2016, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 57, summer 2016
Talkin’ to us: Speaking Directly: 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. 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.”
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.
Jost incorporates much Marxist analysis into Speaking Directly but his emphasis is not on collective political struggle. He almost ignores the institutional mechanisms by which change could be brought about. Principally, Jost wants us to struggle against reification, which falsifies, disguises and hides reality and distorts our individual relation to that reality. He tries to use film to break through reification, particularly the falsifications inherent in conventional uses of the media, and to speak directly. Like Godard and Gorin in their post’68 films, Jost often uses flat images, rejects traditional narrative structure and the linear development of a single argument, and makes the sound track carry the burden of conceptual meaning. To speak directly to one’s audience in a film is a more difficult task than most of us imagine. How can the filmmaker escape from the conventions of cinematic fiction? How can he/she make a film honestly and not create a distortion of oneself, one’s friends, one’s historical situation, and one’s experience? Especially if the filmmaker’s own experience is already full of media distortions which he/she must present if the autobiographical and historical picture is to be complete.
The film constantly evaluates conventions of discourse. In the political sections of the film—on Vietnam; on Kissinger and Nixon; on consumption, national “culture” and the industrial-military complex; on advertising images of masculinity and femininity—the visual images are taken from television, military films, advertisements, and photojournalism. The audience readily grasps the implied visual comment on these images as modes of discourse, and this comment is frequently made explicit on the sound track as well. Similarly, voices off read dictionary definitions of language, nation, culture, economics, woman, man. They give definitions of U.S. imperialism and the military’s role in it. They present geographic and demographic statistics. These definitions convey both the value and the limitations of the institutionalized vocabulary that we use to convey knowledge.
In many of the shots, the visuals comment on filmmaking—on frame, depth of field, the filmmaker, the audience, the equipment used, the act of filming, the writing of a script. One of Jost’s primary concerns is to demystify the media, especially film. Reacting against the mystification of thinking of film as Cinematic Art, he eschews much of what has traditionally been considered cinema’s expressive means. These include emotional uses of lighting, camera movement and movement within the frame to convey a mood or “tell a story,” invisible editing, editing for tension, visual continuity from shot to shot, dissolves, etc.. The main cinematic device he depends on is the use of shots for their symbolic and iconic value. That is, x-shot represents an idea, or x-shot tells us something about cinematic process. Speaking Directly teaches about film in many ways. It explores the physical process of making a film and the social, economic, and political process in which filmmaking in the United States is embedded. The lessons on cinematic discourse are generally witty. At one point, Jost stands in a field facing us and traces his finger around the edge of the frame; then he pulls down a would-be screen and blacks out the image.
Most appealing in the film are the autobiographical sections. Jost, as we have seen earlier, will not separate his personal history from the history of his time. As Part One of Speaking Directly is subtitled I-THEY, some of the people among those in THEY are Jost’s acquaintances, presented to us in a section entitled “People I Know Directly.” (Following it is “People I Know Indirectly,” with news photos of Kissinger and Nixon, and Jost’s discussing images and realities of power.) In “People I Know (Directly)” we see Jost’s card file of the people he sends mail to, a photo of his parents, pictures and live shots of friends and lovers he’s had a falling out with, those who do not understand him, or who are his friends. He shows a shot of the “path to the Martins,” some of his neighbors in Oregon whom he didn’t see except in emergencies. Such shots of acquaintances presented in a variety of cinematic ways, plus Jost’s comments on the parameters of his relations with these people, make us realize the variety of our relations with others. We question the degree to which we contact or know others and the social limits of our personal relationships.
Sometimes the person shown comments about a limited relationship with Jost, such as Jost’s landlord or his friend Dennis. Dennis humorously informs the audience that Jost made this film about non-communication, exploitation of others, and the economics of filmmaking. To make a film about non-communication, Dennis says, is the act of a charlatan. In reaction, the audience can either burn this film, since a radical independent filmmaker like Jost cannot afford another print, or they can leave, as Dennis himself does by walking out of the frame. Some of the major motifs of the film—speaking directly to the audience, the economics of filmmaking, one’s personal life—are humorously encapsulated in this encounter with one of Jost’s acquaintances. This scene provides that kind of resonance characteristic of the best parts of the film, where the autobiographical elements reflect on the social commentary in both a cinematic and directly stated way.
In the I-YOU half of the film, Jost presents his and Elayne’s “stories.” His was the section described with the bloodied body on the grass, hers the series of mistakes with Elayne’s then reading script plus Jost’s summarizing her life. Following these are sections which generalize about being a female and being a male in the United States. The visuals here consist of media images of women; a close up of a man’s hand, penis and belly while he masturbates; and a high angle shot of a male body lying on the floor with semen running down the leg. Over each section a voice off reads an objective commentary, which consists of dictionary definitions of woman and man. The dictionary, as we all know by now, reflects the bases of sexism: there only man means “a human being ... the human race.”
In the “Female (You)” section, Jost’s subjective commentary describes him imagining the woman’s role for himself.
“You: you are confused by a clutter of images you are told is you ... You-Me: You are a woman. I am not. To me you are an image. I see you, I perceive you, but I am not, cannot be you ... What I know of you, understand of you must be through you through me. Your words, my listening. Your movements, my feeling, your reality, my dreams.”
Jost’s success in Speaking Directly is that he translates into cinematic, political and U.S. cultural terms the age-old theme of autobiographies—the meeting of one person’s thoughts and aspirations with historical reality. He effectively relates social and media conventions to psychological repression to larger problems of U.S. imperialism and ideological control. But for me the film had a particularly liberating effect in the way it encouraged the audience to be honest about personal relations. For example, in the masturbation sequence, Jost notes how little of our private sexual reality, our fantasies and masturbation, we bring to a lover, much less to the other “yous” in our lives. He reels off many sexual words that we use,
“carefully masking the realities which swarm our minds ... When we say ‘I,’ it is seldom of ourselves which we speak but rather a guarded ‘you,’ censored, safe, a ‘you’ to match our castrated ‘I.’ Of these things, I know just as you know. My dreams are not some exception in an otherwise drab universe. They are also in some form your dreams: my hand, yours, on our genitals.”
This is a Whitmanesque eroticism—making love to the audience to bring them to an awakening and reception of the U.S. reality. A daring endeavor, in Speaking Directly it is tempered by the cinematic austerity of the film and the audience’s constant awareness of the image as an image. We are not seduced into living out an emotional fantasy inside the film, as in most feature films. And Jost knows and says that he cannot film the audience; he cannot touch or speak to us directly. He gives us ourselves in a section entitled “Viewer (You),” a five-minute shot of a blank white screen with a stop watch running in the upper left corner. When this section came while I was watching the film, people talked to each other, perhaps out of nervousness, but in any case they talked about the film itself. Then on the screen a hand flipped over a transparency of WE to read ME: we complete Jost’s autobiography in ourselves.
If one looks at Speaking Directly as an Experimental Film, it does not look very Cinematic—no fancy lab work, no secret symbolisms. Nor does it Tell a Story. And though it is heavily political, Speaking Directly does not analyze institutional oppression or offer a program or tactics for social change. Rather, it is a film that explores film, personal relations, and communications in general—all in the context of living in the U.S. today. For Jost this exploration necessarily means coming to terms with political reality and attacking oppressive systems. If I were to compare Speaking Directly to the Godard-Gorin films—an immediate reaction when seeing the film—Jost’s film seems a gentler, more humane, more personable, and very U.S. version of what Godard and Gorin were trying to do in their post’68 work.
It is not, however, an imitation. Jost’s own personality and his sense of being an American structure this film. Autobiography has always been a uniquely U.S. mode of expression: authors like Woolfe, Dickinson, Melville, and Plath mined their own experience to write many works. But Speaking Directly does not seem to be the kind of film Jost could repeat, for it gives the sense of a personal summing up as he moves from his youth to his mature filmmaking career. The film implies that one must get one’s own house in order, end one’s own schizophrenia, before one can move out to larger struggles. Jost does not really have a clear perspective on the mechanisms of social change in Speaking Directly, and I look forward to his working out these problems in his future films and giving a political perspective that shows both his and the audience’s capacity to effect social and political change.
September 20, 2016
Watching Speaking Directly recently, some forty years after first viewing, I was surprised how well the film holds up. Although ideological analysis using magazine images has become commonplace in the YouTube era, Jost’s techniques for low budget filmmaking have not. Jost’s cinematic techniques—such as his judiciously placed long takes, looped images, painterly compositions, and symbolic yet existentially rooted use of landscape—show a disciplined approach to the craft. And both his political analysis and personal self-reflection have flashes of humor and honesty that some other filmmakers working in the genre of the personal essay often lack.
His particular version of discourse analysis that structures the film uses dictionary definitions, often in voice off, which he visually illustrates in ways that give the film a particular U.S. slant, both with the regional local color of his Northwest environment and the major political problem U.S. citizens then faced, the Vietnam War, especially as represented by the media. Jost opposed that war, to the extent of spending two years in jail a draft resister before making this work in the mid-70s. His analysis in Speaking Directly tells how he is entangled in history. Noting the ways in which he/we media scholars and media makers, in fact, make history has particular relevance to our own times, when political images/discourse are too often based on market research and the business logic of capitalism, if not outright deception. In addition, his look at the limits of interpersonal understanding provides him with a wry, questioning approach to character that he would apply in a long succession of feature fiction films.
Speaking Directly still seems eminently teachable. Jost, over long his filmmaking career after Speaking Directly, has in a teacherly way written extensively on how to make low budget films, of which he has made many. Speaking Directly seems to speak to many viewers—as documentary, autobiography, low budget feature film, political reflection. Now, Hing Tsang’s critical writing on Jost inspired me to go back to my older essay and supplement it with images to accompany Tsang’s essay on Jost’s The Bed You Sleep In in Jump Cut. In addition, readers will see the many ways that it also fits in with the special section in this issue on 1970s leftist cinema, seen from an international perspective.
Distribution: Jon Jost’s films are available through his website at $30 each. <http://www.jonjost.altervista.org/sales.html>