INTERVIEW: A Shorts History of Jay Rosenblatt
by Derek Horne
(indieWIRE/ 10.13.00) — For one week in August the marquee outside of New York’s Film Forum displayed an unusual title. “The Films of Jay Rosenblatt” caught casual observers off-guard, but to the seasoned festival-goer, it attracted an excited response. A short film program in a regular movie theatre? Was it a break-through, a sign of the times, or a fluke? Or could it be one of the pleasant side effects of the Internet’s indulgence in short films? “Hopefully this screening will open the door for other filmmakers with a body of short works,” says Rosenblatt. “Audiences have to be cultivated somewhere.”
“The dot-coms have created a more welcoming atmosphere for short films, but in the end it boils down to someone believing in the work and standing behind it,” Rosenblatt continues. “In this case it was Karen Cooper, the programmer of Film Forum.” Cooper had previously paired his short film “The Smell of Burning Ants” with the equally provocative feature film “Licensed to Kill,” directed by Arthur Dong. But after trying to find the perfect feature to match with his award-winning short film “Human Remains,” Cooper decided to combine all of his formally similar works into one cohesive program — what he calls his “Remix Flix.”
Rosenblatt’s films are collage-like, experimental documentaries that deconstruct our society and offer up personal viewpoints that are both humorous and poignant. The roots of his analytical and subconscious themes come from his previous career as a psychotherapist. Rosenblatt has successfully combined his artistic and psychological interests. “The urge to create is an integral part of being human. Once the filmmaking process is demystified people can use it to express themselves,” he says. Now that so many people are, in fact, using the medium for this purpose, one wonders if there’s now too many short films in the world? “There are if you try to watch them all,” Rosenblatt laughs. “Not all short films are worth watching, though.”
Yet neither are all features. There is the impression that a feature is superior to a short, because more work is put into it. Some shorts take just as much if not more effort than a feature; Rosenblatt spent three years on his short film “King of the Jews.” “Short films definitely have their own place in art like short stories,” he adds, citing that the Lumiere Brothers did not make features. “For feature films to work you need a narrative structure. Short films can work without that and so it frees up the filmmaker to devise new structures.”
One of Rosenblatt’s biggest influences was Chris Marker, whose film “Sans Soleil” inspired him to begin a project without a script and trust the creative process. His graduate thesis film “Paris X2” was the unexpected result of his trip to Europe and the breakup with his girlfriend that ensued. He looked through his raw footage of the trip and tried to recapture the past. “I filmed off of the TV monitor and did a lot of recontextualizing and degrading of images,” he says. “It reminded me of the myth of romantic love and how much we project in relationships.”
Whether using old newsreel footage to expose the personal eccentricities of dictators (“Human Remains“) or utilizing 50s training films to pinpoint the seeds of socialized brutality (“Smell of Burning Ants“), Rosenblatt’s reinterpretation of archival materials creates deeply resonating layers of meaning.
While his films are now seen in schools, social activist groups, and film festivals all over the world, Rosenblatt’s initial filmmaking goal 20 years ago was to improve the counseling techniques in his schools training program. He began with a short film to motivate his colleagues to reevaluate their client relationships and encourage more genuine communication and honest analysis. His earliest film “The Session” was about a therapist who is a mime, enacting everything the patient says such as “I feel boxed in” or “I feel at the end of my rope.” The therapist only becomes real at the end when he reaches out to touch the crying patient.
Years later, in “Short of Breath,” he scornfully dissects the inaccurate and condescending training films that were actually used in the sixties. “Doctors would watch these scenarios and score on a card which choice was the best response to a patient,” he said. “They were really corny yet a great way to structure my film.” The first scene of a crying female patient came from an old 16mm reel of footage found in a garbage dumpster behind the hospital where he worked. He looped the sound and optically printed the image to slow it down, creating an effective opening to a film about suicide and depression. “I wanted to start the film without a context so that the viewer might project their own feelings of pain,” Rosenblatt expains.
The inclusion of “Short of Breath” at the New Films, New Directors series in 1991 gave him the confidence to keep working in a similar style. His next film “The Smell of Burning Ants” shows male social conditioning using old educational films about kids with emotional problems, one of them appropriately titled “The Bully.” Jay was inspired to make the film after he remembered a story from his past about how his fifth grade class had picked on a fellow classmate. “There was a line you had to walk as a boy and sometimes you ended up being a collaborator in order to not be a victim. It was very much like “Lord of the Flies,” he says. As fate would have it, the narrator Jay chose for the film was part of the same Brooklyn elementary school mob that terrorized the kid. “The Smell of Burning Ants” has been studied in universities, sociology classes, gender studies classes, men’s groups, and even prisons.
The idea for his award-winning masterpiece “Human Remains” was triggered while researching footage for a different project. He came across a shot of Adolf Hitler eating a piece of bread. “It caught me off guard,” he said. “I had to see him as human instead of a monster.” He initially wanted to produce a quick five-minute film ironically entitled “Dictators are People Too,” but the idea grew into a three-year project in which he also covers the embarrassingly personal biographies of Mussolini, Stalin, Franco, and Mao. Fifty percent of the movie is direct quotes, forty percent are facts put into the first person voice, and ten percent is creative license such as when Franco says, “I really didn’t want to appear in this film.” “Remains” uses the voices of actors to impersonate the dictators as if they were speaking about themselves. “Humor is my way to engage an audience and open them up to experience the horror,” he explains. “When we become numb to images of the holocaust and other atrocities, we begin to filter them out and not look at them.” His research came from many different biographical sources. Mao’s facts came from a book by his personal physician. Rosenblatt got the film footage from news archives and personal collectors.
His personal opus “King of the Jews” begins with light-hearted tales from his childhood when he innocently confused Jesus Christ as some sort of bogey man bringing misfortune to all of Rosenblatts’ ancestors, until the shocking realization sets in that Jesus himself was a Jew. The second part of the film points out the misinformed ignorance of anti-Semitism and shows how the Jews were framed for Jesus’ death. The third part visually shows the inherent hypocrisy of anti-Semitism by juxtaposing images of the crucifixion with the holocaust. As he states in his movie, “Jesus, Peter and Paul would have perished at Auschwitz.” The impetus for this project stems from his personal philosophy that we are all connected and that separation is an illusion. “Anything that we do to someone else, we’re also doing to ourselves,” he says.
Rosenblatt distributes his own films and highly recommends it, especially for people in the educational market. “If institutions are interested you will reap the benefits,” he says. “Its not just the financial rewards, but it’s very fulfilling. Your work takes on a life of its own.” The videos that he sells on his website www.jayrosenblattfilms.com are priced for institutions. He sends out his own mailings to different school librarians each semester. Then he sends his tapes to a fulfillment house (Transit Media in New Jersey) and they do all the shipping, handling, and invoicing. “Its not that hard and its very empowering,” he says.
Rosenblatt has also been very successful on the festival circuit. His films toured Europe after screening at an experimental shorts fest in Holland called “IMPAKT.” While there, he set up screenings in Paris with “Scratch Cinema” and at the Cinematheque in Brussels. He has become a fixture at Sundance (his last six films have screened there, and “Human Remains” won an Honorable Mention in 1998). Though festivals like Sundance and Ann Arbor are fixtures on his calendar, he also appreciates the festivals that pay a screening fee, such as the Film Arts festival in San Francisco. “Even if the fee is small, it sends the message that the festival is comprised of filmmakers, not sponsors.”
As of now, Rosenblatt has no plans to release his films on DVD. To see them on the big screen is to experience his visionary works in their full glory and power. The “Short films of Jay Rosenblatt” are screening again in LA on Oct. 13 as part of the UCLA Film School and IDA Salon series and again in New York at MAKOR on Oct. 24 and 26.