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Related Reading: Film: The Front Line - 1983 by Jonathan Rosenbaum.


Sure Fire, 1990

Blair/ErnstAt an unidentified, vestigially western community in rural Utah, two old friends, a real estate prospector named Wes (Tom Blair) and a struggling, third-generation rancher named Larry (Robert Ernst), sit at the counter of a diner and bide their unhurried morning over bottomless cups of hot coffee, reminiscing over their last, uneventful hunting trip and engaging in idle town gossip by envisaging scenarios for the mysterious disappearance of a local woman (a baffling case that ironically unfolds in a new lead during their casual breakfast meeting). Boasting of a busy schedule as a result of his thriving speculative business, Wes presumptuously enlists the underemployed Larry on a personal errand to the pawn shop in order to buy a hunting rifle and ammunition for his adolescent son Phillip (Phillip R. Brown) who will be joining them on his first deer hunting trip, before instinctively announcing to the diner proprietor that he will pick up the tab for the two meals. It is this implicit (and perhaps intentional) penchant for grandiose gestures and self-absorbed myopia that inevitably betrays a hint of the film's trajectory when, unable to convince a bank manager named Dick (Rick Blackwell) to invest in a "sure fire" partnership venture to lure potential buyers from overpopulated cities in California and Arizona into property investment in the quaint town (perhaps sponsoring periodic real estate junkets), Wes then shifts focus to the subject of Larry's delinquent loans and magnanimously instructs Dick to draft the overdue interest payment from his own account: a condescending gesture that not only tests the tenuous relationship of the lifelong friends, but ultimately exposes the source of a deeper, underlying gulf between Wes and his silently-suffering family.

Sure Fire is an exquisitely tactile, organic, and quietly haunting exposition on narcissism, alienation, and bravado. Jon Jost creates intertextuality by interweaving natural environment and psychological terrain that reflect the characters' sense of emotional isolation and estrangement: the non-confronting dialogue between Wes' wife Bobbi (Kristi Hager) and Larry's wife Ellen (Kate Dezina) as Ellen pines for her college-aged daughter and Bobbi wistfully reflects on her growing estrangement from her family's independently evolving lives; Wes' elaborately detailed, instructional coaching of Bobbi in an attempt to manipulate a handyman into performing housekeeping and repairs on a neglected property for a prospective buyer that literally imposes his own will on others (note the disembodied shot of Bobbi obstructed by a row of kitchen cabinets as she listens to Wes' reading of a newspaper article); the repeated images of ambient television news broadcasts that serve to fill the void of silence in Wes and Larry's households. Jost further incorporates fluid tracking of endless highways and shots of otherwordly, autumnal color-filtered trees (punctuated by written, allusive text that recalls the multi-function of physically overlaid text in the films of Yvonne Rainer) that similarly reflect the film's desolate internal and geographic landscapes. In chronicling the human repercussions of individualism, self-motivation, and entrepreneurial aggression, Sure Fire serves as an indigenously rooted cultural document of determined self-reliance, internalized emotion, and eruptions of unforeseen, irreconcilable violence.

© Acquarello 2004. All rights reserved.

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The Bed You Sleep In, 1993

BlairAn unhurried, almost soporific succession of long and medium establishing shots of a bucolic logging town in the Pacific Northwest provides an entrancing and deceptively tranquil prelude to the impending - and perhaps, unavoidable - tragedy of The Bed You Sleep In. As the film opens, an unassuming, middle-aged, independent contractor named Ray Weiss (Tom Blair) struggling to keep his foundering lumber mill afloat receives the Pyrrhic news that his company has been awarded a contract to supply timber for an unnamed project: a potentially lucrative deal that has been rendered non-executable by his inability to provide the materials because of a log shortage caused by a protracted (and indefinite) delay in obtaining a regulatory permit that would allow the local companies to mine animal-protected areas of the forest beyond their nearly consumed, designated logging area. The ongoing and ostensibly irreconcilable conflict between private industry and environmental protection has resulted repercussions throughout the local economy of the insular community, creating widespread closure of mills and the reluctant forging of international trade agreements by desperate, blue-collar entrepreneurs despite their thinly veiled - if not immediately explicit - jingoism and xenophobia towards their foreign commercial partners. Nevertheless, the pressures of work and financial survival invariably recede when Ray drives to the nearby woods to spend his silent hours wading in the shallow waters of a pristine creek and fly fishes. It is a predictable ritual that his second wife Jean (Ellen McLaughlin) has learned to accommodate, even learning to weave her own emotional needs into his recreational pastime by occasionally accompanying him on his fishing trips to steal moments of intimacy. However, the Weiss' comfortably settled relationship eventually becomes strained when an unsuspecting Jean receives a long, expurgating letter from Ray's troubled, college-aged daughter Tracy who has unexpectedly decided to cancel her trip home a week before her anticipated arrival.

Jon Jost creates haunting and culturally incisive examination and demystification of non-conformity and self-reliance - what Herbert Hoover describes as the endemically American character of rugged individualism - in The Bed You Sleep In. Loosely recalling the ecological meditation of Mitsuo Yanagimachi's Himatsuri and Kiyoshi Kurosawa's subsequent film Charisma, Jost alternately juxtaposes distended, alienating images of the near desolate industrial town, idyllic shots of the lush and scenic northwestern landscape, and elliptical (and deliberately fractured) episodes of Ray's business and domestic life in order to examine the dynamic, often conflicting interrelation between independence and survival, personal freedom and anarchy, self-discipline and moral law. Citing a passage from Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Every violation of the truth is not only a sort of suicide in the liar, but is a stab at the health of human society", the film illustrates, not only a violation of filial relationships, but more importantly, an overarching implicit contradiction in the country's celebrated maverick spirit that actively participates in environmental destruction even as it seeks communion with - and oddly champions the cause of - nature and wildlife. In exposing the innate duplicity of a culturally fostered national trait, Jost provides a compelling and incisive argument for personal and global responsibility, accountability, and balance.

© Acquarello 2004. All rights reserved.

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Oui non , 2002

Oui nonAs much an elegy to film as it is a dissolution of romantic myth, Jon Jost's Paris-set digital feature, Oui non hews closely to the spirit of Jean-Luc Godard's late period, mixed media essay films - a reflection on the city and the cinema through conventional images of the present as preconceived, idealized evocations of the past. Prefaced by a montage of Eugène Atget's diffused, long-exposure photographs at the turn of the century - desolate spaces, cobblestone streets, solitary figures, and shop window mannequins - the image of Paris as distant and ethereal continues through the delayed, somber, motion-blurred shots of the present day, overcast city (culminating with an abstract, dreamlike view of the cityscape from a train window): the haberdashery windows now replaced by runway fashion shows and sculpture gardens by museum installations. This alternation between intersecting (and colliding) dual realities is reinforced in the instances of split-screen and mirroring images that occur throughout the film, as idiosyncratically composed snapshots of everyday life interweave with episodes of performance and improvisations that tell a mundane tale of boy meets girl, further creating layers of ambiguity within the filmed reality (a blurring of bounds that is also suggested in an interstitial note that reveals the actors' short-lived, off-screen relationship).

In one diptych, lead actress Hélène Fillières discusses her background and acting experience (having previously worked with her sister, Sophie Fillières) before describing her character, George, an office assistant at Magnum Photos who sorts through the agency's vast archives in search of the perfect photograph to match client requests. For George, each photograph represents a ghost, a moment suspended between life and death. In a sense, her character also takes on the role of a pseudo-filmmaker, manipulating images by creating blow-ups or enhancing contrast to suit the request. Similarly, James Thiérrée's character, Gerome, an actor and acrobat whose ambition is to elevate circus performance into the realm of theatrical art, also articulates a filmmaker's (and more broadly, an artist's) aesthetic and paradoxical dislocation from the real world in pursuit of the art of illusion: "Construct a universe. Construct a folding tent, a folding life."

Using the prefiguring idea of Paris as a city of "four million souls", Jost creates his own visual play on words to illustrate this association, as anonymous, real-life "characters" alternately become spectator and spectacle within the observer's gaze (an interconnection between filmed reality and performance that is reflected in an early shot of the audience at a fashion show in which a man repeatedly exchanges brusque, disapproving glances towards Jost and his camera). Moreover, in describing the streets as being marked by the abrasions and scars of past stories, Jost also converges towards a recurring theme in José Luis Guerín's cinema (as well as Pedro Costa's Fonthainas films) in the idea of architecture as palimpsest of covalent, layered histories. Juxtaposed against the image of Georges Méliès's grave, Jost revisits the intrinsic dichotomy of cinema as both a medium for creative imagination, and as a documentation of reality: a rupture that is reflected in the ironic embrace of familiar conventions that conclude the film - relegating the images of eternal love, happy ending, and tragedy to the art of the spectacle, and consequently, to the death of cinema.

© Acquarello 2008. All rights reserved. First posted on The Auteurs Notebook, 06/11/08.

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