Locating people in their own lives

On the other hand, it is with the activities and interactions of men that Jost initially describes the life of the small town.[21] [open notes in new window] An integration of pictoriality, tightly controlled fiction direction, and documentary-like delineation of locality can also be seen in two sequences that describe centers of social interaction. In the first of these, Ray visits the town hall and discusses the legal costs to expand the logging mill. It displays some formal similarities with the earlier office scene in the mill. Aperture framing is re-employed in such a way that aerial photographs of the region dominate the backgrounds of the two characters.

However, rather than using an alternation of single shots and televisual cuts, Jost employs a series of parallel tracking movements from one character to another that prevent easy psychological identification. The presence of photographic aerial views of the town in the background highlights the inter-relations between individual, environment, and social collective which was originally emphasized in both Lesage’s early essay and Jost’s own written account of his artistic practice.[22] A similar kind of cinematography can also be seen when Jost employs additional tracking shots that move away from the dramatic action and show the daily activity of people within the office. After the building inspector has said goodbye to Ray, the camera tracks across various pictures across a wall to reveal several women working in another room.

It should be noted here that both the building inspector and the employees are not played by working professional actors, but by local people who actually worked in this location. On exiting the office, we see a wide shot in which Ray exits the town hall. A tilt-up on to the front of the external building becomes a camera pan that follows Ray walking and reveals a wide vista of the town and its main road. Ray is now dwarfed among the modern but slightly decrepit buildings that characterize the small town. In other words, the highly choreographed camera movements and movement of people within the frame does not draw attention to the technical virtuosity of the filmmaking process or to Jost as a would-be latter-day “auteur.” Instead, the techniques used here suggest that occasionally fiction filmmaking can “locate people in their own lives” (Lesage 2014). As Jost films people who live and work in the town, doing things that they normally do, we are attentive both to what they do and the physical details of the environments in which they are doing things.

This is especially true of the next sequence I will analyze, where we now move from the local town hall to a busy café. The sequence itself consists of an unbroken take, lasting five minutes. However, before I attempt to explain how the sequence holds our interest, I wish to borrow from some of the observations of Han-Pile in her recent Heideggerian analysis of Dutch painting. The Anglo-French theorist recognizes that within many of Vermeer’s paintings, we are seeing people doing things. She describes our projection into visual images in terms of a viewing practice that is not reducible to psychological identification or the technical details of what is done. Instead we are told the effect of such a sensibility:

“It requires us to be able to intuitively open up the network of relations and possibilities associated with the practices themselves, a peculiar ability which is afforded us by our competence in performing similar tasks. Thus such projection is existential rather than psychological in that it rests on our ability to be in the world and to press ahead into our own possibilities.” (Han-Pile: 2010)

What is also hinted by Han-Pile’s account is how the artist employs immersive techniques that allow us to be participants in the sequence rather than distant neutral observers. This is achieved through disciplined technical means. Jost made his own circular track out of plastic piping that allowed him to circle the café several times, pointing in different directions. Because he used a café during normal opening hours and was filming both its staff and the local clientele, he had to rehearse the shot meticulously before shooting. Jost, as in all of his films, shot on an extremely low shooting ratio, which also accounts for the freshness and spontaneity of the imagery here.

As viewers, we project ourselves into a hive of social activity, where people are drinking, talking, ordering food, eating, and washing up. The use of an unbroken mobile take allows us to see the cafe in a way where objects are seen in close up framed by human figures, who are then framed through doorways. Human figures, irrespective of whether we see them from the front or back, also forefront and frame other human figures in the background because of the circular trajectory of Jost’s camera. On the soundtrack, itself we hear a mixture of fragments of individual daily conversations, the clinking and clunking of cutlery, and a lyrical, buoyant accordion-led melody from Erling Wold.

In thematic terms, the multiple perspectives created by both the movement of the camera and the layers in the soundtrack also suggest a complex, ever shifting inter-relation between the individual and the wider social collective, where neither is ever permanently subsumed by the other. This arguably hints (at least, at this stage of the film) that artistic creativity and revelation occurs through an engagement and immersion in historically and geographically rooted communities. Individual art practice is thus an embodied extension of what already exists in our daily activities and has been socially acquired, but it is also capable of showing “what is in ever new and fresh ways,” ideally, eliciting a “sensuous or emotional reaction” in the viewer (Lesage 2014).

Through naturalistic description and a sculptural use of camera, the viewer gains access to the social interaction of the local community. The movement of the camera provides both distant and close-up views of people and objects.

But it should not be forgotten that the film charts what Martin originally described as “a double auto-destructive tragedy” (1995), where two suicides result from a breakdown in trust. This does not occur out of the blue but is integrated within the film’s other descriptions of social rituals and tasks. What Lesage calls the “darker aspects of human action and the complexity and ambivalence of human consciousness” (2014) is hinted at in a sequence that is largely lyrical and sensual in tone. Here, we now see Ray fishing and at peace with nature, and we are introduced us to Scott, who is the new boyfriend of Ray’s daughter. It is Scott who will later trigger the tragic events of the film, most notably, when we see him announcing Tracy’s suicide by telephone.

Nevertheless, initially intimacy is suggested both by the closeness between the characters and to the filmmaker himself, who is shooting barely inches away with a wide-angle lens. But it is notable that the conversation is stilted and Scott does not seem to be able to concentrate on either the task itself or engage with the older man. Tension is also augmented through the use of a rough looking circular hand-held shot that draws attention to the young man’s nervousness.

"How about you, why do you want to be a fisherman? " "Trout got your tongue?"

This serves as an uneasy prelude to what would otherwise be an extremely lyrical moment in the film. A circular tracking shot gradually reveals both ripples in the currents of a large stream and greenery on the opposite bank of the flowing water, thus serving as another reminder of the constant intertwining and shifting between micro and macro phenomena. On the soundtrack, we hear Ray’s own comments about the art of fishing:

“There's some people I know who'll tell you, it takes a lifetime to learn all there's to know about fly-fishing. Fishing's about taking your time. It's not about getting ahead of yourself. I'd say it's about learning to read the situation, seeing what’s presented to you. When an opportunity is presented, to know about how and when to take advantage of that.”

On its own, this particular combination of sound and image could be read as a metaphor for forms of lived intelligence that are responsive to specific historical and geographical environments. Such intelligence might then be manifested in the creativity of art, political action, as well as the practice of fly-fishing. Yet the images that precede and succeed this moment problematize this, reminding us of the many difficulties we face in trying to understand and respond to circumstances around us. We are also in the presence of an encounter between men where there is a hint of both subterfuge and rivalry. The sequence continues with a series of awkward glances between the two men. In compositional terms, the figures are both placed towards the edge of the frame, and accorded discordant shot sizes that produce a sense of unease and threat.

This is further augmented by a final disturbing image in this sequence that shows a live fish changing color through a series of flashes, which have been created through the use of computerized post-production techniques. Our attention is also drawn to the movement of the fish struggling to “breathe” in a new environment, hinting that from this moment on there will be irreversible and unsettling changes in the lives of his characters. This is also followed by a move away from the lightness of natural exteriors to the darker, more fraught dialogues that occur behind closed doors.

"For someone whose supposedly interested in fishing, you’ve been asking all kinds of questions except about the fishing? Something on your mind?" "Why didn’t you tell me, you’ve been with my daughter? "
Discordant notes on the soundtrack augment a shot which is noticeably darker than the equivalent shot that ended the picnic sequence with Jean. The changing colors of the fish anticipate the dramatic changes that are about to occur in the lives of the characters as well as hinting at the wider ecological concerns of this film.

Mirrors and disclosure

Once we move into the private spaces of the home, Jost re-employs his use of aperture framing. He incorporates doorways and windows within his compositions, but he also brings in mirrors and reflections gradually into the center of the frame, so that the image now reflects back on itself in an asymmetrical fashion that might suggest the alienation of the self. While it would be tempting to see this through the prism of well-worn Lacanian cliches,[23] it should be noted that Jost had previously included the use of mirrors in Speaking Directly: Some American Notes. In her essay about this film, Lesage saw this as part of the overall Marxian concerns of a film that located individual psychology within a national and global political context. Our attention was directed towards a shot of Jost seemingly addressing us directly in an open field. It then turned out that this shot was an image in a mirror, which, for Lesage, indicated a disjunction between what we what we feel in an “emotional intuitive” sense and what we know in a “factual, intellectual” one. But both of these sensibilities were a reflection of our implicated positions within the political and economic contexts of the United States after the Vietnam War, so that Jost’s work surpassed the narrow strictures of avant-garde formalism.

Almost twenty years later, Jost returns to the use of similar devices. While the earlier film privileged the monologues of Jost—the young individual male filmmaker—it is now the interaction between women that is forefronted. We become uneasy participants in tense private conversations between Jean and her friend Beth. It is the intuitive, often tacit understanding between woman that is emphasized before we witness an explosive exchange between Jean and Ray in which accusations of incest are made. In the former, we are privy to intimacy, understanding and solidarity, while in the latter we become implicated as witnesses to conflict and confrontation. In formal compositional terms, there is also a notable movement away from more oblique compositions to seemingly direct “frontality,” which is nonetheless undercut by cruel irony, as I shall attempt to demonstrate.

Jost’s use of oblique compositions can be seen in a conversation between Jean and her close friend, Beth, who speaks about the effects of her husband’s long-term unemployment on family relationships, where the husband is inflicting psychological abuse on his wife and children.

Jost also notes in his reflections about the film that his shots of women are almost always taken from 45 degrees to side, and “often above or below because women interact in a more oblique way than men.” “Who are you meant to tell all this stuff to, you know, I’ve been getting worried, I’ve been getting really worried, it’s been seven months since Bill’s been out of work.”

The sequence begins with a series of single shots where harsh diagonals both disorient us and emphasize the space between the two women who are both shot at a 45 degree angle from the side. In the equivalent of what might otherwise be a two-shot, Jost presents us with a composition in which Beth is in the foreground and Jean is seen in a reflection on the left-hand corner of the frame. They are now facing completely different directions. Furthermore, the effect of the mirror and the slightly high position of the camera pointing downwards toward the corner of the room creates a distance between the two women that is greater than it would be, had we been looking at them directly through a more conventional two-shot. Without the addition of lenses and mirrors, the two women would have been sitting close to one another at adjoining corners of a table at a 45 degree angle, and their eyelines would have met in a way that could be associated with the self-contained intimacy of earlier Dutch painting in for example Vermeer’s "Mistress and Maid" or the "Music Lesson."

Vermeer’s Mistress and Maid. Vermeer’s Music Lesson.
Detail of the mirror in Vermeer’s Music Lesson showing the relation of the two figures. Vermeer’s Woman in Blue Reading a Letter.

However, there are also further compositional differences that I wish to refer to in a heuristic fashion in order to show the sophistication of Jost’s visual technique both in this particular sequence and in the later explosive exchange between spouses where mirrors are employed again. Most notably, in Vermeer’s "Music Lesson" two figures are shown in the lower section of the same frame. They are not quite looking directly at one another as the woman has her back to us and the man is posed at a slightly oblique angle. But in the upper third of the frame, the reflection of the woman brings about a new virtual eyeline between the gaze of the man and the woman. Indeed, we could almost draw a line between their eyes using a ruler, thus augmenting what Han-Pile describes as a “strong mood of peaceful concern and intense absorption” (147).

Jost’s work takes us in a somewhat different direction, whereby the use of mirrors create unexpected changes in the direction of the characters’ eyelines and hint at the need for constant self-correction in all of our epistemic commitments. And indeed, even though I have so far emphasized the distances that are created by the use of mirrors and emergence of new eyelines, something altogether more ambivalent is present in this sequence. Firstly, it should be noted that the dialogue between the women is paced in a way that contrasts greatly with the fast and sometimes scattershot remarks, made by Ray and his colleague in the earlier office sequence.[24] Even and regular pauses in the conversation indicate that each woman is listening and deliberating carefully about what is being reported and said. Beth’s remarks not only about her husband’s domestic violence but also his refusal to attend counselling provide further hints at major differences between male pride and female intuition. Accordingly, the latter seems to be more measured and interiorized but is still open to lived and living experience.

Thus, it could also be argued here that the outward movement created by diagonals within the frame and the new contrasting directions in eyelines also point us to the existence of a continuing world outside the borders of the frame. It is perceived by individuals but which also transcends individual egos. It is also significant here that the camera tracks with the two women as they leave the house and embrace each other outside, so that we see their renewed friendship against a background of wider landscapes. Thus, individual solidarities, which in this and other Jost films are marked by solidarity between women,[25] are not merely the reflection of arbitrary subjectivities but also hint at wider collective struggles that are taking place throughout the social world.

However, the embrace between women friends serves as a brief interlude amongst moments of increasing estrangement and confrontation, culminating in an explosive exchange between Jean and Ray. A short angry sequence directly prefigures this. Outside the café, an itinerant preacher confronts Ray and recommends that they pray together in order to atone for Ray’s “sins” and “arrogance.” Camera position and composition highlight the aggressiveness of much male psychology and behavior. The two men, who have never met one another before, are shown facing one another directly, staring into one another’s eyes, barely inches from one another, as is the camera, which captures the confrontation through extreme close-ups. This stands in direct contrast to the oblique distances and quiet deliberation that was prominent in the conversations between Jean and Beth. It is then that we experience some of the most intense moments of the film, where Jost plays directly with our perceptions of both frontality and proximity in equal measure.

On returning home from work, we discover that Jean has received a letter in which Tracy accuses Ray of physically molesting her. She reads out aloud the contents of the letter line by line, all of which Ray denies. The argument is unresolved and their antagonism intensifies. The sequence commences with two frames that employ similar strategies to the composition with mirrors in the earlier conversation between Jean and Beth. Ray is seen sitting on his own before Jean enters the frame and we realize that what we have just seen is an image in the mirror.

It is also significant that the presence of the mirror once again forces the eyelines of the two protagonists to be directed in opposite directions. With the inclusion of a reflection of Jean’s back in the mirror, the image suggests an alienation of the self, which is then forefronted in a second shot that in terms of conventional filmmaking might otherwise be considered a “single.” But in this asymmetrical shot Jean’s back is seen in the mirror thus contrasting with the frontal view of her reading the letter in the lower section of the frame and accentuating the distance between these two different views of the self.

It is worth recalling here that the motif of woman reading private correspondence is a repeated theme in much Dutch painting. But it is here that Jost’s thematic concerns far exceed any graphic similarities between his work and that of the past. Alpers originally spoke about the “fugitive” nature of the letter in paintings from period (1983: 192). She notes that in none of these works are we allowed access to the content of the letter:

“they take their place among other objects represented in the pictorial world and like them are to be seen as representations rather than objects for interpretation” (207).

In contrast, Jost’s visual and narrative use of the letter brings epistemological and interpretative issues to the fore. His characters want to know the truth, and their attempts to do so are underpinned by antagonism, distrust and rage.

“And I was always telling people how much I loved him.” “I’ve been getting memories, not so much memories but images.”
“I don’t know how to put this better except to say that I never want to see him again.” “So you’re saying Tracy’s a liar that she’making all this up.”

It should be noted that the contents of the letter are directly revealed and are superimposed over what by Jost’s standards are fairly conventional single shots of Jean reading out the letter aloud and reaction shots of Ray listening in stunned silence. The letter is now printed directly on the screen, and the word “Daddy” has been crossed out and been replaced by “Ray.”

The sequence is developed in a series of singles rather than two shots. Separation and alienation are further accentuated, because of the presence of harsh diagonals behind the heads of each character, which are the product of the placement of the camera directly opposite the corners of the room. Two shots that show Jean and Ray in profile and bear some resemblance to the use of flat planes of colour in Dutch painting, serve as an angry prelude to one of Jost’s most innovative use of mirror reflections in the film.

A slow zoom focuses upon a reflection in a large metallic vase of Jean in extreme close up. Directly beside her look of consternation, we also see the out of focus contours of Ray’s face, which is then brought into focus at the same time as Jean’s face becomes a blur. Aside from the fact that this use of a long lens offers a very different alternative to conventional use of two shots and single shot reverses, this particular moment brings to the fore the central role of epistemic commitment in Jost’s moral vision.

Truth, subversion or denial?

This is possibly the most controversial part of my argument. While the term Truth has sometimes been an uncomfortable and even derided term within some areas of film studies influenced principally by post-structural theory, it is Truth (without scare quotes) that is driving the encounter between these two people and forcing them to justify and challenge their beliefs.

This is not to say that this is a straightforward process where Truth is readily obtained. Instead, it is a process that is fraught and often characterized by conflict and denial. By this stage of the film, we have empathized—albeit in different ways—with two individuals who are mature, responsible and sensitive. Yet during this exchange, we quickly become aware that rather than an exchange taking place we are faced with two people who deny the validity of the other person’s outlook and his or her account of events.

As viewers we are also thoroughly implicated because Jean and then Ray are looking at us almost directly. The position of the camera and the absence of cuts prevent us from escaping their glares. And as much as the use of close ups would seem to invite psychological identification, this is not possible because of the extreme polarities of the characters’ moral positions. Indeed, we are ever so slightly aware that the apparent proximity between both figures (as much as the proximity between their faces and ours) is an effect brought about by the use of mirrors and the changes of focus produced by Jost’s use of the zoom lens and his manipulation of the focus ring. Thus, instead of direct psychological identification, we are immersed in the fraught and often unfinished processes by which we attempt to distinguish Truth from falsehood. Jost’s use of frontality and proximity, which would otherwise directs us towards notions of transparency and dialogue, has now brought us to what can only be described as “misrecognition” and “misunderstanding” (Lesage 2014).

A hint of some possible respite from this impasse is provided in a short sequence, where Jean confides in her friend Beth about the accusations. Here, Jost abandons his use of mirrors and shoots in a way that highlights the urgent intimacy between the two women. Beth and Jean are filmed slightly from the side at a 45 degree angle, which again suggests a form of communication between women that is more tacit and intuitive than the brashness of male conversation or the angry clashes between opposing sexes. A simple but extremely powerful medium close up shot of Beth embracing the tearful Jean against a white wall complements the previous embrace that occurred outside the house. Beth promises to visit Jean again in the evening. But this is cut short by a trajectory of dreadful events.

Ray returns home after receiving a phone call from Scott, announcing that Tracy has committed suicide. Discovering that Jean has taken her own life, Ray drives away in a car and shoots himself in a way that would seem to be provide fictional closure. But the story does not end here. Jost’s camera now tracks up from the dead body to reveal hills which have been devastated by deforestation.[27] The shot is succeeded by an intertitle that quotes from Emerson’s "Prudence":

“Every violation of Truth is not only a sort of suicide in the liar, but a stab at the health of human society.”

These observations can now be read as highly cautionary within the political and ethical context set up by the film. If, according to Emerson, lies represent a form of suicide, it follows that human sociality, including our potential for self-transformation and social transformation, runs parallel with our attempts to distinguish Truth from falsehood. But such a process, which involves direct perception, listening to the testimony of others, justifying our beliefs and contesting what may eventually turn out to be either true or false, is often fraught and arrested in its tracks by denial and subterfuge. Indeed, to borrow the terms laid out in Lesage’s "Perpetual Subversion" (2014), such a process is “subversive” because it requires a form of existential honesty that is not reducible to subservience to received ideas or recourse to reified concepts. And it is also “perpetual,” because our attempts to distinguish Truth from Falshood are always highly fallible and demand both constant criticism and self-criticism. It therefore follows that when denial obstructs existential honesty, its consequences are inevitably tragic and devastating on both a personal and collective level. A family has been destroyed and a wider physical landscape has been laid desolate.

It is here that another intertitle appears:

“In November 1992, Wheeler Manufacturing, the mill shown in this film was closed for lack of the availability of raw timber. Environmental concern for the marbled murret and financial competition from Japan for raw logs were cited as causes for the closure. Seventy jobs were lost.”

But some caution needs to be exercised in taking this statement at face value. The intertitle’s acknowledgement that environmentalism and financial competition were “cited” for the mill’s demise rather than presenting these commonly received opinions as absolute fact, serves as a reminder that the economic and social issues surrounding the loss of jobs are part of an extremely complex historical and geographical process. As I have hinted earlier, the activities of environmentalists and competition from Japan were relatively unimportant factors in the demise of the timber industry, especially in the face of technological change, economies of scale, pre-existing deforestation and changes in legislation regarding foreign exports.[28] Nevertheless, my attempt to warn against easy generalization may run the risk of detracting from the relation between viewer and film that is particularly interactive here.

Instead, the observations of Vivian Sobchack are rather more apt here. The U.S. theorist speaks of forms of “documentary consciousness” that can occur in the context of fiction film and are dependent on an embodied relation between active viewer and film image rather than any single film’s status as an isolated object. She refers to our own “extra-textual knowledge” which draws out attention away from specific fictional characters towards an “existential world,” so that we are

“looking both at and through the screen, dependent upon it for knowledge, but also aware of an excess of existence not contained in it” (1999: 246).

Her account does not privilege any single filmic form or narrative device as an authoritative voice but instead points to a potential form of “opening up” towards continuing historical issues that precede and exceed any single film text. And more importantly, this also serves as a reminder that the human, ethical, and economic issues that are brought up in Jost’s film are ongoing issues, whose complex causes and effects are often forgotten or negated amidst the collapse of U.S. social dialogue. It is at this point that we also see a series of images that show the different places of work and recreation within the town—now devoid of the presence of the actors that we have seen previously. This further draws our attention to lives (our own lives and other people’s lives) that are continuing to be lived out within a world whose social and economic contexts predate and exceed the limits of any single fictional film narrative.

This highlights the major similarities and differences between The Bed You Sleep In and Speaking Directly: Some American Notes. The earlier film featured a youthful and cheerful Jon Jost, addressing the camera directly, where he emphasized the importance of continued dialogue in our own personal “you and I” relationships. He reminded us that however engaging or homely his personal relations might appear, it was much more important that we also attend to our own relationships and own actions, strongly hinting at the importance of relating what we might have learnt from second-hand experience to our own first-hand daily experience. Jost believed that the success and meaningfulness of his film could only be gauged

“to the extent that it articulates and clarifies an awareness already inherent, however submerged and suppressed, in its viewer” (Jost: 1975).

However, it is now the submersion and suppression of our awareness and self-awareness that is brought to bear through the destruction of the U.S. social, moral and physical landscape. Shortly after the completion of The Bed You Sleep In, Jost would begin a long period of exile in Europe. The fictional events of this film also provide an infelicitous and eerie echo of tragic events in Jost’s own personal life. After moving to Portugal, his own daughter was kidnapped by his ex-partner Teresa Villaverde, who then made a film called Sal e Agua (2001) that provided the mother’s account of the abduction, using the young daughter as a main actress. Shortly afterwards, Jost’s ex-partner was granted sole custody by the Portuguese courts, and Jost has not seen his daughter again to this day. He would later make an experimental digital video piece called Passages (2006), which was dedicated to his daughter as a form of love-poem, and he has maintained an online blog containing letters directly addressed to his daughter and copies of past correspondence between himself and his estranged partner.[29]

In this sense, rival accounts from estranged partners and the collapse of all bonds of trust between family members mirror the traumatic events of Jost’s fictional film. This also means that the inter-twined issues of trust and social collapse now gain an added tragic poignancy when viewing The Bed You Sleep In some twenty years later. Although I have contrasted the narrative aspects of the later film against the auto-biographical elements of the earlier film and have also drawn attention to the unique aesthetic features of Jost’s work as a fiction director, both films now stand much more closely together as highly complementary pieces. They highlight the extremely complex issues of personal relationships and how these are negotiated in communities whose political, economic, and ethical values are far from ideal. But what was previously a bold call for reflection and self-control in the earlier film is now deeply colored by a frank acknowledgement of our immense proclivities for denial and self-denial.

This is an admittedly bleak note on which to end my analysis of Jon Jost’s The Bed You Sleep In. Nevertheless, it remains my hope that this essay has conveyed something of the film’s aesthetic sophistication and deeply felt ethical concerns, which will serve as a modest contribution to increasingly greater critical engagement with the work of one of the United States’ most prolific and creative visual artists.