2016, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 57, summer 2016
Jon Jost’s The Bed You Sleep In: art, truth, and subversion.
by Hing Tsang
Just over forty years ago, an important essay by Julia Lesage (reprinted in this issue) championed the early work of celebrated U.S. independent filmmaker Jon Jost, praising both its formal innovation and socio-political relevance. The film in question was Speaking Directly: Some American Notes, an essay film that according to Lesage took much from the highly personal and often autobiographically flavored work of U.S. writers such as Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson, Herman Melville, and Sylvia Plath, yet it was also informed by the political and formal experimentation of Jean Luc Godard and Jean Pierre Gorin. Lesage remarked that Jost’s film was a “gentler, more personable, more humane, and very U.S. version” of the Marxist post- 68 work from the two French filmmakers. Her essay also emphasized that the film was distinct from the closure of either narrative fiction or the linearity of documentary, but it also attempted to link personal and collective concerns in a way that as an audience we “question our and others’ experiences.” This was also achieved through an emphasis on locality and place—characterized by a “human use of the environment” that took into account the often improvised and uncertain nature of our emergent historical and political relationships. Lesage ends her analysis in an open fashion, wondering how Jost would develop these themes in his subsequent work.
What follows is an attempt to answer this, with special reference to one of Jost’s most acclaimed and accessible features called The Bed You Sleep In (1993). This was a film that was part of a long career that continues to blur the boundaries between experimental practice, documentary, and fiction through practice that has been exhibited in cinemas and art galleries as well as being broadcast on television in Europe and the United States.
The Bed You Sleep In arguably represents Jost at the height of his powers during his foray into more narrative-style filmmaking in the 1990s. Jost had recently won the John Cassavetes Lifetime Achievement Award in 1991, and his work was both publically funded and seen at film festivals and in art cinemas. At the time of its release, the film was highly praised by Jonathan Rosenbaum, as a “tragic, beautiful, and mysterious film” (1995) . Outside of the United States, the Australian film scholar, Adrian Martin, described the film as a “brilliant corrosive work” (1995). Taken together with two other films, which also starred the same actor Tom Blair—Last Chants for a Slow Dance (1977) and Sure Fire(1989-1990)—Martin has also claimed that The Bed You Sleep In was part of “one of the greatest, most important and powerful bodies of work in all cinema.” More recently, in a book about independent U.S. cinema, the British film critic, Geoff King, draws our attention to the fact that the film is a narrative centering on the break down of trust within family relationships which nevertheless radically subverts Hollywood norms of continuity and mise en scène, straddling the line between “avant-garde abstraction and more costly narrative film production” (2005: 139). While a little more needs to be explained about the avant-garde elements in Jost’s work, it should be noted that Jost’ working practice has always been more akin to the artisanal practices associated with documentary and experimental filmmaking. With little more assistance than that of a sound recordist and a camera assistant, Jost has always operated his own camera and edited his films.
It is important to note as well that Jost’s work (at this stage of his career) is resolutely narrative. This can be more readily understood through a brief overview of the film’s plot and formal structure. The film is a story of an ostensibly happily married middle-aged man who is a nature lover and the owner of a lumber mill in a small U.S. town. His life is turned upside down when he is accused by his second wife Jean of sexually abusing his own daughter Tracy. Ray denies this, but we later learn that the daughter has committed suicide. Upon returning home, Ray finds that Jean has taken his own life. Unable to bear this he shoots himself at the end of the film. In other words, this is a tight story with a classical structure, involving a limited amount of characters, which takes place in a unified time and place. The location in which the film was shot is a small town called Toledo which had seen much better days, especially during the long-gone heyday of the timber trade. Jost also wanted to represent something quite general that was directly relevant to the contemporary United States. On repeated occasions, Jost has defined the film as a testament to the breakdown of social trust and dialogue within the United States, referring both to the hysteria surrounding issues of childhood sexual abuse and a more widespread deterioration of all areas of public discourse. Shouting and accusation replaced listening and understanding.
Nevertheless, it should be noted at this stage that the film is also characterized by extended moments when the camera moves away from the characters and their story to look languidly at images of nature, the workplace and winding narrow country roads, producing “a sense of the mood and texture” of small-town America (King 2005: 140). Indeed, over a third of the film shows pure descriptions of workplaces and landscapes, some of which do not feature people. The duration of the shots—many of which last over two minutes and are entirely static—exceed what viewers might be used to experiencing within a narrative feature or even an informative documentary.
But it is here that a recent essay by Lesage can also inform our engagement with the seemingly more forbidding experimental elements in much of Jost’s work. Rather than emphasising the “abstract nature” of avant-garde practices, she refers instead to what she calls the “lyrical avant garde,” embodied in the work of contemporary colleagues of Jon Jost, most notably Leighton Pierce, but also Bruce Baille, Gunvor Nelson and Midi Onodera. She contextualizes this practice through making connections with a documentary description of place. Lesage tells us that “objects and environments always have a story to tell about social relations, about what’s unique and typical.” For the filmmaker, this is accompanied by a strong acknowledgement of the importance of visual pleasure and an engagement with the aesthetics of film craft. Lesage remarks that
“great viewing pleasure comes when a film/video maker structures a vision of everyday spaces for me so that I can attend to urban and domestic locales in ever new ways, and I return to the such films to re-experience their expressive perspectives.”
These remarks highlight both the importance of our ever shifting relation to place and the role that film as a creative art form has to play in renewing and transforming these relationships.
And this is an important idea during a time when there has arguably been a reification of form within mainstream U.S. fiction filmmaking. This is implicit in David Bordwell’s recent writing on cinematic staging. He reminds us that “the standard scene remains a conversation” within much commercial fiction practice. Bordwell also refers to a generalized “stand and deliver approach.” This is characterized by an “intensified continuity” style (2005: 22), dependent on the use of master shots and reverse close-ups; it has been influenced by standardized television practice across all continents (30). As an alternative, Bordwell recommends “depth-oriented” cinematic direction in which “staging and editing cooperate” (17). Bordwell applies this concept of depth-oriented directing through an analysis of the work of filmmakers such as Mizoguchi, Angelopoulos, and Hou Hsiao-hsien. But Bordwell’s overall account of filmmakers, as active agents in the pursuit of their craft, working within specific social contexts, also applies to the work of Jon Jost.
And with equal relevance to what I am trying to say in this essay, Adrian Martin, has recently espoused an idea of “social mise en scène.” He highlights the social commitments of the filmmaker, so that we are aware of contexts as well as the long established rituals and habits that are then defamiliarized and even contested within a given film (2014:129-131). Martin is careful to remind us that he does not want to repeat the tired tropes of “auteur theory” but instead draws our attention to shared engagement with “the newly grasped raw material of social codes.” It is then that “known rituals are recreated, marked, inscribed in the flow of the film, usually in order to be transformed” (Martin 2014: 134). Nevertheless, what both Lesage and Martin have referred to in terms of “ritual” and “interaction” takes place in a physical environment whose physical and temporal depth is expressed through camera position and composition. This is what I shall now attend to first of all. Jon Jost’s The Bed You Sleep In is very much a film about place.
Jon Jost’s dramatic landscapes
Jost’s landscape shots are integrated within the overall aesthetic of his films. Intimate narrative sequences which highlight human interaction are interposed amongst lengthy sequences that draw our attention to the wider social and geographical contexts of the region. In this sense, the overall structure of this later film, The Bed You Sleep In, shares much in common with the earlier 1970s film, Speaking Directly, in regard to which Lesage referred to the juxtaposition of more “homely” sequences and other more abstract sequences that described the global realpolitik of the United States in the early 1970s.
Almost twenty years later in a film likewise shot in Oregon, in The Bed You Sleep In Jost begins and ends his narrative with the world of work and the factory. The film does not so much convey a picture of unmediated nature but rather the often uneasy relations between humans and nature at the end of the 20th century, constantly being worked out in provisional and contested terms. The film begins with extended sequences of the logging mill, lasting over three minutes; it ends with a wide shot of the hills desolated by long-term deforestation.
Furthermore, if we look at individual compositions in formal terms, we see that Jost emphasizes deep perspective so that we gain a sense of an evolving social world. Within the shots of the workplace, the use of a wide lens and accompanying depth of field provide strong perspectival lines, drawing our attention towards both the centre and exterior of the composition. Planks of wood or logs at the bottom frame point perpendicularly to the centre of the composition and also overlap with the borders of the frame so that we have a sense of a world outside the frame.
Part of the reason for the dynamism within the individual frame lies in the fact that this particular town has a hilly landscape, allowing Jost to include the paper mill and the logging factory juxtaposed within one single shot. This often gives a slightly cartographical feel to the film; the landscape shots link individual viewers to a wider landscape without such an image ever becoming the equivalent of a scientific view from nowhere. Therefore, in one of the first compositions we see traces of the paper mill from the perspective of the logging mill. The camera is positioned for a slightly high angle shot that privileges the perpendicular lines of the foreground. These perpendicular lines are also perspectival lines, whose vanishing point lies just to the right of the paper mill in the distant background.
Formally, this composition anticipates much of the deep staging and aesthetic concerns of the rest of the film. The fact that the smoke of the paper factory almost engulfs a group of trees and is seen from the perspective of another workplace that employs local people anticipates the themes of community, labor and (global) environment also highlighted in the film. But it is also an extremely ambivalent image that anticipates the epistemological and ethical questions explored in explosive terms later in the film. Implicit here is an acknowledgement that we perceive reality from a situated perspective that reflects a specific historical horizon not of our own making. The individual’s view is limited and deeply colored, for better or for worse, by the beliefs of the communities one identifies with. But Jost’s visual style here also hints at the importance of lived perception and our need to see our shared world in ways that exceed the contingent and take into account wider global contexts.
Nevertheless, it suffices at this stage to highlight the painterly nature of Jost’s imagery. Color and light are equally as important as line within Jost’s compositions. Strong contrasts between bright and shaded areas contribute to the internal dynamism within the frame. Tonal contrast contributes to the energy of the overall composition where shaded areas occupy most of the upper part of the frame. Small objects such as a brightly illuminated car parked on a more diagonally-orientated road break up the composition, preventing it from being monotonous or oppressive. In fact, Jost’s practice takes much from the pictorial disciplines of painting and photography. Jost himself has often spoken about his admiration for other visual artists, referring in particular to the paintings of Edward Hopper—where strong tonal contrasts are further broken up by small but very visible objects or human figures often placed away from the center of the frame. Jost has also expressed his admiration for the landscape photography of Joel Sternfeld. The work of this U.S. photographer is notable for its use of strong diagonals within compositions that document across urban and rural contexts neo-liberalism’s excesses and its detrimental effects on the quality of life. In Sternfeld’s work (and Jost’s), roads and railway tracks are foregrounded in a way that they break up the frame either laterally or twisting into the distance. We gain a view of the environment which might be lyrical but does not shy away from focusing on the effects of industrialization and consumer culture.
Perhaps even more well-known is Jost’s long-term admiration of Vermeer. He refers directly to the Dutch artist’s existing work in the eponymously named film, All the Vermeers in New York (1990). Here, I can trace some of Vermeer’s influence on Jost’s visual style by recalling some of the observations of Svetlana Alpers in her analysis of Northern Painting. Alpers makes a clear distinction between the descriptive presentations of everyday life which characterize Dutch painting and the rhetorical persuasion and dramatic narratives of earlier Italian painting. She also draws our attention to cartographical elements within the Dutch painters’ composition, through their inclusion of maps and diagrams and the slightly heightened perspective of many of the paintings from this period. The U.S. theorist also draws links between painting, early lens culture, and mapping, where “the distinctions between measuring, recording, and picturing were blurred” (134); thus the paintings achieved through graphic description “a meeting place of the world seen and the world pictured” (35). Many of these kinds of visual concerns are reinvigorated in Jost’s work, as I shall attempt to demonstrate, although there are also major differences that reflect different worldviews of these artists across centuries.
Nevertheless, for the time being it suffices to note that Jost also uses flat planes that might otherwise block our perspectival vision within overall compositions that still suggest spatial depth. For example, the four following images which occur between more overtly dramatic sequences, flat surfaces are incorporated within compositions that overall still suggest depth and context.
In the first of these, the image’s flatness is broken up by both perpendiculars which draw our line of vision towards vanishing points which would otherwise be obscured, while in the second image perpendicular lines hint at the existence of a vanishing point far outside the frame’s right edge. Elsewhere, as we can see in an image of a small house and a larger town-building, the flatness of a surface, which is presented to us face-on, is broken up by dark foliage either in the foreground or the background. In the images, graphicality is always integrated with a painterly texture emphasized by strong tonal contrasts between light and shadow.
Pictoriality and social mise en scène
My emphasis on graphic elements and tonal contrast emphasizes the dramatic elements within Jost’s visual depiction of the Oregon landscape. Equally, it could also be argued that Jost’s visual approach to dramatic sequences with actors is also highly pictorial in a way that stands in contrast to much Hollywood production and televisual practice. For Jost offers something aesthetically much richer, through his use of composition, camera movement, and staging of characters within the social context of small-town United States.
This is evident in sequences that would otherwise resort to the kind of standard set-ups decried by Bordwell (2005) and Martin (2014). After an extended descriptive sequence that shows the mill’s workings, we are introduced to the mill owner, Ray, who is speaking to his colleague, Doug. In other words, this is a standard conversational set-up between two people. But immediately notable is the absence of a master shot that would allow us some kind of privileged access to the geography of the room. Instead, Jost employs “aperture framing.” This term, taken from Bordwell, simply means a frame within a frame. Jost uses the visual device to allow us equal and even access to the individual psychology of the close up, the inter-subjective interaction of a conventional two shot, and a wider sense of social geography. Therefore, the close ups either Ray or Doug include the window on either side of the frame or near center in the background. In addition, Jost’s aperture framing also includes maps and diagrams in the background, which break up the flat surfaces by adding tonal contrast and texture. The presence of maps which locate the mill within a specific local U.S. geography also remind us of the potential connections between the individual and the collective even if the events of the later sections of the film also show that these relations can be extremely fraught.
The individual close-ups themselves are also distinct from the symmetry and parity in shot-size associated with classic reverse shots in mainstream Hollywood films and across televisual practice. Instead of focussing our attention solely on faces and individual psychology, Jost’s compositions convey a sense of pictorial autonomy because of their internal dynamism. Backgrounds are broken up and the slightly off-center positioning of the human figure combine with background elements to create strong lines of vision that point outside of the frame at different angles. Such cinematographic composition is different from more televisual methods of breaking down a scene, where the most important concern is “matching” shots of human faces.
It should also be noted that the dialogue of the scene is rooted in the cadences of everyday speech yet still reflects widely held attitudes towards the United States’ precarious position on the global stage. The two men speak about everyday business procedure, before complaining about competition from Japan and also about local environmentalists. The acting here is extremely low key, as if we are eavesdropping on a private conversation between colleagues. Both men move rapidly between different topics, often not enouncing their words fully, sometimes looking away from one another—in a way that works in a differently from either Hollywood melodrama or televisual fiction. “Social mise en scène” is used here in such a way that we are immersed in the everyday attempts of people grappling with situations that are not of their own making and whose consequences they do not yet fully understand. Their attempts to attribute a poor business climate on environmentalism and competition from Japan ignore many complex factors such as the long-term effects of over-logging and the many changes within economies of scale and technology. In other words, Ray and Doug are wrong about most things. But it should be noted that Lesage elsewhere has also reminded us that the emergence of social identity is always provisional and fallible, and “we may also want to show how they or we misrecognize ourselves, misunderstand our own identity or social roles” (2014). It is the tragic dimension of these issues that I will be bringing to the fore in the latter part of this essay.
Nevertheless, for the time being, I would note that Jost’s The Bed You Sleep In is not strictly speaking a documentary in formal or technical terms. In contrast to the spontaneous practice of, say, Frederick Wiseman or the Maysles brothers, Jon Jost’s film is a fictional narrative that was fully scripted before shooting, unlike some of his earlier improvised fiction films. It is therefore characterized by a formal control associated with fiction film direction that also allows us access to intimate scenes amongst its characters that would be intrusive in non-fictional contexts.
This can be seen in a short romantic interlude that portrays the seemingly loving relationship between Ray and his second wife Jean. The scene is simple enough. We see a middle-aged couple prepare a picnic. They kiss and then leave frame to make love. But here I want to show how Jost’s economy of means provides us both with a sense of the environment and also strong emotional empathy for his protagonists.
The sequence consists of just two shots, but it is the combination of camera position, choreography of actors and accompanying camera movement that sustain and heighten our involvement as viewers. Jost begins with a wide shot that is framed from a high angle, allowing us to see the textures of both the wood and the table. His choreography of the actors also allows the characters to enter the frame individually at slightly perpendicular angles, thus adding to the depth within the frame. As an audience we are able to see the full-bodied gestures and rhythms of two individual people who have become totally at ease with one another. It is only after we see Jean place food on the table and the couple have sat down on the flat surface in such a way that we see them frontally that Jost cuts to a tighter shot. This shot, which is filmed almost over Jean’s shoulder, reminds us of her status as a strong confident woman. The height of the camera gives even more prominence to the textures of the woodland and the interplay between light and shadow. The sequence ends with a pan that follows the couple embracing and leaving the frame to make love, so that as viewers we are left with a view of strong sunlight shining through the trees.
Therefore, in a relatively short and simple sequence we can see Jost as a painterly visual artist who explores the interplay between texture, light and color. But we are also aware of Jost as a fiction director, where composition, choreographed movement within the frame, and co-ordinated camera movement work in tandem in a way which is consonant with Bordwell’s attention to cinema’s potential to combined both theatricality and pictoriality (2005: 9). And finally, we also sense an underlying documentary attention to the daily details of working people’s lives in Jost’s work, which in this particular instance is marked by lyricism and gentle sensuality.
Nevertheless, the apparent harmony between husband and wife is short lived and never again repeated. Instead, the film proceeds to demarcate distinct spaces for men and women. We become increasingly aware of two distinct physical and mental “worlds” within Jost’s account of small-town United States. Men are seen going out and about in the town, conducting their business activities, eating and drinking with other men, or fishing together near a stream. These activities, which occur either outdoors or in brightly lit interiors, are contrasted with the more intimate relationships between women that take place within the enclosed spaces of private homes. Behind these closed doors, Jost also presents us with forms of female communication and intuitive understanding that are more oblique yet more intimate than the different forms of male impression management, seen in this and other films by Jost. Most notably, we also become witnesses to conversations between women friends that confront the very dark side of human nature, which here includes physical and psychological abuse.
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. 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. 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).
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. 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.
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, 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. 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."
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. 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, 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.
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. 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. 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.
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.
(reprinted in this issue)
Lesage’s essay has also been highly influential upon my work on Jon Jost in my recent book—Semiotics and Documentary: The Living Sign in the Cinema (2013). In this book, I have employed a Peircean approach to film practice in order to offer an alternative to semiological and structural approaches.
2. Dennis Grunes has written extensively on both Jost’s earlier and more recent digital experimental work in his book on World Cinema (2010), which is an expansion of his online blog where he has written numerous reviews of Jost’s work:
Essays on Speaking Directly (1975) London Brief (1997) and Passages (2006) can also be found in Tsang (2013: 67-98).
5. This was originally part of a review by Martin in 1995 that is now available at his personal website: http://www.filmcritic.com.au
6. More information about the technical details of the film’s production can be be found at: http://www.jonjost.altervista.org/work/thebed2.html
7. See note 17, where I draw the reader’s attention to the long-term decline of the town.
8. More details about Jost’s motives for making the film and his methodology can be found on his own website:
10. Jost has expressed his admiration for the work of Leighton Pierce in the following essay; http://sensesofcinema.com/2002/feature-articles/pierce/
11. It is a very different Oregon that Jost has returned to in the 1990s. The state had experienced severe depopulation in the 1980s due to the decline of the timber industry. Some 750,000 people out of around 2.5 million had left the state.
12. It should be noted that this overlaps with Lesage’s critique of philosophical naturalism (2014), which “sees environment as overwhelmingly shaping people’s lives” and tends towards fatalism and reification. It could also be argued that the distance between the two workplaces is also an indirect testament to the longstanding decline of the logging industry and changing global contexts in which production processes and markets are geographically dispersed. Nevertheless, Jost’s film does not claim to be a factual documentary, and my analysis here is as much informed by U.S. philosophy, particularly the U.S. pragmatist tradition, which emphasizes both the notion of horizon and emergent but fallible human agency—see Tsang (2013).
13. These observations are also based on a series of conversations I undertook with Jon Jost during several visits to London between 2005 and 2008. I am extremely grateful for his generosity and his comments on an earlier embryonic draft of this essay.
14. Sternfeld’s work can be viewed on his own website: http://www.joelsternfeld.com
15. Bordwell refers to the widespread use of “formulaic decoupage” in European Art Cinema as much as in mainstream Hollywood cinema, with the result that “drama has been squeezed down to faces - particularly eyes and mouths” (2005: 141, 27).
16. Bordwell (2005: 104, 105, 119, 161-162, 210).
17. For more on location and social relations, see Doreen Massey, “Geographies of Responsibility,” http://oro.open.ac.uk/7224/1/geographies_of_responsibility_sept03.pdf
18. See Katz (1991) for many examples of classic cinematic and televisual uses of decoupage.
19. It should be noted as well that the decline of Toledo is something that has occurred over a much more extended time period than is accounted for by the conversations that we overhear in the film. Toledo had emerged as a boomtown soon after the country’s expansion west. At one time it possessed as many as eighty lumber mills, but it was already in decline by the 1920s. It had also been eclipsed by Newport, which became the new county seat in the 1950s.
20. In my conversations with Jost, he has spoken much about different male and female sensibilities, contrasting outward aggressiveness with tacit intuition This is evident to lesser and greater extents in Last Chants for a Slow Dance (1977) and Sure Fire (1989-90). Both films feature Tom Blair as a calculating and manipulative misogynist.
21. I have used Lesage’s phrase in order to highlight my indebtedness to her recent work http://www.ejumpcut.org/currentissue/LesagePerpetualSubversion/2.html
23. Also see Lesage: http://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/onlinessays/JC04folder/ScreenReviewed.html
24. It should be noted here that Jean and Beth’s remarks about the state of the U.S. economy are far less assertive or shrill than what is heard from Ray and Doug in the earlier office sequence. Jean also speaks about the consequences of long-term deforestation, which is strangely passed over by the menfolk in this film.
25. This also draws attention to the fact that Jost’s work from this period demands further critical attention and that further work would also examine female solidarity and agency in both Sure Fire (1988-1990) and Frame Up (1993).
26. For a concise and accessible account of epistemological defenses of Truth and its role in democratic deliberation see Misak (2000) and Talisse (2009). Talisse’s talk on epistemic democracy can also be viewed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hx147Cwnrew
27. It should be noted that deforestation had occurred in the region for a while already. The principles of sustainable harvest had been abandoned by the 1980s, and “old growth” trees were decimated as a result.
28. It is here that I wish to thank Julia Lesage and Chuck Kleinhans for their valuable and detailed observations about the demise of the timber industry and the complexity of its long-term causes and effects.
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