Jon Jost is a self-taught, no-budget filmmaker, who rose to prominence with the release of his terminal road movie ‘Last Chants for a Slow Dance’ in 1977 which was hailed as ‘powerful’ and ‘provocative’ by film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum and is featured in the bestselling omnibus ‘1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die’. Jost has since continued to direct films for more than four decades, exploring a wide range of social issues. His films have been presented at retrospectives around the world from New York City to Jerusalem and can be purchased through Vimeo or by contacting Jon directly at firstname.lastname@example.org
F: While you also work in painting and photography, what attracted you to film as your primary outlet of self-expression?
Jon: I have no idea. As a young kid/child had no particular interest in film, nor did I on going to college (IIT, Chicago, 1960). I studied architecture and realized in short order that it was “a business” and I would never fit in. Then I studied design/art, saw a few experimental films, and at the end of the Cuban missile crisis, during which with my friends I smoked lousy weed and drank equally lousy red wine and waited to be incinerated, I suddenly decided to buy a Bolex, go to Europe and make films. I spent a month looking at European and Japanese and old Hollywood classic films, some experimental, and went to Milano where in January-February 1963 made my first film. I have no idea why, and these days I sort of regret it, though I still make them.
F: Have any specific filmmakers influenced your work? I personally see comparisons to the atmosphere of Wender’s road trilogy in ‘Last Chants…’, Godard’s editing in ‘Frame Up’ and Rohmer’s dialogue in ‘All the Vermeers…:
Jon: Wenders I do not like at all, and can’t see any relationship of his work to Last Chants; Godard in early work – Speaking Directly and Angel City particularly. I guess in Frameup though I think the relationship is more about how to make films quickly and inexpensively, which has a limited range of aesthetic options. Rohmer, yes though only some of his films. In my own view, I’d include Robert Rossen with The Hustler, Bresson, Antonioni, Italian neo-realists, and if my memory worked perhaps a few others. I also like Tarkovsky, Bergman (Winter Light, Persona – in B&W, not colour; ditto for Antonioni). And others I suppose. My biggest influence is the experience of making my own films and learning from that.
F: I’ve often heard your films being discussed in relation to the pre-independent cinema movement ‘The New Talkies’ alongside other filmmakers such as Mark Rappaport and Yvonne Rainer. The films during this movement focused on ‘ideas, provocations and new ways of combining images, sounds, performance and fragments of fiction’ while dabbling in ‘oppositional, Marxist, feminist and queer politics of the 1960s and 70s, but also by the intellectual rise of semiotic and psychoanalytic theories’. Are you familiar with the movement and would you consider yourself a part of it?
Jon: I long ago lost track of the words used to categorize people such as myself: experimental, underground, independent, American Independent, etc. Way back when – 60’s – 80’s more or less – making films was technically a pain in the ass, and relatively speaking, costly. These two-things windowed out most people and back then those who made longer film were quite limited. And being of the same time, under the influence of the same things, there were commonalities intellectually, aesthetically, etc. I never thought myself part of a movement, and those who imagined one were outside, critics, academics, etc. They saw a movement. Filmmakers just did what they did in the time and circumstances they existed in. Rainer is in my view a rather bad filmmaker, but she had the leverage of being NYC based, and catching the “feminist” wave. Maybe she was a better dancer, I don’t know (doubt it though). Mark Rappaport is a friend (now – way back then we just “knew” each other from festival passings-in-the-night). The period of the 60’s to late 70’s, and maybe into the early 80’s was culturally exploitative, experimental – in the arts, all of them, in social relations, etc. Those of us in the middle of that made work expressive of that reality. Then things turned conservative across the board, and only a stupid handful of us carried on with our interests, while culture swooned to $$$$ and making $$$$$, and has remained that way since.
F: This question is for personal reference since she is a personal favourite and also considered part of ‘The New Talkies’. Are you a fan of Chantal Akerman?
Jon: I have seen a handful of her films, but not Rue whatever Bruxelles. I liked some of those I saw, don’t recall titles, except for the D’Est, which I liked but not as much as others (Rosenbaum) did – it had no pace or sense of orchestration and could have cut off, as it did, just anywhere. The others I saw were minor things. I saw one of her last ones, shot in Israel and thought it was rather bad. The concept of “fan” is not something I concur with nor do I consider myself a “fan” of anyone or thing…
F: That’s fascinating that you don’t consider you a fan of anything or anyone, could you please expand on that statement?
Jon: Hmmm… I am interested in many things. I like, admire, even love, some things. But being a “fan” seems to be something else, something which seems to dispense with mindfulness, with thinking. Being a fan is it seems a purely emotional thing, appealing to a very primal element inside of us, and it is something I am very skeptical about. I dislike being in mass groups (rock concerts, sports events, political rallies, etc.) in which this kind of appeal is dominant. Being a fan seems to delete being capable of being critical, of seeing the flaws, downsides, etc. of something. Not for me.
F: In preparation for this interview, I read your ‘Electoral Post Mortems’ and was pondering the question. Do you think that independent cinema will revolt against the policies of the Trump presidency as the New Queer Cinema movement did against the Reagan presidency or will they be more pacified?
Jon: Is there a meaningful “independent cinema” in the USA today? I have my doubts. Most so-called “indie” work I know of is conventional in its aesthetics, even if it thinks its content is out there/weird/gay/trans etc. Most of it is sit-com of Euro minimalism, tired and old and for me boring as shit. I do imagine those of the liberal/left will indeed make counter-Trump things, but it will reflect their essentially narrow and conservative senses. And in turn probably will only have the effect of making them feel better about themselves without altering the social/political reality they imagine to effect.
F: To conclude on a cliché note, what advice would you give to young independent filmmakers who are interested in self-releasing their own no-budget films?
Jon: I have no real advice to offer young filmmakers about releasing their work. The net provides an outlet, yes, but at the same time it does so for 5 million others, and those that succeed there operate on TV sitcom cat video levels, where, yes, you can make a million, but it has nothing at all to do with art, or with what I am interested in. It is simply feeding our ravenous consumption machine more shit to eat and spit out in 2 seconds.
Afterword from Jon: Sorry to seem so cynical, but after 73 years, facing the world today, it seems the only honest response. Making films is a very modest, almost meaningless activity in the face of the species problems. It is, in fact, one of those problems.