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

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 in 1967 shooting "Leah"
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