Chale Nafus Presents an Essential Primer on Experimental Filmmaker Jon Jost - See his Films May 18 & 19

Jon Jost will join AFS for a pair of special Avant Cinema Screenings May 18 and 19.

On Monday, May 18, Jost presents COMING TO TERMS (2013) and on Tuesday, May 19 he presents LAST CHANTS FOR A SLOW DANCE (1977). These screenings are co-presented by Experimental Response Cinema.

Here is AFS Director of Programming Chale Nafus with a preview of the series:

Experimental filmmaker Jon Jost was already “on the road” as a child moving from army base to base with his parents, both in the US and abroad. Expelled from college in 1963 moved to Italy where he made his first cinematic efforts. But it was the Vietnam War era and, unlike his father during WW2, Jon chose not to serve. The American judicial system thought otherwise and let him serve 27 months for draft “avoidance.” After his release he returned to protesting the war, but this time through making films for anti-war media organizations Newsreel and New Left Films.

Once the war had ended and Watergate had swept the Nixon presidency into history, Jost turned to less overtly political but more experimental filmmaking. 1974 brought the production and release of his $2000 film, LAST CHANTS FOR A SLOW DANCE, a portrait of a man who shouldn’t be married and shouldn’t have kids, since he prefers spending most of his time away from home. He’s a Hank Williams drifter with a pickup and a self-absorbed spiel for any hitchhiker unfortunate enough to accept a ride.

Jost made this a film of nighttime, a nighttime of Montana seen through a pitch black windshield only occasionally pin-pricked with light from a solitary ranch house or a bump-in-the-road town, a nighttime of bars, diners, and bedrooms, and a nighttime of an ever darkening soul.

Tom, once he takes time off from aimlessly driving, becomes a bar stool philosopher around men, but when a woman comes into the picture, we can see exactly how he must have met and bedded his present wife Darlene two-kids-ago. He and his latest barroom pick-up have sex at her place while Johnny Carson gently holds forth in the other room. A post-coitus phone call to his wife takes Tom’s misogyny to a new low.

This meandering, directionless road will eventually have to end and only Jon Jost would have the brilliant idea to show Tom being inspired by post office “Wanted” posters. LAST CHANTS FOR A SLOW DANCE was a brilliant feature film debut for the 31-year-old filmmaker. No wonder Rick Linklater included it in early AFS screenings.

During the intervening 40 years, Jost has made 38 feature-length films and more than 30 shorts, while creating installations, painting, writing, and composing/playing country-and-western music. He never tried to break into mainstream American film but enjoyed a special reputation in the US and abroad. His films have shown primarily in film festivals and retrospectives/special screenings in all the welcoming spots in New York City, Los Angeles, Washington DC, Boston, Austin (of course), Vienna, Berlin, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Israel, and South Korea, where he taught for four years. Wherever he showed his films, he often lived for months or longer, once more picking up the rhythms of his “army brat” childhood.

His most recently completed feature film, COMING TO TERMS (2012), is just as audaciously adventuresome as his first, if more maturely classical in look with its series of lengthy, observational shots. As if to test his audience early on, he presents a 5-minute sequence of a man (Jost’s long-time friend and fellow filmmaker James Benning) eating soup out of a skillet. We know nothing about the man other than his approximate age and the fact that he wears a plaid shirt in a rustic kitchen. But the audience’s patience will be rewarded once the soup is finished.

It is four other people, seen in close-up, often two in the frame, not facing one another, who tell us about the man. The middle-aged (or beyond) women talk of their marriages to the man. The two young men, his sons, one per woman, reveal the divergent paths they have taken – one is gay and the other is an evangelical pastor. No one thinks kindly of the man – the father, the husband – who was a cold, distant, affectless man, a surveyor measuring out the wide-open spaces for developers to cut up and sell. His job in the vastness of the Montana landscape got him out of the house, away from his family, and into the natural world he loved. But he began to realize that he was participating in its destruction, just as he had destroyed two marriages and connections with his two sons. Now, he wishes to make one final journey to a secluded spot in the beloved woods, but he wishes to have his separate families with him. In a Hollywood film the man would gather his disconnected relations together in order to explain his actions and ask for forgiveness. But in Jost’s film world, the man only admits to being ashamed of his gay son and disgusted with the religious one and that maybe he loved one woman more than the other. What he mainly wants from them is assistance with his suicide. He will leave as much pain behind after death as during his life.

Jost chose to intersperse this family drama with beautiful shots of the countryside, especially of trees and rock strata changing with shifting sunlight. The “reality” before our eyes is often shifting and changing its meaning. His Buddhist explorations of time and sunlight remind us that only change is constant. Through beautifully realized dissolves we see the man merging with nature, as we all will eventually do.