Jon Jost, independent film-maker. The early films
3. 13 Fragments and 3 Narratives from Life
The subject of ‘13 Fragments and 3 Narratives from Life’ is a girl called Katya; not an actress playing a part, but an ordinary girl who has collaborated with Jost in making a film about herself. The film employs the form and techniques of a documentary, but what emerges is a three-way dialogue between Jost, Katya, and ourselves in which it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish fact from bias.
The film opens with a series of establishing shots, which, as in any other film, is designed to introduce the subject in its context. We see an aerial shot of a city, a close-up of a girl fastening her blouse, a telephone cord, (while on the sound-track we hear a girl declining an invitation to go out), a close up of a girl applying make-up to her face, a comic strip, and a record on a turntable.
This pictorial introduction establishes the subject as a girl who lives in a city, but along with this fact we have been given a biased view of her character. The telephone shot implies that she is unsociable, and the other shots, which are from Jost's private stock of images, whose meanings become clear after seeing one or two of his films, are a ‘montage of distractions’ establishing her as a complacent consumer of popular culture; the comic strip and the record, and a wearer of disguises; the make-up.
Thus, through his selection of images, Jost has established a context of his own bias, a context which will influence the way we see the girl. The process continues with his verbal introduction:
"Her name is Catherine, but, perhaps to make herself different, she calls herself Katya. "
This comment is the verbal equivalent of the shots of make-up and the blouse; it highlights a quality of pretence in the subject, and, while it tells us a fact, it also conveys an attitude of criticism, perhaps even ridicule on behalf of Jost. The commentary continues:
"Katya's younger sister used to share the flat, but recently she surprised her friends and was married on a Thursday. "
Again, this comment, which is the verbal equivalent of the comic strip, conveys factual information about Katya, but with its parody of the language of popular romance, it also mocks her. So, although nothing overtly biased has been shown or said, and although it has gone by so quickly we might not have noticed it, a distinct bias towards the subject has been imparted. The point is that all films do this, no matter what their subject, or how objective they pretend to be.
Jost then withdraws and allows Katya to take over the narration:
"He was going to call this film ‘13 Fragments and Three Interviews from Life', but then he found out I wasn't very good at interviews. "
Then in the first narrative, entitled ‘The Life of Facts', the camera holds on Katya's coffee cup, and then on her, silent and motionless on a sofa, while on the sound-track she tells us some facts about her life; she gets up in the morning and makes coffee, goes to college, does a part-time job, and so on. This is almost direct communication between Katya and us, and although the separation of image and sound-track might seem like interference, it actually increases our sense of objectivity. We can concentrate on what she has to say all the better for not having to watch her speak, and if she had to speak to the camera she would, presumably, either act or become nervous, which, again, would distract us from the facts. The bias of the film-maker seems to be at a minimum here.
Then Jost takes over again: on the screen we see close-ups of Katya's face, while on the sound-track he reads facts about political events; the war in Vietnam, the Paris riots, and the assassination of Martin Luther King.
The film-maker's bias now comes across strongly, although the information with which he presents us is strictly factual. The portraits of Katya are stark full-face and profile shots, reminiscent of the ‘mug-shots’ of prison records, conveying the impression that she is being accused of something, or, at least, being held up for examination. We still have in the back of our minds the facts about her life from the first narrative and the juxtaposition of these facts with the facts of political events adds up to a presentation of Katya as insular and complacent, wrapped up in her own world while people in the world around her are fighting and dying for high ideals. Thus, through the selection and juxtaposition of facts, the film-maker has manipulated us into sharing his bias. How often is this done to us in news reports and documentaries?
Jost then gives Katya another say in the matter:
"It's not fair. He's setting me up unfairly. I've never been to those places and don't know those people. It's not fair. "
In the second narrative, entitled ‘Facts are Tempered by Passion', Katya tells us more about her life, this time adding her feelings to the facts. She is generally fed up, doesn't like the city, wishes she could travel, and, she says, she isn't really very happy. In this section we seem to be getting closer to Katya. She is being honest with us, and we sympathise with her.
More facts from Jost follow:
"She says she wants to be an artist. I asked her what art is, and she said she didn't know. I asked her what love is, she listed some qualities, I asked her if she thought love was important, she said she did. I asked her if she was in love, she said no. I asked her why not, and she said she didn't think she could love. "
With this commentary Jost undercuts her honesty and our sympathy, and holds her up as an object for our pity. Then it is Katya's turn again:
"What he's saying isn't true. I didn't say those things. Or maybe I did, but I didn't mean them the way he makes it sound. "
The facts are being bounced around so much, acquiring so many different connotations that we hardly know where we are any more. Then in the third narrative Katya says:
"It's all false. Movies are false. He wrote out the words. ”
Is that true? Or did Jost only write out those words? Now we don't know where we are at all; any idea that we may have been grasping some facts has been undermined, and we are thrown back upon ourselves to sort out the mixture of fact, invention, and bias.
The film ends with Katya strolling through a park, while on the sound-track, with background music playing, she gives us her philosophy of life. Now she seems confident and contented, she seems to know exactly what she wants and what she is doing. We are inclined to feel contented too, the film seems to have a happy ending. But by now we should be suspicious, we are being manipulated by the sentimental music and the idyllic parkland setting; and perhaps Jost wrote out the words she is speaking now too.
Finally the camera stops following Katya and she walks off, not into the sunset, but into the darkness of some woods. We are left feeling cheated, we don't know what to think or what to feel. The film has manipulated us from start to finish. The point is that all films manipulate us all the time, but most film-makers conceal the techniques which Jost has made so conspicuous.
Having said all that it seems a contradiction to say that ‘13 Fragments and 3 Narratives from Life’ functions as a social documentary, a portrait of Katya, and yet it does, and to ignore this aspect would be to deny a large part of the film’s interest.
Jost has said that he wants his films to be about the kind of people films usually ignore, and carried this principle from his early shorts ‘Leah', ‘13 Fragments and 3 Narratives from Life', and ‘Susannah's Film’ into the features ‘Last Chants for a Slow Dance’ and ‘Slow Moves’. Part of his intention in doing this is undoubtedly to break down the barriers to communication which films usually impose, and, according to Susannah in ‘Susannah's Film', to convey his belief that ordinary everyday events are beautiful and sacred. She says that Jost wanted to film her sleeping in her room, rather than playing the violin, because playing the violin wasn't mundane enough.
But another aim seems to have been to get the girls to talk as much as possible about themselves, in order to reveal how they see themselves. Katya, for example, ‘wants to be an artist’. This theme becomes very important in the features, in which characters are shown to make decisions in accordance with the image of themselves they carry in their minds, images which they have not consciously chosen, but which have been planted there by society.
Read the full version of this essay at: http://www.literature-study-online.com/essays/jon-jost.html
Ian Mackean runs the sites http://www.literature-study-online.com , which features a substantial collection of English Literature Resources and Essays, (and where his site on Short Story Writing can also be found), and http://www.Booksmadeintomovies.com . He is the editor of The Essentials of Literature in English post-1914, published by Hodder Arnold in 2005. When not writing about literature or short story writing he is a keen amateur photographer, and has made a site of his photography at http://www.photo-zen.com