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Jon Jost Retires (Sort Of): His Thoughts on Nearly 50 Years of Filmmaking

Indiewire By Indiewire | Indiewire October 21, 2013 at 4:41PM

Veteran experimental filmmaker Jon Jost is retiring from submitting to film festivals and filling out forms, but he will continue to create.
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Jon Jost

Experimental narrative filmmaker Jon Jost recently announced on his blog that he is retiring from the social aspect of being a filmmaker, but that he will continue making things. He told Indiewire that he will retire from the "festival hustle and the other PR/survival/money-oriented stuff that encrusts film/media-making (and for the most part all of our commercialized society)." He has given Indiewire permission to reprint his original blog post which charts his nearly 50-year filmmaking career. Read his entire post below:

In a few months, come January 2014, I will finish 50 years of filmmaking, and trundle on, inshallah, to number 51. Back in 1963, arriving with $50 to my name in Italy, and put up by a generous family, the Rebosio’s of Cassina Amata, Paderno Dugnano, in what is now the suburbs of Milano, I made my first film. It was a portrait of their 12 year old daughter, Matilde. Silent, 13 minutes, it has recently been restored by the Eye Film Institute of the Netherlands (their archival organization) and I will get to see it for the first time in some decades when it is shown at the St Louis Film Festival in November. I was 19 when I made it and had no thought or idea of a career, of making a living, or any such thing, nor did I know that I would become a filmmaker.  I was young and reckless and foolish and perhaps of a little minority of my era, diving into the 60's.

Fifty years on, I've accrued a mixed reputation, as a person and as a filmmaker/artist.

In hindsight, I think I was a bit crazy, and it seems by some measures I still am. I vaguely knew I was some kind of artist, and I knew somewhat the price that would involve. Fifty years on, I've accrued a mixed reputation, as a person and as a filmmaker/artist.  That reputation wanders all over the map and for the most part was determined by people who never met me, and know very little of me.  According to some I'm chronically reported as the most unknown, under-appreciated, blah blah, filmmaker in America.  According to some I am a hot-headed homophobe, a loose-cannon, with a string of bad relationships in my wake.  According to some I am some kind of cinematic genius; others say my films are the most boring/worst ever.  Most of those with the loudest opinions know me little if at all, and those who speak well or ill of my films most likely have only seen a quarter of them, if that.


Most of this public reputation is, as usual, a tiny bit of truth and a large dollop of make-believe, all depending on whom, the ax they have to grind, and whether they know me beyond hi-bye at a festival, or whatever.  After some decades one learns that a public persona is not yours, but whatever others make up.  Something to ignore and perhaps to find amusing.  In my case it is of little consequence since I am of little consequence in that larger world -- the little hot-house one of cinema and the arts.   For many reasons -- experiential ones -- I basically withdrew from that world several decades ago.  I'd had my look at it, and frankly wanted nothing of it.  The film world, whether that of Hollywood, or of the European artsy realm, or the avant garde academic one, is a place of angry (and often very insecure) egos, bombast, corruption, vanity, and all the same things that infect, say, big business or politics.  In Hollywood it is written big, and the tabloids show you the miserable result; further down the scale it's smaller, but the psychological crap is pretty much the same.   Dog eat dog.  A mostly unpleasant world from which -- with a few exceptions -- I try to steer clear.

I hardly know anyone in the film or arts world, and those few I know are modest figures, if very serious and good in what they do.  And, most importantly to me, they are good people.  People with whom I like to share time because of who they are, not what they do -- though it certainly doesn't hurt when they make good art too.

I suppose, in terms of the film-world, I hit my peak around 1993, at the age of 50 -- I'd made a few 35mm films, one of which secured a modest theatrical release in the US, and others that were shown on European TV.  "All the Vermeers in New York" was the ice-breaker, though I'd done many features before and already had a little "reputation" in the narrow little world of avant garde "new narrative" cinema.  I was a festival regular in Berlin, Rotterdam and elsewhere.  "Vermeers" functioned that way because it was commercially shown, listed in Variety's top 50 BO accounting (though if you are not in the top 5 it means you probably didn't make a dime).

To this day if someone says they "heard of" me, and that perhaps they saw a film of mine, it was because of "Vermeers" -- which frankly isn’t very representative of my over-all work.  I think among those in the film biz it meant that I was supposed to slip into the small realm of filmmakers who manage in the USA as sort of Euro-art house directors:  Jim Jarmusch, Alan Rudolph, or Terrence Malick, or even Gus van Sant.  And certainly I could have done that, if I were a different person and a different kind of artist.  But, alas, I could never have, as those I’ve listed have done:  cranking out more or less the same/similar films (narrative, actor driven, and -- to my mind -- rather conventional, and to me, boring films), and making a nice career of it.

photo by Linn Ehrlich Jon Jost in 1967 shooting "Leah"

My interests are much wider, and my artistic inclinations run all over the place, with equal weight.  And there are other mitigating things as well, having to do with money, the kinds of people often associated with money, and with politics and morals.  So instead of taking what likely would have been a comfortable safe living that way, I instead moved to Europe, had two unhappy experiences with film biz people in Italy and Austria, and as soon as DV materialized in 1996, junked any thoughts of making the kinds of films I’d (mostly) made before, and which the film world anticipated I would and should continue to make.

Instead I began to do what I really wanted to do:  experiment and play with this new medium, DV, as well as take a serious shot at painting, pastels, and other arts.  For a handful of years following I was confronted with film-maker friends thinking I'd gone crazy, opting for this -- as the critics repeatedly and ignorantly claimed -- gritty, ugly, etc. medium.  Which it wasn’t, but instead could be incredibly beautiful, and artistically so much more elastic than film, though most using it were enamored of "the film look" and tried to shoe-horn it into looking like old fashioned film. 

Few were interested in the new work I did:  the playful London Brief, the long and meditative Nas Correntes de Luz da Ria Formosa, or the essay film 6 Easy Pieces and the many which have followed them -- easily as good as anything I did in celluloid.  These showed in a handful of festivals, and promptly dropped from sight -- along with me. 

In the same period the market-economy religion of America overwhelmed the rest of the world, and basically if it didn’t cost a lot of money or make a lot of money, a film was "worthless" and treated as such. 

The once vivid interest in the cinematic arts evaporated into a few tiny academic redoubts, a few serious festivals, and an ever-shrinking little list of showplaces.  Meanwhile "indie" bloomed under various names, as it had since the 70's -- though it seemed mostly a matter of making rather conventional narrative films of kinds that had been made before (but much better) and imagining it was all new.  It wasn't.  And then we all met the internet, and from Hollywood down to scruffy little artist sorts, we are still trying to figure it out and how it impacts us.  Computer games are now a much bigger business than Hollywood.

So, yep, times do change, and from the rear-view mirror seemingly a lot faster than when looking the other way.  So while in a creative sense I’ve been more productive and prolific than I was in celluloid, and certainly from an artistic viewpoint far more adventurous, and in my certainly biased view, making even better work than those films that got such notices as "masterpiece" etc. etc., those many years ago, essentially for the last decade and more I’ve been ignored by the very same critics who lauded me before.  You can look up who those are.  I think in large part this has to do with the relentless commercialization of everything which has resulted in the collapse of alternative press, major media (NY Times and TV) requiring that a work be commercially released before giving space for reviews and comment, and so on down the line.  

The small breathing room that existed for people like me 30 years ago has been squeezed out by the glorious globalized Market Economy, though as things are now developing the same forces are deleting jobs left and right, turning tenure into adjunct, and otherwise whipping all but the 5% on top into serfdom.   Just that some of we more expendable sorts had to play canary in the mineshaft.  But worry not -- you too are getting shafted!

While I have no thought of giving up what I like to do -- make things, be it video or painting or photography or music or writing -- I do intend to give up this social matter of playing the festival/gallery/press etc. etc., game.   I'll go on doing what I do, but I won’t be filling out festival entry forms, WithoutABox, or other such things.  I’ll be posting an open letter to festival directors, exhibitors, and the rest, informing them I’ll be working on, as usual, but if anyone wants to show my work, they can check Facebook or my blogs and see if I have new things and ask me, cover the postage, see it on Vimeo or whatever.  Or they can write me.  If in turn they are interested, and it suits my situation I might take a trip or might not.   

I'll soon sort out putting things on line for VOD so my work is available and accessible (for a price).  But for holding back for festival glorious global premieres and all that -- enough.  In brutal terms it really all doesn’t mean a thing for the work I do -- being at a festival won’t make a dime of difference in the money I won’t earn.  The probable effect will be not much different than were I to play the game.  But after 50 years I just don't feel like jumping through these hoops, filling out forms and all the other stuff attached to it.  And I will want to be paid for screenings, in fests and elsewhere, as it happens festivals have become the default public exhibition system, and like our corporate masters they now seem to expect one to labor for free, or worse, cough up a vanity-press submission sum, pay for all costs attached, and all in exchange for maybe a hotel room a night or two, or in a few remaining cases, the airfare to where ever.  Just not worth the candle, especially in the face of a non-existent "market" and a public in thrall to stars and all the rest.   So time to fold the cards.

My first feature, Speaking Directly, (1973, done after 10 years of making short films) ends with this line -- "That's All Folks!" -- taken from the old Looney Toons.  Well, indeed, it's been looney, though I gotta confess, the world has been a lot more so.

Visit Jost's blog.

This article is related to: Jon Jost, Experimental Film