Short, but Not Necessarily Sweet
Texas Documentary Tour presents the films of Jay Rosenblatt
OK, so maybe it's a bit of a stretch to call the short films of Jay Rosenblatt documentaries. Let's call them experimental docs -- or shorts -- and leave it at that. Just prepare to be amazed by the reel of eight short films the genre-bending San Francisco filmmaker is bringing to the Alamo next week as part of the ongoing Texas Documentary Tour.
Rosenblatt puts a film together like a collage, using primarily archival or "found" footage. His day is made, for example, when he scores some institution's trash-bound collection of Fifties vintage black-and-white 16mm training or educational films. Scanning these for film ideas or for images to support an existing idea, Rosenblatt then cuts the scene out of the film and manipulates an image on a digital printer -- freezing it, speeding it up, slowing it down, cropping it. Once he has his collage of images, he writes the script and adds music and sound to fit the images, more or less in that order. Evocative and expressionistic, many of his films deconstruct the layering of childhood experience and emotion which form memory -- including "The Smell of Burning Ants" and "Short of Breath" -- and are psychologically gripping, often dark or disturbing. Needless to say, after watching these films, you won't be surprised to learn that in a former life, the Brooklyn-born Rosenblatt worked in the mental health field.
The one-minute long "Restricted" (1999) feels a bit like filmic electroshock therapy -- with a Nike "Just Do It" twist. The words "Take a chance. Don't do it," are repeated over and over again accompanied by a quick inter-cut succession of images. "Short of Breath" (1990) is a very dark, intense, 10-minute black-and-white collage of manipulated scenes having to do with birth, death, sex, and suicide. According to Rosenblatt, the idea to make a film about suicide and depression occurred to him while working as a counselor at a psychiatric hospital in the Bay area. As luck would have it, he chanced to find some 16mm cans of film in the hospital's Dumpster -- old training films for doctors, having to do with "bedside manner" for patients in crisis. Scenes from these films figure heavily in "Short of Breath," the first of Rosenblatt's films to utilize the collage technique. And also the first, he says, to show at a lot of film festivals.
He spent three years making "The Smell of Burning Ants" (1994). Watching a Fifties instructional film about bullying and emotionally disturbed kids, Rosenblatt came across an image that triggered a traumatic memory of his own experience when, in fifth grade, he was part of a group of boys who bullied a fellow student. They were caught, and Rosenblatt felt ashamed. This gave him an idea for a film -- in large part autobiographical but cast in the third person -- about the many desensitizing experiences of growing up male, from bullying other kids and torturing insects to playing sports and learning not to cry.
Undoubtedly Rosenblatt's best known work (it won a Sundance Honorable Mention) and one of his most accessible films is "Human Remains" (1998). Using manipulated archival footage of the 20th century's most reviled dictators -- Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Mao, and Franco -- in a mockumentary form, we get simultaneous translations of these men candidly disclosing the minutia of their personal lives, much like a personality profile, without so much as hinting at their "professional" lives. The jaw drops watching this grainy, vintage newsreel footage, listening to Mao state that he never brushed his teeth or bathed, or Hitler describe his dislike of tobacco and his persistent flatulence. We, in turn, are left to puzzle over how this information affects the way we think about these men.
"King of the Jews" (2000) explores the historical roots of Christian anti-Semitism, leading from the filmmaker's childhood misperceptions about Christ and his shock upon learning that Christ was actually a Jew, and exploring the notion that the next 2,000 years of prejudice flowed from what was essentially Christian propaganda about the Jews' responsibility for Christ's death. This film culminates with a stunning, dreamlike silent film juxtaposition of the Crucifixion and the Holocaust.
Austin Chronicle: Let's talk first about "Human Remains" -- how you made this film and whether all that information dealing with the personal intimacies of matters like Hitler's gas problems was true?
Jay Rosenblatt: You know, that's the most common question I'm asked about that film. I actually like the fact that people wondered whether it was true or not because to me that was a way of really engaging them. It is factual, though; I actually researched that film for eight to nine months, and all the actual facts in the film are based on my research. Only about 50% of the film is based on actual quotes; for the rest, I took reported biographical information and credited it to each person, even though they'd never actually said those words. A lot of the stuff about Mao came from a book written by his personal physician, which is why there's so much stuff about him that's bodily oriented. Some of the ways in which they would say things, I would surmise from the readings I did about them. I came up with my own analyses of their personalities and would phrase their statements in a way consistent with that; Franco, for example, saw himself as a martyr sacrificing for everyone else, so I tried to phrase things in the way a martyr would. Or Hitler being a hypochondriac, always complaining about somatic things. I actually found some of his medical records and saw the medicines and supplements that he was taking.
Ten percent of it is not factual but made up: for example, when Franco says he didn't really want to be in this film but was appearing because of the Spanish people. Or when he describes his dying words, observing how hard it is to die -- obviously I made that up, too.
I wrote the script and had it translated into each of the five languages and then found native actors with the same accents as the dictators they were portraying who read the transcripts that you hear in the background. The actor who played Hitler actually studied tapes of Hitler speaking. He had a little tape recorder with one of these tapes that he'd listen to before he'd speak his lines for the film. The English translators have BBC-type voices, which gives the film a mockumentary or documentary parody aspect.
AC: "King of the Jews" is an 18-minute film with three distinct stages and three distinct styles.
JR: The way this film works is to progress from the personal to the universal. I thought one way to do that was to start with my own voice, in the first person, then to move into text [subtitles] to get away from a voice. The text is more about the roots of Christian anti-Semitism, and the third section just has images and music -- no text at all. So that was one way of going from the personal to the universal. Also, each section is a sort of genre unto itself. The first one is a personal narrative, the second section is experimental documentary, and the end is a sort of lyrical experimental style. The reason I used fragments of text in the second part was that I didn't want to be too didactic, to put a whole piece of text on the screen and have people read it. I wanted to play with the prosaic versus the poetry of the piece. You can put the fragments together to make sense or put the fragment together with the image to understand it.
AC: Your shorts have been critical successes, yet I sense that you consider yourself to be, as yet, "unrecognized."
JR: In the Eighties I felt very unrecognized. In the Nineties, I felt recognized at a certain level, when my films started winning awards at film festivals, in the experimental film world. But as far as the bigger picture, I still feel completely unrecognized, though not in a negative way, really. It's just that the kind of films I make are very noncommercial, because they're not features, so things are limited. I think I've done pretty well, having my films show at some theatres like Film Forum and places like that. That was a pretty amazing experience because it was the one time I got the kind of press and recognition that a feature-filmmaker would get. When you make idiosyncratic shorts like this, there's just so far you can go. Maybe on TV and maybe the film festival circuit, but it's not like these films will show in theatres.
A lot of people look at shorts as a calling card to making a feature. I can't tell you how many times I've been asked when I was going to make a feature. I have nothing against features, it's just that it's not my goal to make a feature. You know, there are lots of great short story writers who don't write novels.
The short films of Jay Rosenblatt will be presented as part of the Texas Documentary Tour on Wednesday, Feb. 19, 7pm, at the Alamo Drafthouse Downtown (409 Colorado). Filmmaker Jay Rosenblatt will introduce the film and conduct a Q&A session following the screening. Advance tickets are available online (www.austinfilm.org) for AFS members. Tickets will go on sale at 6:15pm on the day of the show. Admission prices are $6 per show for the general public; $4 for AFS members, KLRU members, and students. The Texas Documentary Tour is a co-presentation of the Austin Film Society, the University of Texas RTF Dept., The Austin Chronicle, KLRU-TV, the SXSW Film Festival, and the Hotel San José.