Jon Jost…then again, it’s more than likely that we’re looking into it too deeply. 

All the Vermeers in New York received the Caligari Film Award at the Berlin International Film Festival in 1991.

“According to some I am some kind of cinematic genius; others say my films are the most boring/worst ever. Most of those with the loudest opinions know me little if at all, and those who speak well or ill of my films most likely have only seen a quarter of them, if that”. 

When quizzed about the creative process involved in making a film, Jost once remarked that he likens the approach to the same way a composer would orchestrate and assemble a musical piece. Rarely ever working from the conventional formatted method of a script, the film’s ending is not often known until it has arisen organically on camera. A level of spontaneity, it seems, is a paramount component in the process – or, in the words of Jost himself: “it’s when you think, that you fuck it up”. 

Enthusiasts of Jost’s work often call him a subversive; an anarchic filmmaker that revels in defying the rulebook and following his own instinctive compass. Others might argue that he’s an acquired taste. But the reality is that there is nothing new or exotic about the flavours he adds to the pot…in fact, many studio filmmakers have the exact same ingredients at their disposal. Perhaps what makes a Jon Jost film so distinctive lies in the broth…the slow-cooked elements of human emotion that are left to simmer, allowing the drama to bubble to the surface organically.

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