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Fables of Reconstruction: 'The Films of Jay Rosenblatt Volume 2'

By Frako Loden

A train flies across the screen. A broom sweeps debris from a pavement. A boy jumps into bed and huddles under the covers. Trains are often the opening credits "logo" for Jay Rosenblatt's Locomotive Films, but they and the other images recur in his films almost as signatures, hinting at returns to an obsession or a half-remembered dream.

The train speeds us to new places but also to death, in an ordinary life of commuting or the final journey to a death camp. A broom erases traces of nature, incineration and destruction. A frightened adolescent seeks refuge in his bed, land of sleep and oblivion. But haunting images, in nightmare and conscience, disturb him and reconstruct themselves in his imagination.

Filmmaker Rosenblatt, currently also program director of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, has made nearly 30 short films that, due to their apparent accessibility, occupy a middle space between the short personal documentary and the more intimidating experimental film. Rosenblatt reconstructs previously shot footage from home movies, industrial and educational films from the 1950s and '60s, archival images from newsreels, and entertainment films. These images are deftly edited under extensive voiceover narration and classical music scores.

Rosenblatt's themes tend to the dark and despairing, occasionally lightened by a fatalistic sense of humor. His films are preoccupied with hazards, hopelessness, sickness, death, bullying, tyrannical icons, the persecution of Jews, the failure of relationships and families, the guilty conscience and suicide.

Volume 1 of The Films of Jay Rosenblatt (1990-2000) was released on DVD in 2009. The recent release of Volume 2, comprising films from 2001 to 2011, presents Rosenblatt in his third decade, still working in found-film-collage mode, but evincing a deeper sense of compassion and personal loss.

When this group of films showed at the Museum of Modern Art in October 2010, The New York Times' Mike Hale, calling Rosenblatt's work "friendly art films," suggested that their formal beauty and skillful editing beguile viewers away from the "banal" and "obvious" pairing of images and words. But the associations implied between the found image and the voiceover force the viewer to question this obviousness, especially when the two jar slightly or suggest a relationship the viewer didn't expect and now sees in a new light.

The first film is a three-minute dip of the toe into the waters of Rosenblatt's pessimistic world. Afraid So (2006) is, for me at least, a hilarious series of questions, voiced by the mock-lugubrious Garrison Keillor and illustrated by Rosenblatt's trademark found-film clips. Under a one-note soundtrack of doom, the questions range from the pained ("Did the check bounce?") to the anguished ("Was the gun loaded?"). The "punchline" is the all-purpose title.

Two of the films in this collection are tributes to deceased family members. Both are deeply affectionate and full of pain, but they couldn't be more different in execution.

The most recent film in this collection, the 2011 The D Train, is dedicated to Rosenblatt's father, Jerome, who died five years before. In it, a sad-eyed old man from some lost film boards a train and looks about himself to the strains of Shostakovich's grand and melancholy Waltz No. 2. Mundane images of males in different stages of life seem to go through his mind, summing up life's ordinary journey infused with a keen sense of loss. When the old man sits on a park bench and seems to watch a janitor sweep away leaves, we're treated to another of Rosenblatt's signature images of the transience of our lives. In five minutes, a man's life has seemingly passed before his eyes in an experience deeper than words can express. The lighthearted Nine Lives: The Eternal Moment of Now (2001) compresses a cat's life to one minute.

Compared to the brief and wordless tribute to his father, Phantom Limb (2005) is a long (28 minutes is long for Rosenblatt) and narration-heavy film about the death of his younger brother Eliot when Rosenblatt was nine years old. The film has understandably won numerous accolades, as well as a Distinguished Documentary Award nomination from the International Documentary Association, because it eloquently expresses the first-person narrator's childhood feelings of embarrassment about his sick sibling and then "tremendous guilt" when he passed away ("I thought my teasing and resentment had caused his death."). The chapter headings echo some of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross' famous stages of grieving as well as steps we might find in a sincere counseling video.

One sequence scrutinizes a man shearing a sheep in slow motion as a woman's voice dispenses 15 pieces of advice for the grieving parent. Its emotional power comes from watching an old coat being shaven off, like a man sweeping leaves or an insect sloughing off its exoskeleton, in an act of healing and rebirth. Unlike any other of his films that I can recall, this one approaches conventional documentary by using talking heads: a cemetery worker, an amputee and a spirit medium.

Despite all the healing and reconciliation, Phantom Limb ends with an image that I associated with horror and genocide. Am I perversely misinterpreting Rosenblatt's intent, or is he giving me permission to make this association?

The same thing happened for me with the three-minute Prayer (2002), which begins as an apparent ode to supplication, with slow-motion images of Muslims prostrating themselves en masse mixed with close-ups of children with eyes shut tightly and hands folded. The viewer is free to interpret, in the absence of a voiceover narration, a benevolent, if indulgent, attitude toward us humans who bow to the powers of an unseen force. But the final image, which superficially resembles prayer but is pretty clearly a different occasion, derails our interpretation into a sinister direction. Are these jarring final images a hint of the direction humanity will ultimately take?

Another film that more deliberately employs reversal is I Just Wanted to Be Somebody (2006). After a series of images summarizing former Miss Oklahoma/pop singer/orange juice spokeswoman Anita Bryant's campaign against gay rights, the film moves into a different register. Over home movies of her scowling and sulking at the camera and playing with her kids, a voiceover reads a letter to Bryant tenderly commiserating with her and ironically thanking her for giving gays "a face to ignorance and so enabl[ing] an oppressed people to fight an enemy that until then had been veiled in shadows and whispers. You brought us into the light."

This film uses a narrative arc that resembles one in Rosenblatt's powerful King of the Jews (2000, in Volume 1), in which the Jesus Christ of the filmmaker's childhood terrors is transformed into a saint. The early images of Bryant made her seem self-serving, sanctimonious and ridiculous. But the notorious cream-pie attack on her serves almost as the moment of her downfall, after which she warns of "evil forces" threatening to tear down the foundations of American society and perhaps herself. Calling her "the unwitting instrument of the Lord," the voiceover narration sanctifies her as we learn of her wrecked career, failed commercial ventures and bankruptcies. She sacrificed herself, says the narrator, so that gays may unite in their cause.

Self-sacrifice, or suicide, is the theme of Rosenblatt's other long (26 minutes) work, The Darkness of Day (2009). This film wallows in anecdotes of despair and self-destruction and doesn't provide a healing outcome. If anything, it implies that "the silence of the heart" is a condition shared by most of us. But the opening title, stating the film is composed "entirely of clips from discarded films that were saved from destruction," implies an act of rescue and reconstruction. By making his films, Rosenblatt is reconstructing the lost and broken fragments of our shared imagination.


The Films of Jay Rosenblatt Volume 2 is available through

Frako Loden is adjunct lecturer in film, women's studies and ethnic studies at CSU East Bay and Diablo Valley College.