Talkin’ to us:
Some American Notes
by Julia Lesage
from Jump Cut, no. 5, 1975, pp. 3-4
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1975, 2004, 2016
Jon Jost’s Speaking Directly: Some American Notes is a feature length autobiographical essay or, as the title indicates, cinematographic notes giving a personal and political reflection on contemporary U.S. life. In particular, Jost examines the relations between our personal lives, U.S. international politics, the media, modes of discourse, and our relation to our geography, our towns and landscape.
The film is divided into two major sections: I-THEY and I-YOU. In the I-THEY half, Jost traces out his and our individual connection to the externals of U.S. life. He traces the geography that impinges on us—Jost’s rural Oregon and Vietnam. He examines the concept of home—both one’s house and the United States as a whole. And he traces the connections between oneself and the people one knows directly and indirectly—Jost’s personal acquaintances, and Kissinger and Nixon.
|In a section called a geography (here), Jost praises the mundane, which he says places him close to the spiritual. As he drives around, we hear the car radio playing country music.||He walks around, sometimes with ambient sounds in the background. He may be in an area devastated by clear cut timber harvesting.|
|In a section clled Home ("home") Jost places himself within the tradition of Thoreau's Walden and also gives an expanded definition of home.||In a home you make your own world, one within your grasp with what you can have in the here and how. Throughout the film, a sense of history, what the here and now means, fascinates Jost.|
|In the section, "Nation" an animated map of the United States fills in features as the female voice off describes U.S. geography.||Jost uses a 360 degree pan of the desert as one way of describing the nation.|
We see the “there” of Vietnam, the artifacts of U.S. culture, Nixon and Kissinger, and U.S. economics and imperialism in images which make us question the media representation of these aspects of our lives, realities which our society makes it so hard to grasp directly. Jost contrasts one’s experience of reality with the reified media version of it. Where Speaking Directly works the best, we not only criticize the media versions but also question our and others experiences.
The film explores epistemological questions in a political way. We see Vietnam, for example, in a series of grainy, colored film loops of U.S. bombing raids, some of which seem more like lovely patterns of color than actual records of the destruction of lives.
In this sequence two voices-over read the “objective” and the “subjective” history of Vietnam: the dates and events of U.S. involvement there and one Vietnamese woman’s prison diary. This ten-minute, looped film sequence visually parallels the mechanistic repetitive Vietnam war. But even when we hear a voice tell us of actual suffering, which the Vietnamese have lived as a reality for over 25 years, our experience of Vietnam is the media one. Vietnam is always our “there.” As a French film collective said when they made a film on the subject, we are always “far from Vietnam.”
|In the looped images, U.S. planes fly covering the Vietnamese counrtyside with defoliant. On the ground, the devastated land.|
|The bombs dropping and hitting targets in images of cruel beauty. Watching them over and over, we may begin to think of the destruction below.|
Jost returns to the topic of Vietnam in a long section entitled JON (I) where he explores the relation between his own personal history and that of the United States, a relation which he defines as schizophrenic. Most of the section consists of one long shot-sequence. It opens with a close up showing Jost facing us, standing behind his camera filming. With his hand on the zoom lever he enlarges the perspective. Suddenly we realize we have been looking in a mirror. The mirror stands on an easel in a field with trees in the background and gives an image of the top half of Jost’s body plus the camera. The commentary comes from Jost in voice off. He defines his schizophrenia as the huge disjunction between what he knows in a factual, intellectual sense and what he feels in an emotional, intuitive one. In particular, standing herein a field in Oregon gives him little sense of being American. He does not feel a part of any community. As he says, all we are given to bind us together as Americans are empty televised rituals, either official ones like inaugurations or unofficial ones like World Series.
As the camera pans right in a series of starts and stops, we see a landscape of yellow stubble, pine trees, and sky. Sun spots stream into the lens, and the horizon is slightly skewed. Against this empty background Jost discusses his own negative experience of being an American, and he says that most people he’s talked to have felt the same way. When the returned prisoners of war said, “I’m proud to be an American,” it seemed a posture.
“They speak of America and I am a part of America, and yet I do not feel that they are talking about me or even for me.”
For Jost, his personal relationship to United States includes his relations with Americans, especially his friends and us, the audience. When he went to prison for refusing the draft or when he makes home brew, he’s felt United States as some fixed thing outside him. Yet his identity as American is something that comes both to and through him.
“If only to the smallest degree, America is the America I enact, just as I am the person I enact. And this is where I become schizophrenic.”
With the latter words the camera tilts down to a static shot of a pale naked male body lying on the grass with splotches of red paint on it (we do not see the head). Jost switches from his subjective feelings about being an American to those objective realities which touch him every day. We live, he says, with a litany of proper names, a litany of political atrocities: Vietnam, Kent State, Jacksonville, George Jackson, Fred Hampton; or, from a past generation, Guernica, Nagasaki. He calls these proper names which represent realities,
“a grim poetry sprung from the coils of history from the darkest corners of the human situation: Auschwitz, Belsen-Belsen, My Lai ... But poetry deceives. While touching our souls, it seems to leave a loophole through which our understanding can escape.”
We experienced the Vietnam war in this abstracted “poetic” way—with the flickering TV images of small men in pajama-like clothes, the Pentagon Thursday night announcements, and a new language cluttering our mind with words such as pacification, defoliation, and protective reaction strikes. This “poetry of Vietnam,” like that of all the mass media, Jost insists, is not just a problem but a system. The United States is an imperialist economic system. But to speak of imperialism or Vietnam only in terms of economic statistics or numbers of corpses does not bring about an understanding which changes our lives. We also have to examine these things in terms of ourselves and our own lives.
When Jost turns the political discussion to the level of his own concrete experience, first we see the “corpse” on the grass visibly breathe. Then the camera swings right to show Elayne Ketchum doing the sound with a tape recorder on the grass. Jost says that when he considers the political dimension of his own life, he is disturbed; it is all thrown into confusion:
“I am able to make a film largely because I am from a certain class and racial background ... because somewhere other people work in factories and mines.”
And he knows that when he is making a film, he oppresses the people he lives with, both Elayne, whom he conscripts into his projects, and her little girl, Erinn, for whom he has no time. He becomes tense and picks at his beard, hair by hair, and eats it. Within Speaking Directly, Jost questions the activity of making even a radical film like this one, for he sees that in his case it means being from a privileged class, exploiting workers, distorting relations with those he lives with, hustling, and indulging in the kind of public relations hype he criticizes in the film itself. This is the accepted pattern of life of most of the people around us. we have to question the world where such things are everyday, normal realities.
“Just as I’ve seen in my own life that my relationships are often dehumanized and incomplete, the situation I live in engenders that kind of behavior ... a situation symbolized by the sound: Vietnam.”
Jost calls, “Cut.” We see Elayne turn off the tape recorder. The camera retraces its route: over the corpse—now scratching itself—across the field, and back to the easel where, in the mirror, we see Jost filming himself.
This sequence contains elements of the entire film. Visually, a shot of a bloodied nude figure symbolizes Jost’s schizophrenic attitude toward his own person, his own sense of identity as an American, his feeling of isolation. At the same time, it is a visual representation of the corpses of Vietnam. The easel in the field reminds one of Wallace Stevens’ vase in a field. A human artifact in nature interprets or “makes sense” out of nature. Jost uses much of the natural Oregon landscape around his home in the film and comments on it. But he never assumes that nature has an intrinsic meaning to communicate to us. Rather his shots comment on the human use of the environment. Jost films himself in the mirror. When he looks in the mirror he sees a filmmaker, but he is cut in half visually by the mirror, is not a reflected whole. Even as a filmmaker, he enacts a role, and his identity is not a whole—although making films is what organizes and gives meaning to his life.
Elayne does the taping. By this image Jost implies that he is using her by recruiting her into a project which is basic for his identity but not for hers. In a later sequence with Elayne, the HER sequence in which she is supposed to define her relation with Jon, Jost makes this point clearer. After several false starts of trying to define herself while being filmed, she finally speaks the script Jost wrote for her. Although Jost’s version of Elayne’s life is probably not an inaccurate one, his point is that we (and Jost would say, especially a male artist) use the loved one to act out our script. For us, loved ones are our version of them and not just themselves.
|Four different attemps to film Elayne. She says men and women are completely incompatible, have different notions. She would have to generalize too much to say how she feels about things. Finally on the fourth take Jost has her read a script, which does not turn out well. She walks out of frame and we see her through the window, cutting wood.|
|Elayne cuts wood, with daughter Erin.||Jost speaks: all this we tell about us can only be a second-hand experience for you. The film then proceeds to have Jost tell his personal history and raise the issue of the relation of narratives to identity, which becomes a summary of what's going on in the film.|