Giving Hollywood The Brush-Off
INTERVIEW Filmmaker John Jost rejects slick productions
PARK CITY, UTAH — INDEPENDENT filmmakers fall into different camps. Some can't wait to ``go Hollywood,'' while others take ornery pride in their marginal status. Jon Jost belongs to neither group. In his view, mainstream filmmaking is beset by compromise and mediocrity, and he wants nothing to do with it. Yet he would like his voice to be heard beyond the small circle of movie buffs who take a special interest in offbeat works.
You might call him a maverick among mavericks, except that he disdains such labels, which tend to solidify his status as a filmmaker for the few. At a time when some cineastes equate independence with integrity, Mr. Jost is striving to escape all motion-picture ghettos.
``The myth of `independence,' imposed from without, is actually a form of prison,'' he wrote to me in a recent letter, rejecting the avant-garde mystique as firmly as he rejects the Hollywood marketplace.
A wider audience may now be discovering Jost's work, however. He arrived at the recent Sundance Film Festival here with a pair of new movies in tow: ``All the Vermeers in New York,'' a delicately filmed drama about the chance relationship between a French actress and an art-loving Manhattan stockbroker; and ``Sure Fire,'' a ferocious look at jealousy and machismo in a rural American family. Both films have a polish and professionalism that should appeal to mainstream audiences as well as the specialized viewers who have been Jost's primary admirers in the past.
Adding to the momentum is a traveling Jost retrospective that had its premi`ere recently at New York's Museum of Modern Art, presenting 11 features and 10 shorts that he has directed, photographed, and edited over the past 28 years.
It's hard to pigeonhole Jost's work, which covers a great deal of cinematic territory. ``Rembrandt Laughing'' is a bittersweet drama about love and longing among a group of San Francisco friends. ``Last Chants for a Slow Dance (Dead End)'' studies the events leading to a violent crime. ``Plain Talk & Common Sense (uncommon senses)'' is a politically charged travelogue across the American landscape. ``Stagefright'' is an avant-garde collage that mingles slow-motion slapstick with horrific war footage and ironic monologues. ``Angel City'' mixes a detective story with a critique of the Hollywood mentality. Each new film is as unpredictable as the last.
Not all of them work equally well. The slow-moving romantic melodrama ``Slow Moves,'' for instance, has moments of sheer tedium as well as flashes of heady exhilaration. Though Jost earns applause for the audacity behind his project, which began when he walked into a Butte, Montana, pub and let it be known that he'd like to improvise a movie with people he'd never met before. The film should be considered not only as a drama, but also as a record of Jost's evolving relationships with the non -actors who invested time and creativity in his venture.
Jost wants his movies to be accessible, but not in a slick or vulgar way. ``People who have access to an audience have a tremendous responsibility,'' says a character in the highly experimental ``Stagefright,'' who might be speaking for Jost himself. ``But far too often that responsibility is abused, misused.''
Since the nature of art and entertainment reflects the nature of the society that produces it, Jost sees all his works as political statements, even when this isn't obvious in their content. ``I imagine most people would not think of a film like `Rembrandt Laughing' in political terms,'' he told me recently. ``But to me it's political to make a $10,000 movie with your friends, about life. How the films are made is an essential aspect of their politics, because politics is living. It's what you do when y ou live out your everyday life.''
Jost wants to share this message with a large audience, but finds it isn't easy in the current moviegoing climate. ``I feel ridiculous making political films that never get [widely] seen,'' he says. ``It's hard psychologically to say `I'm going to spend two years working on something' ... knowing it may be seen by nobody that I want to have see it. Effectually, this is to not have spoken.... In real terms, in political terms, it's whistling in the dark.''
Despite such frustrations, Jost feels a change for the better may arrive soon for filmmakers who don't swim in the mainstream - because the Hollywood system fails to make sense. ``Just like other things in the culture,'' Jost maintains, ``the logic that governs Hollywood and that whole realm has gotten too bloated to be supportable. The logic says you must have a star, but the star wants $10 million. So now you must get a crackerjack director, but the director wants $2 million. Before you know it you've spent $30 million, and for what? A piece of entertainment. So you make it the kind of entertainment that you know pays back the money at the box office. Usually it's what made money last year - more heads blown off, more special effects, more bombastic Dolby sound effects, more meaningless garbage.''
People will draw a line
This pattern can't go on forever, Jost continues. ``I think [commercial filmmaking] may finally shrivel back to something that's marginally more proportional to what movies hypothetically can and should be about,'' he says. ``I'm modestly hopeful because I think things go in cycles, and people will finally get fed up with having their ears rattled off and watching bodies get dismembered in the name of so-called entertainment - this mindless, formulaic stuff. Whether it's a `human interest' drama or an a dventure flick, people finally say `Enough!' and want something small and simple that happens to be about something they can relate to, like their lives!''
Jost himself doesn't patronize Hollywood films very often. He rarely went to movies as a child, and saw only a few during each of his college years. When he decided to turn his ``bohemian'' interests toward filmmaking, he gave himself a ``crash course'' in a Chicago movie theater - seeing two movies each day for a month - and decided that was all the background he needed.
An artist's vision
``I'm basically self-taught,'' he says with a smile. ``I never thought about how you're supposed to do it. I just got a camera and started doing it.''
Why did cinema attract him as a filmmaker if not as a filmgoer? ``I'm a very visual person,'' he answers. ``But at the same time I'm intellectual, I'm verbal, I can write, I do music. So film is something that can grab my full attention.''
If there is a single thread running through Jost's work, it's his desire to give a voice to people who would otherwise be unable to express the meanings and feelings of their lives through art. Sometimes he does this directly, by letting non-actors play starring roles in improvised films. And sometimes he does it indirectly, by focusing his stories on awkward or inarticulate characters who would never appear in Hollywood films.
``I know I have a skill,'' Jost says. ``I know I'm good at what I do - whether other people like it or not - and I feel it's a service to offer to people who don't have the capacity to articulate their world for themselves.
``There are a lot of people in this world, and we're not all beautiful or handsome or witty, and we don't all have a snappy line to close the scene. We fumble around, we make mistakes, we have little tragedies. But these little tragedies [can seem] just as big as the [Persian Gulf] tragedy.... So it was a very conscious political-moral decision for me - to say I want to make films about those kinds of people!''