Does the social, with its institutions, universal forms and laws, result from limiting the consequences of the war between men, or from limiting the infinity which opens in the ethical relationship of man to man?
“Alone Bad. Friend Good.”
—Dr. Frankenstein’s Monster
To reduce Jay Rosenblatt’s cinema to a theme is to invoke a violence that is foundational to their composition, a violence they absolutely resist—the violence of reducing the other to the same. Perhaps all of Rosenblatt’s films can be summarised by these four words from Dr. Frankenstein’s Monster, “Alone Bad. Friend Good.” Perhaps these four words express the ethics and politics of this cinema. To be concise, Rosenblatt’s cinema opens to the other. His films open a relationship to the other person through difference and because of difference, rather than in spite of difference or by overcoming difference. They respond to alterity rather than comprehending, possessing, or subduing it in the light of pre-existing concepts or paradigms. They experiment in listening and attending rather than dictating and assigning. They reach out to the other—without grasping or assimilating the other under a category or to a stereotype. They let the other speak, let the other person’s difference have a place in their sounds and images. They refuse to remain alone because they remain open to the infinite possibility (good and bad) of the ethical relation between human beings.
Rosenblatt’s background as a counselor inspired him to start making films about the complex relationships of therapy when he saw that most “instructional films” dealing with the topic presented simplistic views of clinical interactions. His first film, The Session (1980), focuses on a counselor who becomes human when he stops miming what the patient says and reaches out in response to his tears. Reaching toward the other, the counselor leaves the safe space of his isolation for the possibilities of vulnerability. Risking what he has, the counselor opens himself—and the patient—to possibilities as of yet unimagined in the relationship. The film sets a precedent within Rosenblatt’s cinema for film essays into non-totalising, non-thematising opening toward interpersonal and intersubjective interactions: complex human interactions. This is filmmaking otherwise than cinema of the other—that captures and re-presents an image about the other—or cinema for the other—that replaces and speaks in the other’s place. Instead, Rosenblatt’s films are cinema to the other—which responds to, and sometimes even adopts, but resists assimilating, the singularity of the other person. It is this address of the infinite possibility of the human interrelationship that alters Rosenblatt’s work and makes his cinema a study in ethics and politics rather than only a study in individual psychology. It is its address also—to the other who sees and hears the film—that shifts Rosenblatt’s films from representation and reduction toward affective utterance. His films call us and provoke our opening to the difference of the other as they open to the other.
* * *
Born in New York in 1955, Jay Rosenblatt (often in collaboration with Caveh Zahedi, Stephanie Rapp, Dina Ciraulo, Jennifer Frame, or his daughter Ella Rosenblatt) has been making short collage and diary films since 1980 and teaching film and video production at various schools in the San Francisco Bay area since 1989. Rosenblatt is arguably the most highly esteemed composer of short films working in the United States today, and one known primarily for his painstakingly crafted and tightly controlled assemblages. His “hybrid compositions” evoke a sense of mystery and challenge audiences through their meditations on controversial topics such as childhood abuse, filial relations, menstruation, the connections between filmmaking and fatherhood, Jewish-Christian-Muslim relations, battles over gay rights, and suicide. His twenty-eight films displace simplistic views of human motivations and interactions by acting as interlocutor rather than inquisitor. Since The Session Rosenblatt’s goal has been to provoke rather than convince viewers. As he puts it in one interview, “I don’t have answers and I don’t think films have answers, but they hopefully can be catalysts for a deep discussion and a way of reflecting with one’s self as you’re viewing it.”(2) Highlighting the ways in which we become human in response and responsibility, his films call us toward the other, ultimately, to be for the other.
Rosenblatt’s films are ironic, humorous assemblages that disturb viewers with their juxtapositions and ambiguity, exposing enigmatic and yet indissoluble relationships within films, between films, and among films and their viewers in general. As documentary historian and theorist Bill Nichols once stated, “Jay Rosenblatt’s films are complex, layered explorations of memory and subjectivity, the ambiguity of recall and the fragility to which the human body, the social order, and the celluloid emulsion are all subject.” (3) This complex interlacing of images, sounds, and subjects allows Rosenblatt’s films to fuse serious political analysis, open ethical response, and provocative imaginative digression.
And yet, to call Rosenblatt’s compositions “films”—as Nichols and I have—is to elide the question of the form of Rosenblatt’s cinema. As well, it also raises questions concerning authority because his collaborative working arrangements amplify the traditional ambiguities of film authorship. The majority of his works are assembled from found footage, archival material, discarded filmstrips, and found or manipulated sound. They are cut together from the work of others, redacted from educational films, mainstream movies, still photographs, television news and advertising footage, and home movies, sometimes with and sometimes without narrative arcs. These delicately detailed compositions based in a tightly controlled montage of the aural and visual are essays, poems, and stories, often all three at the same time. The results reconnect the political and the ethical to the formal, stylistic, and generic. This reconnection highlights how a different ethics or politics demands alternative production methods, distributive channels, interpretative strategies, and content and thematic emphases. They challenge dominant cinematic reception as they challenge dominant hierarchical and technical filmmaking processes. Undermining the certainty and accusatory gloss of mainstream production, Rosenblatt’s films recall the innovations of the “aesthetics of hunger,” “imperfect cinema,” and documentary forms of Third Cinema but with a focus on provoking without necessarily convincing. Like much independent cinema, they relate as well as repulse. They confront established paradigms through their reworking of archival materials and call for a reexamination of the archive because they are already responding to sounds and images originally created by other filmmakers in the conversation. The immense intertextuality of Rosenblatt’s collage not only resists Romantic notions of the creative genius by highlighting the collaboration (even when anonymous) at the center of remixing and recontextualisations but also multiplies the systems and historical circumstances viewers must respond to when engaging with these texts. In short, Rosenblatt’s hybrid essay films function according to an aesthetic of demythologising inherited, accepted wisdom through collage.
In this light, they are shaped by a concern with linkage and transformative temporal-spatial sound imagery, like Bruce Conner’s work. They are inspired by Man with a Movie Camera’s (Dziga Vertov,1929) collaborative development and use of montage to explore more than an accumulation of disparate images. They move across a field of social and personal concerns that recalls Frederick Wiseman’s Titicut Follies (1967) and his subsequent films investigating the consequences of human institutions, classificatory systems, universal forms, and laws. And, they remain indebted to the imaginative composition and manipulation of Chris Marker’s compositions, especially, as Rosenblatt has noted, Marker’s 1983 essay film masterpiece Sans Soleil. Like these other filmmakers, Rosenblatt consistently explores the complexity of encounter, sociality, loss, and isolation, never forgetting the impact of mediation or the danger of providing a “final solution” to any of these issues. Rather, throughout his films, Rosenblatt opens to the other by challenging certainty, authority, authenticity, and autonomy, privileging instead, uncertainty, anarchy, responsibility, and heteronomy. Taking difference as their starting point, Rosenblatt’s film essays combine sounds and images in a way that runs a fine risk, attempting to open viewers to the other, altering their expectations and responses, especially where they appear most certain and secure.
I. Inheriting Despair/Inheriting Discretion
In the context of these concerns, it should stand as no surprise that a film called Doubt (1981) inaugurates Rosenblatt’s public career as a filmmaker. (The Session was a student film not shown publicly.) Doubt is an eleven-minute, black and white short composed of archival and live action footage with synchronised sound but without dialogue. After an opening credit sequence of titles intercut with photographs of concentration camp detainees, we see a bearded man take a train to a motel. (4) The motel is framed to look like a concentration camp barrack. The man sleeps restlessly, the bathtub drips loudly, he taps his finger impatiently, and the objects around the room reflect his insomnia. Even in such a short film, we feel his time. Then, he is at a desk fashioning something from wire. The film cuts to a man and woman in a forest, running into each other’s arms. The man is in the motel bed again. He grabs his stomach and rushes to the toilet to vomit. He returns to his work with the wire. Now, he hallucinates the woman, half-nude, in the corner of the room. When he removes his glasses, she morphs into a mannequin. The film cuts to a smoldering pile of limbs: plastic arms and legs, doll parts. The man crawls onto the pile. He is at the desk again, heating a small branding iron with the number 7026. As he pushes the iron onto his right forearm, the film cuts back to the smoldering pile, and we see him crawling over the limbs. He turns one doll’s arm to reveal the same number. The film cuts to an exterior shot showing the motel sign change from “vacancy” to “no vacancy.” A title card closes the film with the quote, “I cherish my nights of despair,” from Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus.
This is Rosenblatt’s most existential film, filled with anxiety, nausea, and despair. In it, he evokes time on several levels: the time of memory, the time of inheritance, the time of waiting, and the time of watching a film. The film is filled with hesitation and uncertainty, fear and disbelief. It connects the man (called a “night watchman” in one source) to the past of the Holocaust and to the past of lost love. He is anxious to act but afraid of the consequences. At the same time, we grow anxious for action, for someone to tell us what we are seeing, what is happening, for a framework to guide our reception. Then, at the moment we realize what the man is fashioning, we too grow afraid, as his intentions become clear, even if his motivations remain out of focus. In the end, we realise his unending task has just begun. He will never leave this room. No action will overcome what he remembers or what he has inherited. He has become Sisyphus, and we must not doubt what he cherishes. We must, as Camus teaches us, “imagine Sisyphus happy.”
Rosenblatt’s next three films continue this task of mapping the complex territory of memory and inheritance. In the process, they call viewers to experience the time of the films while responding to the human relations and questioning the ways in which those relations are never quite what they seem in the films. The films will not allow us to remain disinterested spectators but alter us as they open us to their alterity. Blood Test (1985) is a black and white film composed mostly of live action with select quotations and archival footage, including a retold child’s story from Ingmar Bergman’s television series/film Face to Face (1976), a scene from “The Donna Reed Show,” (1958-1966) and a still of Edvard Munch’s The Scream series (1893-1910). A man revisits his mother and father so they can learn to know each other. (Throughout, he sits in an easy chair, and they are “on the couch.”) After nearly half an hour of conversation, he turns and exclaims to us, “These are not my real parents.” A knock at the door reveals his “real parents” while his “fake parents” remain in the background. Finally, we see an audience enthusiastically applauding and are left wondering how we are implicated in that audience. In Paris X2 (1988), a man revisits Paris in search of his lost lover—a French woman who likes to watch Hollywood movies about Paris. This colour collage of live action and archival footage displays the passion and deterioration of their relationship, which ends when she says, “I don’t love you anymore.” Crucial to this film, are the quotations of Hollywood images of Paris we see on a television screen. At one point, she comments, “These are stolen images, not to be taken lightly.” They are most often distorted and interrupted by static, reminding us of the distortions and imperfections of memories, especially nostalgia for lost lovers. As the man says, conflating memory and motion pictures, “If I stop the memory when we are still together, then we are still together.” (In the closing credits Rosenblatt dedicates the film to Roland Barthes, Marguerite Duras, Milan Kundera, and Chris Marker, and cites Karen Holmes and Trinh T. Minh-Ha as advisors.)(5) His next colour film, Brain in the Desert (1990) continues Rosenblatt’s focus on love, lust, place, and time. (A closing title labels the film “A Mirage by Jennifer Frame and Jay Rosenblatt.”) It is a live action short that explores thinking too much, relationships, and the dangers of isolation, even in the desert. Over images of shadows, beetles, lizards, and water lapping a shore, a man’s voice tells the story of a trip he and a woman take into the desert. He notes the small bones, footprints, and empty skins of insects that surround them. He mentions their tent and draws attention to one insect emerging from its cocoon. He tells us that she explains why the female mantis decapitates the male—to release him from his inhibitions and allow them to mate. Brain is a mirage, a shadow film, a one-sided recollection displayed through distorted, disembodied images of a past that resemble an alien landscape and recall the relics, ruins, traces, and exoskeletons of memory.
These films establish a pacing and editing that resonate and recur through Rosenblatt’s subsequent work. Perhaps because his films are short, they take their time. (Fifteen run ten minutes or less, the longest half an hour.) Their cadence lets every scene and every sentence come to a full stop before the next begins, reflecting cinematographically what white space on a page allows poetry to do. Their soundtracks are calm. His voice-overs are thoughtful, considered, here and now, unscripted—precisely because he never rushes them. His camera never hurries. His editing carefully quotes, compiles, and compares, and in doing so recalls the attitude and skill Catherine Lupton notes in Marker’s films: “The editor’s job is to select, shape and combine existing materials, bringing out what is relevant or significant in them for a particular purpose, knowing when to cut and how to link together discrete sources to best effect.”(6) This discretion is what Rosenblatt inherits from his cinematic ancestors.
II. Embodying Difference
Following Brain in the Desert, Rosenblatt begins to radicalise his position. Even more than in the earlier films, Short of Breath (1990), The Smell of Burning Ants (1994), and Period Piece (1996), investigate embodiment on an immediate, personal level. With these films (some of his best known) the body becomes ever more central. As well, beginning with Burning Ants, Rosenblatt begins to move his cinema away from a dialogue between self and other toward a tripartite encounter between the filmmaking self, the imagined other, and the other’s other in the audience as he examines the apparatus of camera, microphone, and edit, the prosthetic devices that make possible the relation with viewers, and ever-more includes them in the considerations of his films.
Through a collage of colour and monochrome archival material, Short of Breath revisits the terrain of The Session and clinical counseling. A woman suffering from post-partum depression tells her therapist, “I’m such a terrible mother, the way I’ve been feeling.” She is worried that she is failing her husband, her children, her extended family, and society as a whole. Her therapist remains cold, clinical, unresponsive as she cries and degrades herself in his office. This degradation, we learn, mirrors the self-loathing she feels everyday as she attempts to conform to an impossible image of the good wife and mother. She apologises to the therapist that “It’s silly of me to cry. I shouldn’t be making a scene in front of you. You must think I’m acting like a baby.” He answers, “Yes, I do.” The film displays archival images of birth, sex, a boy at his parents’ half-open bedroom door, a woman running down a hallway toward an upper-story window, the session in the therapist’s office. The woman throws herself out the window and falls to her death. At the end, we see a boy on the ledge of a building. He has inherited his mother’s liminal, precarious position. Mouth open, he stares at us. A voice over tells us, “Everything’s going to be all right.” Of course, we know nothing is going to be all right under these circumstances. If institutional distance disconnects the mind and body, then Short of Breath attempts to bridge the gap and reconnect them. We hear the characters sobbing or desperately catching their breath, the audio-visual coupling marking their trauma. We see a female contortionist twist herself into a knot while straddling a mirror on the floor. We see another woman lying on the beach, her head a few feet away. We watch someone examining a brain. The clinic dissects the body, first twisting it, then decapitating it, then reducing it to specimens in vats. The links between these sounds and images highlight the lived, felt experience of thoughts and emotions, and challenge us at the end to respond to the boy on the verge and the woman in the office rather than diagnose them in the light of a pre-existing concept or paradigm.
Short of Breath marks Rosenblatt’s first full exploration of the antagonisms between the lived, embodied experience of institutions and the possibility of ethical relations opening between human beings. The film avoids a false dichotomy of “nature versus nurture,” though, as it explores the very relation between the social and the physical as a process rather than a state: a closing or opening of one’s body toward another body. It opens a conversation about sociality, sex, gender, and embodiment. The Smell of Burning Ants and Period Piece pursue that conversation more specifically. These next films are companion compositions expanding and extending Breath’s focus on the family and the social conventions that regulate growing up in our bodies. Burning Ants is “a film about gender, male socialisation and boyhood cruelty.”(7) Period Piece is “a film about ‘that time of the month’ and that time in a woman’s life.”(8) They are essay films, organized not along narrative lines but around key points that enable them to critique norms denying or invalidating growing up in a sexed body. (Because both films are pedagogical, they come with discussion guides available at http://www.jayrosenblattfilms.com)
The Smell of Burning Ants is a twenty-one minute colour and black & white assemblage of archival footage roughly structured around the stages of a boy’s life. Near silent at moments, the film has no dialogue but emphasises its key points through original and archival music and strikingly sedate voice-over narration. Through the lens of one boy’s life, the film recounts the process of growing up male in modern American society and emphasises the dangers lurking behind that process. The film begins with a close-up image of colourized flames coupled with staccato strings on the soundtrack. A magnifying glass passes over the words of the title. Then, we see black and white footage of one man grabbing another by the hair and pulling him in front of a crowd. The narrator (Richard J. Silberg) begins counting, “One-One-Thousand,” and with each number up to “Ten-One-Thousand,” the image repeats itself, connecting violence to repetition and setting the tone of this film which testifies to the repetitive violence that assimilates boys into men. The film then cuts to a short documentary about scorpions, demonstrating how they will sting themselves to death when surrounded by flames. After a close-up of the dead scorpion, a title card reads, “It is a plain case of self-destruction,” linking the process of self-destruction to the process of masculinisation.
After this introduction, the film begins again, repeating itself and its thesis on repetition. Over images of a man lying on a bed, we hear “The film is about a man. He is angry. He is not entirely sure why.” The film cuts to a hospital where we see a nurse preparing to cut a baby’s umbilical cord. Then we see a pair of scissors cut a strip of film in a transitional insert that will recur just past the halfway point of the film. (Filmmaking depends upon the repetition of edits as much as it depends upon the repetition of images.) Images of early infancy and early childhood, toilet training, the child’s father and mother appear. The narrator explains, “When he is eight days old, he makes a covenant with God. He’ll sacrifice his foreskin, and God will make him forever doubt His existence.” Next follow images of young boys pushing each other and then a row of children in pre-school or kindergarten, where we meet the one boy who will be the focus of the rest of the film, the boy who will grow into the man who is angry but not entirely sure why. After the film introduces us to “the boy,” it cuts to the other transition that will return four more times, a medium shot of a boy with a movie camera, panning the lens in our direction. A woman stands just to the side and behind him.
Scenes of slightly older boys fighting, bullying. The narrator comments on their fears and collaborations, including the boy behind the camera. The bullies return the camera’s look, one evasively, one with fists raised in defiance. Through this returned look, the film reminds viewers of the part we play in this process and that judging or blaming bullies denies the overall structures of negation that govern masculine maturation. As the narrator explains over a series of scenes of boys, girls, men, and women interacting, “No one ever tells him what to be, only what not to be. Boys become boys in large part by not being girls…. The ones who don’t figure this out, are the same ones who get beaten up.” A mother hugs her son. Boys and girls play. An angry boy slaps and kicks at a woman. In an elementary school, boys and girls play together. One boy contentedly pushes a stroller as a girl follows him. Then, a boy screams, and the narrator comments, “A boy is told not to cry. He feels like crying, but he is told not to. If he cries he is called a baby. He is seven years old and he is told to be a man.” The boy with a movie camera returns. The narrator tells us he is ten years old and afraid of his father. The boy is ashamed when his father sees him bullied. The boy’s parents fight all the time, but the father does not know why. Shame and fear. Sadism. Transference and substitution. Repetition.
The film repeats the transitional insert of the scissors cutting the strip of film. The tone of the film lightens. “Una furtiva lagrima” from Donizetti’s opera L’elisir d’amore plays on the soundtrack behind images of a boy bouncing a ball against a wall, boys running, boys climbing, and boys playing “street games” such as box ball, punch ball, stick ball, and slap ball.(9) This sequence celebrating boys’ bodies—their strength, speed, agility, and beauty—remains one of the most beautiful moments in Rosenblatt’s work. And yet, in the final moments of the closing scene, as we see a group of children joyfully rushing outside to play, we witness the last boy brush back the girl beside him. This subtle and ever-so-slight moment, coupled with the violent names of the games recited, repeats the negation of the feminine that founds masculine maturation. Here, even at its most beautiful, masculinity is linked to the aestheticisation of violence through a rejection of the female.
Then we cut to a gang of boys running into a parking lot. The narrator tells of the mob mentality behind bullying as we watch the boys stomp on the hoods and bodies of cars and smash the windshields. The next image shows us boys in their early teens; one steals another’s bicycle. Then, we see a boy loading and aiming a revolver just past the camera, his face filled with revenge. We return to the penultimate instance of the boy with a movie camera. The boy is now thirteen years old. We see boys flexing their muscles and competing at athletic feats. The narrator says that they will compete at everything: who can urinate the farthest, who can ejaculate into the hole of a bagel, who can call everyone else “a faggot.” By this age, the boys have “declared war on insects.” Acting out their sadistic transference and substitution, the boys mutilate and kill all the ants and other insects they encounter. And here the film returns to its title and the claim that this repeated violence against animals can become violence against people. The narrator explains, “The boy’s specialty is exterminating ants. His favored method is to burn them using a magnifying glass held at just the right angle to catch the sun’s rays. This makes it seem like it is God’s will.” We see the ants under the optically printed flames again. Then, the ants become people.
We see the boy with a movie camera one final time and then almost silent footage of what appears to be a man forcing a woman to fellate him. The image loops, jumps, freezes, repeats. The boy has grown up. We see the close-up of a boy’s face. The narrator says, “A child is told to smile. He does not feel happy…. Actually, he is sad. But nonetheless he is told: ‘Smile, it won’t kill you.’…. But in fact it does…” Then, we return to the man on the bed from the beginning of the film. The screen fades to black except for the words, “—for all my brothers—,” printed in yellow across the middle. After the credits, we see one last image of a single ant, writhing on its back under the optically printed red flames.
According to the film’s study guide, “Rather than glorifying and romanticizing boyhood, this film opens up wounds to let the poisons out.” Scorpions poison themselves. Boys poison themselves. Masculinity consists of no positive content but is produced and performed through repeated wounding and the violent removal of difference. It must renounce what it fears and project what it renounces onto others. What is beautiful about the male body is a threat to its very masculinity because to notice its beauty is to risk its virility. Although masculinity seems to consist of a competition for the largest, the toughest, or the meanest, here, we see it founding itself through the negation of its other—the smallest, the weakest, or the kindest. And, this, of course, affects women and men. Boys become boys by not being girls. An injured boy is told not to cry, but offered no alternative. The athleticisation and aestheticisation of violence normalize it, allow it a place in society, a place from which to form boys into men, just as raw materials are formed into tools and machinery.
The repeated image of the boy with the movie camera, especially, focuses our attention on this linkage of the production of boys, aesthetic objects, and machines. Although Rosenblatt’s films have always stressed the manufacturing process behind film sound, Burning Ants is the first to highlight the larger processes at work in filmmaking and man-making. The scissors cut the boy and the filmstrip. The camera boy transitions between the stages of a boy’s life. Burning Ants relates boys’ bodies and machines/tools from start to finish, through the bicycles, cars, guns, magnifying glasses, etc. that repeat through the film. The boys steal these from each other or destroy them in mobs. Then, they also use them to mutilate insects and other small animals or to threaten one another as they grow up. Finally, the scissors and camera boy extend the critique outside the single film and its examples by alluding to Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera, especially the role of women erased from all these processes. In a way, Rosenblatt’s glance toward Vertov serves to open our eyes to the female that masculinisation rejects by repeating the woman editor (Elizaveta Svilova) who cuts with scissors in Movie Camera as well as the woman who stands just behind the camera boy in Burning Ants.
Period Piece (1996) is a thirty-minute colour and black & white combination of interview videos, educational films, and movie clips. By including live interviews, Period Piece shifts its form as well as its contents. This film focuses on “becoming a woman,” menarche, expectation, biology, sociology, anger, shame, exposure and secrecy, sexuality, autobiography, and away from the mechanics of repetitive violence. The film’s tone is significantly different, alternatively informing about “the curse” and celebrating “the friend” through a series of testimonials given by women aged eight to eighty-four, from a range of socio-economic and cultural backgrounds. It concentrates on the tension between the “rite of passage” of “your body changing from that of a young girl to that of a woman” and the restrictions placed upon women’s bodies as the carriers of “femininity.” The film concentrates on the appearances of blood, breasts, and pubic hair and the suffering and excitement brought by all three. In the last five minutes, it makes a plea for recognition of the “great force” of women, for the social validation of menstruation, and, as one woman says, for a girl to see that “her sexuality isn’t something imposed upon her, or acted upon…but something from within herself that she can create.” It closes with Etta James’s version of “Only Women Bleed”—a ballad about a woman in an abusive relationship originally written by Alice Cooper and Dick Wagner—here turned into an anthem of pride.
The stories are not all the same, but they speak to one another and parallel each other, and this is the opening toward sociality Period Piece creates and then concretises in its closing minutes. Through these testimonies and illustrations from archival sources, the film makes familiar the dynamics of women’s bodily maturity and social maturity, arguing in the end that no woman should see herself as “the only one,” evoking the friendship and community of shared experience through its images and interviews. Focusing on biology as a marker of women’s maturity, the film risks essentialising femininity by making biology into destiny. However, as it invokes the body, it also invokes the social through its conversation. Its claim on us is not to see femininity as essential but to see it as potentially isolating and, thus, dangerous. The community of voices and faces within the film calls us to a greater community (a community made greater by difference rather than sameness) around the social aspects female bodies (and all bodies) might make possible. Rather than seeing ourselves isolated in shame, the film’s voices call us together. This call, of course, speaks across both Burning Ants and Period Piece as both films link shame and isolation but counter it with community and conversation.
III. Remaining Human: One of Us
Human Remains (1998) is Jay Rosenblatt’s best known and most discussed film.(10) It is also one of his most controversial because it calls us to a community with others we may not want to admit: five Twentieth-century dictators. The film is a 30 minute black & white assemblage of archival footage with real and imagined diary excerpts in multiple languages. Famously, Rosenblatt has remarked that an image of Adolf Hitler eating was the disturbing genesis behind Human Remains. This simple image, of possibly the most infamous dictator in modern history, involved in the simplest and possibly most commonly shared human activity was the link returning Hitler to the human community. This crucial formulation reminds us that only someone who can hunger can give food. Only one who eats can be political and ethical. Only an embodied, vulnerable human being can be responsible. No longer a simple monster, the ultimate image of evil, nor a superhuman idol outside the law, the image of Hitler disturbingly thrust upon Rosenblatt the unmistakable reminder that Hitler was and will always remain human and responsible. In a way, the film recalls Rosenblatt’s disruption by opening with a scene of a man doting over a little girl, paternal, affectionate. It is several seconds before the man turns and viewers recognize him as Adolf Hitler. By recognising Hitler and recognising him as human, Rosenblatt’s film make him responsible.
In no way a humanisation of the dictator that explains and forgives his heinous actions before and during World War II, this image is a humanising that disturbs viewers through its banality and striking ordinariness. Hitler continues to speak to the little girl as our reactions remain suspended, open to disturbing possibilities. This is the working premise of Human Remains. In the film, Rosenblatt concentrates on the most ordinary private images of five twentieth-century dictators and edits them together with imaginary dubbed readings from their diaries and letters. There is almost no recollection of their public or historical lives. The horrors of their actions are the ghosts that haunt rather than inhabit this film, and it is the effect of these ghosts that is crucial. Hitler’s genocide haunts the text as much as Hitler’s digestive problems. In fact, the atrocities of genocide remain more atrocious because of their ineffableness, because of their uneasy transformation from trauma into narrative or from perception into filmic display. Rosenblatt does not depict the acts of war and totalitarian violence because rendering them on screen would render them understandable, explainable. Instead, Human Remains is concerned with the family lives, hygiene, and sexual preferences of Hitler and these other dictators. Mussolini worries that women will not like him. Franco and his wife watch too much television. Stalin talks endlessly of his daughter. Mao disdains bathing and asks, if tigers do not brush their teeth, why should he?
“There’s no sympathy for these people,” Rosenblatt says in one interview. “They are presented as disgusting individuals, but they are presented as humans, and that’s difficult for some people.”(11) Opening to the difference of boys turning into men or girls becoming women is something we can address. Here, however, Rosenblatt challenges us with how difficult ethics, peace, and justice are in the real world of human face-to-face interactions and how rarely the human sphere meets our ideal preconceptions. Rosenblatt disturbs us with a difference we want to leave alone and calls us to our relation to these dictators we want to refuse. In opening viewers to this community, Human Remains calls our claims and denials of responsibility into question. It raises the stakes of responsibility absolutely by making me answerable—even for the violence done to me. What is disturbing about this film is that in refusing to exculpate the dictators, it also refuses to expiate us.
The form of Human Remains is also crucial. At times ironic, poignantly humorous, and ever disturbing, Rosenblatt’s collage undoes viewer expectation and anticipation. It alters the way viewers experience the experience. With viewers of Human Remains ready to see and hear and judge again the horrifying actions of these dictators, the film unexpectedly reconnects us to those figures, provokes us to remember our own responsibility. It provocatively confronts us with our own unjust actions and myth making—again by letting them haunt the text rather than inhabit it. Human Remains calls into question the assumed transparency of the demonising or idolising of these dictators by including what is ordinarily excluded. It includes their humanity, thus including them in humanity, reminding us that they are culpable for their crimes precisely because they are human, like us. Human Remains’s evocation of archival footage (what appears to be historically settled) binds viewers to the others they view, and convicts viewers with new questions in the process of questioning the already accepted answers surrounding these “others.” In the end, Human Remains, like so many other of Rosenblatt’s films, challenges viewers to question themselves, disturbing them by making these connections between the self and the other ever more personal and intimate. Ultimately, what makes Hitler most disturbing is that I also eat and dote over children.
King of the Jews (2000) is often linked with Human Remains as Rosenblatt’s other masterwork. Again the focus is the denial and exclusion of difference. Here, however, the subject is Jesus Christ—or “Jersey City,” as the narrator’s family refers to Jesus. King of the Jews is an 18 minute black & white and colour hybrid of archival footage, excerpts from documentaries and mainstream films, and 8mm home movies. The film is divided into three chapters and a coda/credit sequence—a paideutic organization reflecting its catechetical aims. King of the Jews is a teaching film.
In “Chapter I: Jesus and Me” a voice on the soundtrack (Rosenblatt’s?) narrates a Jewish boy’s earliest encounters with Jesus over images from home movies and popular films about the life of Jesus. At first, the narrator recalls, “When I was a little boy, I was scared to death of Jesus Christ. My mother and grandmother had told me over and over that Jews were killed in the name of Christ. And I had imagined Jesus himself as doing the killing.” Later, the narrator visits a friend’s house and sees his first crucifix. He sees the blood dripping from Jesus’s hands and feet. The narrator is horrified. Then, two days before Christmas, when he is seven years old, his mother takes him to see King of Kings (1961, Nicholas Ray). They did not realize the movie depicts the story of Jesus. As the movie progresses, his mother grows increasingly uneasy and leaves. The narrator reports on his revelation, “As for me, I was in shock. My world had been turned upside down. Jesus was a Jew.”
“Chapter II: One of Us” eschews voice-over for subtitles and narrative for explanation. Under archival and documentary footage, the now-silent narrator asserts that there is no evidence that the Jews killed Jesus. The Romans did. The point here is not to blame the early Christian writers for altering history but to return to a more accurate understanding of Christian/Jewish relations. The narrator (through the subtitles) asserts, “It is easy to see how the evangelists felt the need to distort history in this way.” They were vulnerable, being persecuted by the governing powers of the time but also dependent upon those powers. The gospels were constructed “to deflect blame” from those powers onto the Jews to protect the Christian writers. Such deflection would not have been so terrible, the narrator claims, “had it not been used as an excuse for two thousand years of Christian anti-Semitism.” In the end, the narrator reminds us of the simple point the distorted history erases: “Jesus and Peter and Paul would have perished at Auschwitz.” The founders of Christianity were Jews.
“Chapter III: The Light is All About Us” relies solely on image and sound. There is no voice-over or subtitles. Through a montage of movie depictions of the crucifixion, death, and ascension of Jesus, this chapter marks the tragedy of the execution of Jesus and the further brutality it has been used to inspire. As we see images of Jesus dying, the film cuts to an aerial bombardment. As Jesus is laid to rest, it cuts to footage of the inhuman disposal of bodies from concentration camps. Then, King of the Jews shifts tone as it cuts to an image of Jesus’s ascension, a seed sprouting from the ground, a baby reaching to the sky, a ghostly Jesus among the clouds, and a rocket speeding into space. What begins as tragedy and turns into horror, the film attempts to return to an open possibility. This opening is then reinforced by the coda/credits of King of the Jews as black & white credits are intercut with colour images of flowers blooming: red, yellow, purple, pink. These short bursts of colour after so much terrifying black & white almost soothe the eye.
The film moves from autobiography and memoir to universal story. It also moves from antagonism to community. It is a personal relation magnified. It places various genres in contact: diary, home movie, treatise, collage, survivor’s testimony, and gospel. No one can contain everything. Even together they can only look to something more. Three hypotheses remain central to this film, though. First, King of the Jews argues for us to recognize the universal aspects of the Jesus story. The final images call us to respond to the humanness of Jesus as he was executed and to the vast possibilities of transcendence he might inspire. Second, the film highlights the pedagogical aspects of film. The narrator learns Jesus was a Jew through a movie. The second and third chapters make their points through the audio-visual juxtapositions made possible by cinematic montage of archival footage. This film teaches that film can teach as much as it teaches about Jesus. Third, King of the Jews marks a path from voice to word to image and montage emphasizing the connection between transcendence and imagery. The film’s movement from voice-over to subtitle to image without word opens further our relation with the image, with images in relation to images, and with what is beyond images.
IV. Precarious Friendships
In the 2001-2002 film “Prayer,” from the collection Underground Zero (with Caveh Zahedi), Rosenblatt returns to depictions of religious relations, this time between Christians and Muslims. After seeing the polarizing mainstream media images following September 11, 2001, Rosenblatt and Zahedi asked 150 experimental and documentary filmmakers to compose more complex images of the contemporary world. They selected eleven productions (later expanded to twenty-five and compiled on a DVD) and began screening them around the United States in 2002. According to Zahedi and Rosenblatt, “The idea for the film was to counter the mainstream media’s narrow representation of events as well as to give voice to the diversity of responses within the independent film community. It also occurred to us that a collective response would be both more powerful and effective than isolated individual responses.”(12) Again collective and founded in collage, Underground Zero continues Rosenblatt’s (and Zahedi’s) cinema opening to the other.
“Prayer” is a three-minute, black-and-white film that directly confronts simplistic mainstream media images of “fundamentalist Islamic terrorists” or “Islamo-Fascists” by reconnecting Muslims and Christians. The film challenges the archive of accepted answers by intercutting grainy found footage of Muslims and Christians praying while Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade” haunts the soundtrack. This music, according to Rosenblatt, “is based on the ‘1001 Arabian Nights’, which is about telling stories to save one’s life (in an Arabian context). Conceptually this seemed appropriate for the whole notion of the overall project Underground Zero of which “Prayer” was my contribution. But even more importantly I felt the mood and the tone of the piece was perfect for what I was trying to achieve in the short film. The music has a certain beauty and almost exquisite pain to it”(13) Juxtaposing the visual and aural tracks, while intercutting archival images usually not associated with each other, usually presented as opposed to one another, “Prayer” opens us to seeing and hearing difference differently.
The film emphasizes the community of difference by showing how it experiences something together, in a different way. The Christians and Muslims in the images, these “people of the book,” are not the same, but they do something similar in a similar way. Not only do they share the book and a belief in monotheism, but they also pray in a humble, fearful way. By concentrating on the fact that Christians and Muslims both genuflect and pray humbly, often in communal settings, “Prayer” turns the practice of religion around, refashioning it as a communal force rather than a divisive one. It offers an image of religious action as a force for a political space where the community takes on meaning in difference without reducing difference, of a community where relations multiply because of difference rather than in spite of it or in opposition to difference.
Then, in the last scene, the film shifts dramatically as it cuts to a group of Americans practicing a duck-and-cover drill during the Cold War. While the religious adherents in the first scenes kneel out of deference, the final 1950s Americans kneel out of fear, in defense, and this final image reminds viewers of the alternative meaning of different yet related actions, of the destructive forces marshaled in the name of religion. According to Rosenblatt, “Prayer” presents a different side of Islam than mainstream media has presented. It is also an attempt to show the connection between faith and fear by highlighting the humility inherent in Muslim and Christian prayer. (“Islam,” means “surrender” or “submission,” and the Christian “Beatitudes” (Matthew 5: 3-12) emphasise the rewards to be given to those who live under God’s rule.) This is not a smiling Bin Laden photograph or footage of demonstrating Palestinians with fists raised high in defiance. Nor is it a raging Evangelical preacher invoking God on his side. Rather, “Prayer” responds to the other. In the end, it does not tell viewers what to think but provokes a reconsideration of too-easily-drawn lines of separation, lines viewers see do not always reflect the difficult relations of real-world actors. At this moment, “Prayer” calls viewers to reexamine their expectations and the intertwined roots of those expectations.
“Alone bad. Friend good.” These words open Rosenblatt’s 2003 film Friend Good, a 5 minute black & white assemblage of imagery from Hollywood adaptations of Frankenstein intercut with excerpts from Mary Shelley’s novel. In part one, “Upon Reflection,” the monster sees his reflection in a pool of water and realises he is alone. In part two, “Beyond Words,” we see the monster struggle to communicate. He can only produce grunts, groans, and laughter, though. Therefore, he must turn to gesture, open hands reaching out, to the light, or handing a flower to a child. In part three, “Towards the Light,” he cries, closes his eyes, and rests. In this short film—assembled from spare parts—the monster moves from fiend to friend, from enemy to loved one. As I stated in the opening of this article, there may be no better way of comprehending Rosenblatt’s cinema than through these words opening to the other: alone bad, friend good. The difficulty remains that such a comprehension, such a thematisation, is precisely what Rosenblatt’s cinema so deftly works to move beyond.
Since 2003, Rosenblatt’s cinema has continued to focus on the relation between sameness and difference. From 2003-2008, he has made several films with his daughter Ella, including Beginning Filmmaking (2008), which documents her desire for and then rejection of a video camera he gives her on her fourth birthday. In Phantom Limb (2005), he depicts his family’s struggles with the death of his younger brother, Eliot, in 1964, when Rosenblatt was 9 years old. I Just Wanted to be Somebody (2006) explores an early chapter in gay rights history and the suffering of Anita Bryant, who lead a campaign against gay rights in the 1970s only to have it destroy much of her own life later. In his latest two films, Four Questions for a Rabbi (2008) and The Darkness of Day (2009), he explores the suddenness of suicide and our inability to hear when others call for help. By the time we hear the call, it is already too late. (Interestingly, Rosenblatt makes a return to Camus here and “the great silence of the heart.”) In all these films—and the others I have not had space to discuss here—Rosenblatt challenges us again and again to open to the other.
- Emmanuel Levinas, Ethics and Infinity: Conversations with Philippe Nemo (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1985) p. 80.
- Michael Fox, “Jay Rosenblatt’s Excavations of the Psyche.” The Independent Film and Video Monthly, (December 2000), p. 40.
- Brian Nichols quoted in http://www.canyoncinema.com/R/Rosenblatt.html
- One note refers to the character as the night watchman who sleeps by day.
- Renate Stendhal, “Phantom Limb: The Film Alchemy of Jay Rosenblatt”, Scene 4 Magazine. <http://www.archives.scene4.com/oct-2005/html/stendhaloct05.html>.
- Catherine Lupton, Chris Marker: Memories of the Future (London: Reaktion Books, 2004) pp. 26-27.
- The Smell of Burning Ants DVD case.
- Period Piece DVD case.
- “The Furtive Tear” is one of the best known and most popular arias in opera. The centerpiece of Donizetti’s comedic love story, it is a song about love, sacrifice, and misunderstanding.
- See especially articles by Geoff Pingree, “History is What Remains: Cinema’s Challenge to Ideas about the Past”, Richard Francaviglia and Jerry Rodnitzky (Eds.), Lights, Camera, History: Portraying the Past in Film (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007) pp. 31-51; Garnet C. Butchart, “On the Void: The Fascinating Object of Evil in Human Remains”, in Martin F. Norden (Ed.), The Changing Face of Evil in Film and Television (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2007) pp. 159-75.
- Fox, p.38.
- Underground Zero DVD note.
- From an email exchange with the filmmaker, 14 July 2006.
When You Awake (2016) 13 min
A Long Way from Home (2015) 3 min
The Claustrum (2014) 15 min
Inquire Within (2012) 4 min
The D Train (2011) 5 min
The Darkness of Day (2009) 26 minutes
The Films of Jay Rosenblatt: Volume 1 (2009) 85 minutes
Four Questions for a Rabbi (2008) 11 ½ minutes
Beginning Filmmaking (2008) 23 minutes
I Just Wanted to be Somebody (2006) 10 minutes
Afraid So (2006) 3 minutes
Phantom Limb (2005) 28 minutes
I’m Charlie Chaplin (2005) 8 minutes
I Like it A Lot (2004) 4 minutes
I Used to be a Filmmaker (2003) 10 minutes
Friend Good (2003) 5 minutes
Underground Zero (2002) 76 minutes (co-producer Caveh Zahedi)
Prayer (2002) 3 minutes
Decidi! (2002) 1 minute (co-director Stephanie Rapp)
Worm (2001) 2 minutes (co-director Caveh Zahedi)
Nine Lives: The Eternal Moment of Now (2001) 1 minute
King of the Jews (2000) 18 minutes
Restricted (1999) 1 minute
Drop (1999) 1 minute (co-director Dina Ciraulo)
A Pregnant Moment (1999) 24 minutes (co-director Jennifer Frame)
Human Remains (1998) 30 minutes
Period Piece (1996) 30 minutes (co-director Jennifer Frame)
The Smell of Burning Ants (1994) 21 minutes
Short of Breath (1990) 10 minutes
Brain in the Desert (1990) 5 minutes (co-director Jennifer Frame)
Paris X2 (1988) 26 minutes
Blood Test (1985) 27 minutes
Doubt (1981) 11 minutes
The Session (1980) 8 minutes
Garnet C. Butchart, “On the Void: The Fascinating Object of Evil in Human Remains”, in Martin F. Norden (Ed.), The Changing Face of Evil in Film and Television (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2007) pp. 159-75.
Lawrence Daressa, “Review: Human Remains”, Cineaste, XX1X:3 (Summer 2004), p. 72.
Gareth Evans, “Review: Underground Zero”, Sight and Sound, 12:8 (August 2002), p. 5.
Michael Fox, “Jay Rosenblatt’s Excavations of the Psyche”, The Independent Film and Video Monthly, (December 2000), pp. 36-40.
Thomas J. Gerschick, “Review: The Smell of Burning Ants”, Teaching Sociology, 25:4 (October 1997), pp. 370-71.
Geoff Pingree, “History is What Remains: Cinema’s Challenge to Ideas about the Past”, Richard Francaviglia and Jerry Rodnitzky (Eds.), Lights, Camera, History: Portraying the Past in Film (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007) pp. 31-51.
Francesco Pitassio, “Jay Rosenblatt, l’odore dei fotogrammi bruciati.” Cineforum, 42 (2002), p. 67.
Articles in Senses of Cinema
Human Remains by Graham Rhys
The Smell of Burning Ants by Holly Willis
Jay Rosenblatt Films/Locomotion Films. 20 July 2008. http://www.jayrosenblattfilms.com/
Derek Horne. “INTERVIEW: A Shorts History of Jay Rosenblatt.” http://www.indiewire.com/people/int_Rosenblatt_Jay_001013.html
Casey McCabe. “5 Films by Jay Rosenblatt.” http://www.shoestring.org/mmi_revs/jay-rosenblatt.html
“Program of films created in response to Sept. 11 will screen at CU Cinema.” Cornell Chronicle. 33:30 (11 April 2002). http://www.news.cornell.edu/Chronicle/02/4.11.02/cinema.html
Jed Smith. “Jay Rosenblatt: Masterpieces of Ascendency.” Cognitive Zest Blog. 14 February 2006. http://grace.evergreen.edu/~smijed07/?p=9
Renate Stendhal. “Phantom Limb: The Film Alchemy of Jay Rosenblatt.” Scene 4 Magazine. http://www.archives.scene4.com/oct-2005/html/stendhaloct05.html