MUBI is continuing its partnership with DOK Leipzig to showcase highlights from their tribute Visual Electrics. The Cinema of Jay Rosenblatt in this year’s 60th festival edition. MUBI's retrospective is showing November 3, 2017 - March 4, 2018 in most countries around the world.
It is a common and justified rhetorical device to begin an article on the retrospective of a filmmaker with an impression, a little observation or the description of a scene. However, being confronted with the work of San Francisco-based found footage worker Jay Rosenblatt the idea of a single, autonomous moment vanishes behind multicolored layers of streaming emotions. Just a few days after the International Leipzig Festival for Documentary and Animated Film I find it enormously hard to remember a single scene. As the filmmaker said himself during one of the Q&A sessions in Leipzig, “They [the films] all kind of blend together.” Well, they do and in this one might find the personal, surreal and volatile strength of his work. One may also find some rather weak combinations of sound and image leading to such a forgetting. The latter occur when Rosenblatt tries to blend things that either feel too obvious or don’t relate at all. Most of the time, though, his films have the peculiar and fascinating quality of finding the right emotions in the seemingly wrong images.
Blending is a good word to describe what Rosenblatt is doing. He not only blends sound and image but also found footage and personal narration, home movies and big narrations, dreams and memories, as well as subjective poetry and generalizations. He has a unique approach to found footage. Mostly he uses material from educational or ephemeral films. Using this footage, he works on narrative and emotional structures. As he repeatedly tries to teach his daughter Ella in the extraordinary document of misguided (or at least troublesome) education called Beginning Filmmaking (2008): “You have to have an idea.” Filming Ella is one of Rosenblatt’s weaker ideas, which doesn’t mean that it isn’t a heartwarming thing to watch. Rosenblatt calls those films documentary comedies, though the only gag is mostly the sweetness of childhood and its relation to the camera. I Used to Be a Filmmaker (2003) is the best film of the four films shown starring Ella. In it Rosenblatt blends terms related to filmmaking like “handheld” with images of his own fatherhood, in this case the baby holding his hand. It is about new connotations—and this brings me back to his more complex found footage work.
Much beauty and truth in Rosenblatt’s films derive from putting unrelated images into context. He owns an archive consisting of educational films and sometimes does additional research when he searches for specific images, like for example the imploding buildings. Here, I come back to the importance of the “idea” in Rosenblatt’s work. It is a difficult concept as it denies cinemas ability to “just be.” When Ella wants to just film her cat it is not enough for her father Rosenblatt. He searches for a purpose in each image. In his most touching films, such as The D Train (2011) or Afraid So (2006), there is an uncanny sense to each image and the way it is moved. It seems like the most personal fears and memories do already exist before they are lived. Rosenblatt shows cinema’s ability not only to be a dream machine but even to have already produced all the memories and dreams before a life is lived. In other words: Your dreams have already been filmed. In The D Train Rosenblatt follows an old man on a train who sees his life passing by. As such, it is not a special story but the fact that it entirely consists of found footage which adds up to a life is marvelous and deeply touching. In this case each image has a particular function, it is the function of a personal memory. Within those subjective meanderings Rosenblatt’s films work best. Subjectivity for the filmmaker is also a rare openness towards personal issues which he confronts in his filmmaking, like the death of his brother in Phantom Limb (2005).
Afraid So is a different case as it blends surrealistic tendencies and fears with irony. Here the purpose of each image is a fear and its hypocrisy, not a memory. What unites both films is a density arising from a crystal clear meaning each image has in relation to the bigger narrative idea. Of course, with terms like dreams, fears and memory, Doctor Freud is not far away and indeed a while back Rosenblatt worked as a psychiatric counsellor. There is a psychological subtext in almost all his films. Even if psychological undertones can be a bit vague and often lie in the eye of the beholder, it became very clear during the retrospective that Rosenblatt is a convinced representative of what could be called confrontational cinema. Many of his films were done in order to challenge a certain topic, like the work of mourning, suicides or even a public person like former beauty queen and American anti-gay movement activist Anita Bryant. I Just Wanted to Be Somebody (2007) is the title of the work on Bryant. The film is done in a manner that feels at the same time like an appreciation and a condemnation of the person. One cannot help to feel a bit for her, yet it is very easy to hate her to the core. Like in one of Rosenblatt’s most famous films, Human Remains (1998), the banality of evil is presented in a way that makes even the most terrible dictators in human history appear as something we know from deep inside ourselves. Human Remains tells little anecdotes about the private life of Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Mao Zedong and Franco. The film gives voice to the dictators themselves by having actors speak in their respective language. There is a strong sense of curiosity and a need to understand what goes on behind the surface of human beings.
In all those films the images found respond to the voice-over narration and to what Rosenblatt calls “the idea.” In Phantom Limb, for example, his system does not work in such an effective and emotionally evasive manner. The film is one of the most confrontational in the director’s whole oeuvre, as it tackles the death of his brother. After a very personal account of his brother’s short life the film cuts to a montage sequence of houses being blasted. With this, the different stages of grief begin. This sequence comes as a surprise while watching (the same is true for an interview later in the film) because there is no concrete connection between image and emotion. It feels as if everything that was available suddenly had to be a stage of grief. Such a remark might be a little bit unfair, as Rosenblatt stated that in this case he intentionally searched for images of imploding buildings. The problem, I think, is that Rosenblatt so easily switches from the subjective to the universal. It is very hard to follow him if he applies those switches within one film. After a very concrete emotion related to a first person, almost diary-like account and personal images we suddenly have to endure a huge, universal metaphor on grief. A similar kind of inability to follow the sheer scale of emotions Rosenblatt asks for occurred to me while paying attention to his soundtracks. Mostly he uses classical music and the director definitely is not shy to implement the big names like Arvo Pärt and use his most famous work. In general, there is nothing to say against it but it never feels as if the images of Rosenblatt could exist without those pieces. Unlike, for example, Visconti’s famous use of Mahler, here the music is untouched by the images, it solely relates on an emotional level which it tries to underscore and enhance the story. This might also be the case because everything, and also the music, has to serve an “idea.”
Rosenblatt is clearly at his best when he works on simpler topics. The beautiful film Worm, in which the childhood story of raining worms comes to live through the power of imagination, is an example for this. Childhood was a constant companion during the retrospective in Leipzig. Here Rosenblatt finds something he might have lost. It is connected to all those dreams, memories, fears and imaginings that have already been filmed. As a child, maybe, one could still film them or at least discover how they were filmed. It is also the moment in our life when the concept of “idea” changes depending on what we see and not the other way around. Then everything blends together.