Jon Jost, Independent Film-maker – StagefrightJacob
Jon Jost, freelance filmmaker. The first movies
‘Stagefright’ (1981) is very different from Jost’s other early films. The reason for the difference is twofold: first, it was originally done (in shorter form) for German television, and Jost has adapted his methods to suit the medium, and second, the subject under consideration, theater , is examined in detail. above, rather than, as in the previous two films, through its effect on society at large.
The film looks different because it is shot in a studio with actors acting on a black background. The emphasis, therefore, is on expression through the human figure, which adapts to the television medium and reproduces the methods of the theater. In fact, since we are constantly aware that we are seeing actors acting, and since the camera does not move, watching the movie is almost as much like being in the theater as being in the cinema.
The film has no plot, and like ‘l, 2, 3, Four’ and other shorts, the subtext is in essay form. The plot has four stages: an introduction, an exposition, a climax, and a conclusion. The introduction is a brief history of human communication and, like everything else in Jost’s films, can be read on more than one level. First, we realize that the theme illustrated is communication as part of the evolution of humanity. Secondly, we are aware that the story is being illustrated by actors, and that there have also been advances in communication in the theater. And thirdly, we are aware that what we are seeing is a film, another area in which advances in communication have occurred.
The film begins with a dance that represents birth. It can be seen as the birth of humanity and, in the way the dancer communicates through the use of her body, as the birth of human communication and theater. The following sequences visually and audibly illustrate the refinement of this process towards communication through language. First we see the human face, which communicates mental states through their expressions, then we approach the mouth and the extraordinary range of sounds it is capable of producing. Then comes the addition of vocal sounds, and finally, when the image is cropped to reveal the full-length nude figure, we hear the film’s first word: ‘Human’.
The following sequence follows the development of language, first with a figure dressed in a toga who reads Latin from a book, illustrating the birth of Western civilization, the written word, and costumes, and then, as the letters proliferate wildly in the screen, the arrival of the printing press. The last scene is the first without a human figure, showing that language has taken on a life of its own; And the power of this new means of communication is shown in the following scene: We see a close-up of a text, and as it is read aloud, drops of blood-red ink fall onto the pages, eventually darkening the words.
So far, apart from “Human”, not a word of English has been spoken; We have been looking for forms of communication in relation to its source and reason for being, the human being, without being distracted by meanings.
The next scene, in which a cabaret hostess welcomes us to the show, marks the beginning of the exhibition. We have followed the evolution of language in an important field of communication: theater; in other words, while we are sitting there watching the performance, in our immediate situation.
The film then takes us through a mix of theatrical entertainment, while at the same time entertaining us with a mix of gimmicky photography. The emphasis in these scenes, both in form and content, is on deception, illusion and falsehood, showing how, in show business, actors are used to create characters and images that effectively avoid any real person communication to person. to take place.
In a cabaret-commenting scene, we see magic tricks, while the camera performs its own magic tricks by displaying two characters, one from a low angle and the other from a high angle, simultaneously.
In a scene that perhaps comments on the psychological drama, we see a young actress, full-face and in profile simultaneously, standing silly and nervous while two men, perhaps the director and the producer, smother her with advice and instructions. The actress does not have a voice of her own, she is being manipulated by others, and the only thing that is genuine in the whole scene is what they are trying to eliminate; his staging.
In one scene commenting on the stage performances of statesmen, three actors put on political masks and represent the kind of handshaking routines we see in television and newspaper images. This scene has two points: it exposes the creation of public images of statesmen as a branch of the entertainment world, and shows the actors that they have to represent the roles imposed on them by people with political power.
Occasionally, during these scenes, an actor who makes an absurdly exaggerated impression of James Cagney walks the screen saying, “No wonder there are so many casualties.” And every now and then a hand holding a camera reaches out from the top of the screen and takes a picture of us, the audience on whose behalf the whole bag of tricks is done.
The climax of the film is a sequence in which the cheapest trick in show business, the cream pie on the face, turns grotesque and scary when shown in extreme slow motion. We see every detail when the cake flies through the air, hits the actor in the face and begins to fall off. This is a very long shot and its effect is deeply disturbing.
The action that is normally supposed to make us laugh is now seen as a vicious and humiliating assault on an actor whose suffering is all too obvious. It appears that he is being hurt and, in fact, psychologically he is. As with the scenes in the exhibition, we are asked to question the relationship between the actors and ourselves. Who are the actors? What is being done to them and through them to us? Why are we sitting watching? And who controls everything?
Then suddenly the movie is cut with the famous video of a Vietnamese peasant being shot in the head. We see more than what is usually shown on television: the man falls to the ground and blood comes out of the wound. At the same time, there is a scream in the soundtrack, and the movie jumps out of alignment, like it’s about to break. The effect creates a powerful commotion, a commotion that should make us think and compel us to become aware of the film’s message.
The meanings are many. The sudden intrusion of a piece of reality puts into perspective the artificiality of the rest of the film and, by implication, of all forms of entertainment. While people, including us, flock to theaters and cinemas to entertain and amuse themselves with artifice, wholesale slaughter is done every day in the real world.
The fact that the film appears to break, or drift off the screen, increases the visual impact and suggests that the medium of the film may not adapt to reality. It also interrupts our attachment to the screen, reminding us that this is not a mere cinematic event.
Finally, a parallel is being drawn between the actor who is shot with the pastry cream pie and the farmer who is shot with a bullet; a parallel that suggests that both men are being manipulated and suffered by forces beyond their control
‘Stagefright’ ends with an explicit statement of your message, or at least part of your message. This is presumably because, being originally made for television, Jost saw an opportunity for his film to reach a wide audience, of which large numbers of people probably would not be the head or the tail.
The message is delivered by the actor making the exaggerated impression of Cagney: a device that reinforces the message by its notoriety as a means of keeping our attention. The actor, who has already established himself in a chorus role with his line repeated: “It is not surprising that there are so many victims”, approaches the camera, as if taking us in his confidence, and says (approximately):
“You see, to communicate you have to entertain. The great playwrights, like the Greeks, and Shakespeare knew it, but nowadays the intellectuals seem to be afraid of it, as if entertaining is cheaper, and this leaves the way open at low cost. Entertainment I mean entertainment with cheap intentions.
“People with access to an audience have a tremendous responsibility, which is often abused.
“Everyone wants to be someone, and in this wonderful world of theater they have an opportunity, but they often betray someone else.”
“They say that the theater has a mirror for society, but it is almost always a mirror of vanity.
“The bard said, ‘Everyone is a stage,’ and maybe it is, but what they don’t tell you is that all life is handled on stage. You have your TV, radio, theater, movies, and pop music. “It’s all fun, kids, all fun.”
Then, the actor, obviously thinking that the shot is finished, relaxes, leaves the characterization and takes off his hat. Then Jost walks in front of the camera and talks to the man about the sound: “Did you get it?” “Is the camera still rolling?” the sounding man looks confused. “Are you still filming?”
Then, one by one, Jost turns off the studio lamps and the movie ends in the dark. This ending, of course, breaks the cinematic illusion, reminding us that everything we’ve seen on screen has also been managed by Jost himself.
* All quotes, from movies and interview, are approximations taken from notes made immediately after watching movies.
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