The Films of Jay Rosenblatt

Written by Ed Halter on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.

Jay Rosenblatt
may seem contradictory to propose that a director could be at once formally
experimental and generally accessible, but there have been many instances in
the history of avant-garde filmmaking. Many of the more well-known have worked
with reassembled found footage. The proto-trippy antics of Bruce Conner, the
paranoid Unabombastics of Craig Baldwin and the turntablistic scramblings of
Martin Arnold are just three of the more prominent examples of work that plays
well to a wide variety of audiences–who’ve been already softened,
perhaps, by the mass-media ubiquity of archival footage in commercial use.

In the featured films, created
from 1990 to 2000, Rosenblatt refashions materials evoking a boomer childhood:
Hollywood moments, newsreels, home movies, educational and industrial films
from the 50s and 60s, and some newly staged scenarios. In a number of these
works, he lays a deadpan male narration over the images, discussing topics ranging
from the filmmaker’s boyhood to the sex lives of 20th-century dictators.
In the narrated films, the images frequently take an illustrative backseat to
the voiceover.

Originally a practicing
mental health therapist in San Francisco, Rosenblatt steeps his films deeply
in a fuzzy Bay Area liberal humanism that some may find comforting, but will
strike others as cloying, verging on smug. If Clinton-era "I feel your
pain" sensitivity could be articulated as an ideology, Rosenblatt might
be its Dziga Vertov. Middlebrow newcomers could find his films interesting–perhaps
even profound–while hardcore avant-junkies will more likely be bored by
his sometimes facile messages, occasionally cliched motifs, unmusical editing
and psychiatric melodrama.

The earliest film in the
series, 1990’s Short of Breath employs hospital training footage
found in a dumpster outside a facility where Rosenblatt was employed. He reworked
the timeworn images into a kind of medical theater of the absurd. There are
a couple of marvelously transportive moments here, particularly in his use of
a film for the training of therapists. Questions and answers between actors
portraying a deadpan psychiatrist and his histrionic female patient are reedited
into a dadaistic fugue. In one instance, Rosenblatt skillfully stretches out
the image and sound of the woman crying into a beautifully disturbing series
of gasps, wheezes and shudders. But for the remainder of the film, the choice
of saccharine string music and overly precise sound design deflates the film’s
impact, a fussy professional polish dampening the footage’s explosively
raw potential.

The two narrated collages,
The Smell of Burning Ants and King of the Jews, tread into quasi-autobiographical
territory, relating angst-ridden tales of male childhood. Ants is like
an earnest Triumph of the Will for the postfeminist men’s movement,
piously dedicated "for my brothers." Taking on the process by which
boys become men in an atmosphere of violence, emotional distance, homophobia
and competition, the film weaves together somewhat enigmatic images of boys
from educational films and home movies with images of the destruction of ants
and scorpions. Portentous episodes from a typical boyhood are retold through
a third-person narrator whose youthful newscaster timbre moves forward with
subdued, self-righteous outrage, reminiscent of the offhand distance of spoken-word

King of the Jews
tells the story of Rosenblatt’s boyhood fear and fascination with the figure
of Jesus, and his sense of displacement as a Jewish outsider in a Christian
society. An attempt at an ecumenical spiritualism of forgiveness is played out
over Hollywood images of Christ. The result is odd and uncomfortable, with a
drawn-out graphic sequence of the crucifixion meant to stand for, perhaps, the
historical oppression of the Jews.

Despite their laudable intentions,
the sentimentality of Jews and Ants grates as squarely West Coast
liberal. Both works are a touch too hammer-on-the-head, forcing their points
rather bluntly for my tastes. Perhaps someday they will be recouped as prime
examples of 90s p.c.-era kitsch.

A completely different tack
is taken with the longest film, the 30-minute Human Remains, probably
the most subtle work in the show. Created over a span of four years, Human
plays on the contemporary obsession with the private lives of political
figures by presenting a preponderance of minutiae on the personal foibles, habits,
tastes and sexual proclivities of some of the 20th century’s most notorious
and hated dictators: Hitler, Stalin, Franco, Mao and Mussolini. Over compilations
of newsreel footage of each man, narrators read scripted lists culled from a
number of biographies and historical accounts, detailing intimate factoids ranging
from mundane to humorous to deeply disturbing. We learn that Hitler had trouble
with flatulence and "could never resist chocolate eclairs." The pompous
Mussolini loved American movies and thought that men who were not attractive
to women were worthless. Mao hated his father, seldom rose before noon, had
an insatiable appetite for sex with young women and suffered such constipation
that a normal bowel movement "was a cause for celebration" by the
Chairman’s staff. This wealth of unusual information brings the dictators
down to human level, while at the same time portraying them as unusual characters–astoundingly
driven, obsessed by sexual and bodily hungers, and mentally volatile.

As interesting as this new
take on historical villains may be, I couldn’t help wishing the visual
aspects of the work were stronger. The newsreel footage of each man seems rather
unremarkable, edited without flair. And there’s the question of why this
project needed to be a film at all. Couldn’t the same effect have been
achieved, and reached a much wider audience, as, say, an article in The Atlantic?

The only film in the program
that could be recommended without reservation is a one-minute collage short,
Restricted. A speedy collapsed remix of patriotic 50s shorts, it wins
through a more creative sound design than his other films, droning a musically
rhythmic found mantra of phrases: "take a chance/don’t do it."
The contradiction of these two prerogatives may embody what Rosenblatt’s
films lack–a sense of risk. While his moral messages all seem forthright,
his means to express them through film feel too middle-of-the-road. Rosenblatt’s
films present a cleanly digestible, professionally produced and morally sound
cinema, bereft of the carelessness, immorality, overreaching and indulgent lunacy
of much experimental work. Unfortunately, those characteristics are exactly
what I love about the medium. Rosenblatt may intend to explore the banality
of evil, but after watching his films, this thrill-seeking cynic found himself
more concerned with the evils of banality.

"The Films of Jay Rosenblatt"
runs Aug. 9-15 at Film Forum, 209 W. Houston St. (betw. 6th Ave. & Varick
St.), 727-8110;