April 22, 2014.
Following nearly 5 months of travels, mostly in Europe, but the last one in the USA, you’d think that one ought – perhaps especially at my age (about 71 now) – to be tired and ready to kick back and do some serious R&R. And maybe I should. But instead I seem to have re-upped for getting this essay actually done, despite the lack of “official” support thus far from those few with whom I rolled the dice. As written a while ago, this can be discouraging. And, given the social and political whiff of the times, coupled with my wanderings through the derelict small towns of America, battered by our corporatized/globalized economic over-seers, it seems even more reasonable to toss up your hands in despair and say WTF! (As in Why The Fuck?) However….
Seems not to be in the genes, and prompted by the encouragement of one quite young veteran of Occupy Wall Street, who, in keeping with the times, was “net-met,” and the other who came to a screening some many years ago (200&) in Boston and talked with me, the past months have only seen me tilting back to withdrawing my toss of the towel of a year ago, and digging in to get this work done. The two are Daniel Levine, who was a 2nd-day OWS participant and wrote a book (Every Time I Check My Messages Somebody Thinks I’m Dead: A Memoir of Occupy Wall Street) on his experience, and his friend Brian Spellman – whom I met again in person in NYC a month and some ago. Daniel had helped a lot on my efforts to help fellow filmmaker Mark Rappaport, and prodded me not to give up on Plain Songs. He, along with Brian, prevailed. They will be heading out themselves to travel parts of the USA, shooting and exploring, trying to grapple with the State of the Nation, as I did decades ago. Frankly I have never ceased to wrestle with this country – whether in these essay films, or the fictions which largely provide a portrait of my time, firmly rooted in place.
So we’ll give it another shot. With their help and participation, and perhaps yours (I’ll be doing a fund-raiser later, as well as asking for other things, from a place to stay to information to contacts to people I would like to talk with and shoot), hopefully this will happen.
OWS, in the nature of current times, seems almost of another era, so swiftly does “history” slip by in this electronically tight-knit world. Some of my friends – of my era – have been dismissive of OWS, suggesting that it lacked the organizational stuff for staying-power, unlike the civil rights or anti-Vietnam (and draft) movements of my youth. And while in my day, yes, red squad cops sat outside my north-side shared apartment, and yes, I spent a few years in prison for resisting the draft and what it fed, and yes the FBI nosed about to ill effect, I can still say that back then we didn’t face the quasi-invisible force of a coordinated national-security State apparatus in conjunction with a thoroughly corporate-own mass media system, which did indeed, once it decided to do so, crush OWS on a national scale, swiftly and somewhat effectively. I doubt my peers would have withstood such a concerted, orchestrated attack. For me, the mere fact that after OWS we have the public concept of the 99% and the 1%, and that our national political conversation includes the words “plutocracy” and “oligarchs” is in itself a really major step. And my hunch is that many of those who participated in and were effected by OWS (even my sister!) are simmering away, off-screen, undefeated.
Dan and Brian figure to head out shooting sometime in May, east coast to mid-west. They’re doing a crowd-funding effort to raise a bit to cover their travel costs – see this. I’ll be starting again, shortly, enroute back to Butte, via a zig-zag route through Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, southern Colorado and then on up north. In Butte I’ll stick on the thinking cap and begin to organize thoughts, down-load material off the net, and begin to hammer the images, thoughts, and everything else, into something coherent, passionate, and accurate. And try to find some help in the form of funding, one way or another.
I look forward to collaborating with Dan and Brian, and seeing what their perceptions are – helps to have a nice generational leap involved.
Below I print the description of this project which I wrote in applying for a Radcliffe grant (turned down.)
Jon Jost: PLAIN SONGS: Essaying America
Proposal for Radcliffe Fellowship:
PLAIN SONGS: Essaying America will be a continuation of two previous essay-films, Speaking Directly (1973) and Plain Talk & Common Sense (1987), each of which attempted to wrestle with the idea of America, what it is, and what our relation to it is. The new work will update those works, shifting terms to fit electronic media and the possibilities it presents, and likewise shifting to accommodate the changes in America and in my perceptions in the intervening time. I anticipate a sprawling multi-part work, 8-12 hours in cumulative length, broken into a handful of separate elements each able to stand alone, but also to be seen together in a mutually supportive manner. It should function as single, if rather long, “film,” but elements would lend themselves to being presented as installation works, or in varying other forms, such as on-line Vimeo pieces, or as a mixed-media photo/audio exhibit. It will be blogged with photographs, writings and video posts as it is made.
PLAIN SONGS will be composed of a handful of distinct and separate works, which belong together, and could be seen as a single long work, but can also be engaged as individual stand-alone pieces, linked in theme, content and aesthetics. I anticipate a length of 8 – 12 hours total.
Of the sections, I am sure there will be the following:
A visual portrait, probably without comment, of the landscape of America – rural, urban, suburban, industrial, from north to south, east to west. This will include the majestic natural landscape, as well as the dense urban world, the sprawl of suburban megacities, and the ravaged landscape of industrial extraction. Imagery will be subtly re-worked in many instances, lending a near-mystical/epic quality to the work – a kind of symphonic landscape of “the good” and “the bad.” Included will also be passages of our social culture in its many facets.
100 one-minute video shots of Americans, against a black background. The selection will be statistically accurate as to age, ethnic background, economic status, location. Subjects can say their name, where they are or are from, and whatever else they may wish. The 100 shots will be selected from an intended collection of at least 1000 such images.
• America: a discourse
A 90 – 120 minute sequence of Americans of differing backgrounds telling their views of America now and its apparent future. This will include experts in differing aspects of our society – economics, culture, politics – as well as laymen. The sequence will be composed solely of close-ups of green-screened face shots, in which the subjects are asked to tell, in layman’s language, their vision, rooted in their particular expertise and/or experience, in about 30 minutes. These shots will be edited to compose a kind of national conversation of a kind which one could not attain by having the people all together talking.
• Democracy in America?
A discursive essay, loosely reflecting de Tocqueville’s book, structurally similar to my previous American essay films. It will be a commentary on the State of the Nation, drawn from my observations of the year and a half during which the film will be shot (began in May 2012), and from a lifetime of critical engagement with my country.
A very likely lyrical coda for all of the above, composed as a kind of visual music, something to tie it together in an emotional summary. Much of the material may be drawn from the other sections, but certainly not all.
There may be other sequences discovered in the coming travels which are needed or found, which will be included.
I began shooting material for this work in May 2012, and will continue shooting until at least Oct. 2013, and most likely well beyond. Where possible I am editing as I travel, finding the form and content of the film as it is shot. It will involve a considerable amount of relatively complex editing and “post” work, the nature of which will reveal itself as material is shot. I expect the whole work to require around 3 years of time.
While often “intellectual,” my creative process is at this juncture highly intuitive. I liken it to a jazz musician: one knows deeply how to play, one takes a theme and improvises, in a sense, without thought – one simply plays. I have made films for 49 years, and I know my instruments.
The work will embrace, intellectually and verbally, as well as visually, a rich background of American cultural touchstones: Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Melville, Dreiser, as well as many other literary and socio-political sources, up to the present. Visually it will evoke a wide range of American sources from the Hudson River Valley School of painters, to Bierstadt, as well as more recent artists from Hopper to O’Keefe to Jasper Johns, Rauschenberg, pop artists, to the sublime of James Turrell. Likewise the photography of Muybridge, Sullivan, Jackson and on to contemporaries, from Robert Frank to Walker Evans to Joel Sternfeld to Eggleston and many others will be indirectly acknowledged, as will the continuum of American music. All of these cultural and social referents will be subsumed into the work, rather than cited specifically, or shown. In a sense, they are America.
Note: Speaking Directly, (110 mins,16mm color), was made for $2,000 in 1972-3, under conditions of utter poverty, though it subsequently was broadcast on Britain’s Channel 4, and is in the archives of the Netherlands Film Institute, Freunde der Deutschen Kinemathek, Berlin, and the BFI in Britain. Plain Talk and Common Sense, (100 mins, 16mm color), was made in 1987 for $25,000 for Channel 4; it was invited to the Whitney Biennial of that year and shown widely at festivals. Both films in my eyes are rough technically, courtesy of the very limited funding and the nature of 16mm film.
[A last little note: I hope in the coming weeks to get both Speaking Directly and Plain Talk, along with other films, up on a Vimeo VOD channel. Meantime I am organizing a west to mid-west journey from Butte to Lincoln NE, where screenings of 7 or more films is planned for Nov 7 - 15 at the Ross Cinema there - I am looking for paid screening/talks/workshops anywhere along the way, including swings 1000 miles distant. Please contact me if you can help secure such at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks much.]