Monday, October 11, 2010

"Darkness" indeed: Jay Rosenblatt's recent films get a one-week run at MOMA--whew!

Sit down for just 75 minutes with these five films from Jay Rosenblatt, and you'll get up -- if you can get up: this may take awhile -- chastened, saddened, maybe a little wiser, certainly more thoughtful than when you took that seat. The award-winning, San Francisco-based filmmaker (shown above and new to me until now) loves "found footage." When you see what he's discovered on film (some of which was simply tossed out from film libraries, once video made its appearance) and what he does with this in terms of ideas, voice, music and of course those visuals, you'll better appreciate how an artist can create a vision from the "found."

Beginning Wednesday, October 13 and playing for six days at MoMA's The Roy and Niuta Titus Theaters is a program entitled The Darkness of Day: Recent Films of Jay Rosenblatt.  I am not certain how the museum's film program has organized the showings, but I watched the five films in the following order, and I don't think I would have garnered more or less from the viewing by switching that order around.

AFRAID SO (from 2006) lasts but three minutes and is filled with mordant wit as a voice (belonging to Garrison Keillor) asks us many of the questions to which the short's title might provide an answer -- for instance, "Will this hurt?" -- as an appropriate visual is seen on screen. The film's inspiration is a poem by Jeanne Marie Beaumont. While our various dreads and anxieties are the conscious subject, you could also take these few darkly hilarious minutes as a compact look at the downside of life itself. Of course, you'd have to be awfully negative -- or realistic -- to do something like that.

I JUST WANTED TO BE SOMEBODY (2006) lasts ten minutes and in that time tells the Anita Bryant homophobe/orange juice story and reaches, I think, an oddly positive and rather different "take" on the tale. This is the one film of Rosenblatt's whose footage struck me an anything but found. It had to have been "looked for" at the outset, as it concerns Miss Bryant -- her life and times -- all the time, from big-time to bankruptcy. We see the highlights (and low-lights: Ah, that pie in the face!) as the filmmaker simply shows Anita at work and play, with her family (and family values) intact. For awhile. In the end, turning scripture against her deeds, Rosenblatt arrives at a most interesting conclusion.

PRAYER (2002), another three-minute movie, is the only one in the bunch to leave me cold. This may be entirely due to my non-belief in god (at least in terms of how any human being so far has been able to describe her/him/it to me) and so watching folk praying grew tiresome fast. In any case, the shots, one after another, of different nationalities/religions with their eyes and hands, lifted or bowed in prayer, is said in the press notes to be a response to 9/11.
An ironic one, I would hope.

THE DARKNESS OF THE DAY, Rosenblatt's newest work (2009) begins and ends with images of grief.  The subject here is suicide, but seen from so many different angles (some of them more positive on the subject than others) that we come away from the film not just sadened but in wonder and amazement. This is true in particular of one old couple who wants to die together. The two clearly love their two children and hope they will understand. If they have raised the kids as well as it appears they have, those grown children, through their grief, certainly will. Other suicides, perhaps not so necessary, Rosenblatt's far-reaching mind and eye also encompass. We see the Golden Gate Bridge being constructed and the joy San Franciscans found in its opening -- and then we learn about the jumpers. I often took the verbal or written narration, when the pronoun "I" was used, as a stand-in for Rosenblatt himself. But this may not be the case -- as with the story of the massage therapist that leads off the 26-minute film. Rosenblatt's combination of image, sound, narration and music often evokes great feeling. Yet we never wallow. There's too much intelligence on view for that.

THE PHANTOM LIMB (2005) is another film about loss and grieving, and here again, I was certain that the dead brother whose story leads off the film and whom the narrator speaks of as "my brother" was indeed Rosenblatt's sibling  Perhaps not. This does not really matter to the film, for the loss and grief shown cut across families and nationalities and are simply part of the human condition. In the filmmaker's short biography, it is noted that he has a Master's Degree in Counseling Psychology and "in a former life" worked as a therapist.  This 28-minute movie is therapy -- and such a fine example of it that I think it should be a part of any grief counseling program. It approaches its subject artfully instead of with finger wagging or those not-so-helpful to-do lists. There are some very strange and wonderful connections to be made here, as with the scene in which a sheep is sheared. And the final shot of babies, as I have never seen them, is almost mind-boggling. However dark his subject, Rosenblatt's art seems to open our wounds, the better to clean them, and then -- for this is the achievement of great art -- somehow soothes them, too.

Click here then scroll down for screening dates and times, then go back to top and click on BUY TICKETS.

(Photos above are from the films themselves -- except that if Mr. Rosenblatt, top, which is taken from his website.) 

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