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The Transcendental Short Cinema of Jay Rosenblatt
By Jamey Hook
Five Films by Jay Rosenblatt
Short things often change the world: Think of Robert Burn's poetry, the Gettysburg Address, the Bill of Rights, and The Great Gatsby. And yet, the short form seldom triumphs against the long, perhaps for the simple reason that brevity is grace, and grace is incredibly difficult to engineer. Recall that apocryphal old tale about Mark Twain being commissioned for a lecture at some university or other: The regents wanted an hour; Twain's price was $5,000. "Oh, that's too much. How about a half-hour then?" they countered. Twain replied, "Surely. That will be $10,000."
Jay Rosenblatt's short films are short in running time only. In almost all other respects--subject, wisdom, lyricism, spirituality--they are epic. Take King of the Jews, an 18-minute examination of the ethical implications of Christ's Jewishness. In the time it takes most films to simply beat you into submission, Rosenblatt manages to delicately build an awareness of the onerous history of Christian anti-Semitism and the lingering angst of the American-Jewish experience, and still have eight minutes left to craft one of the most lyrical odes to our collective image of Christ ever put on film. Likewise, his 20-minute short The Smell of Burning Ants manages to say more about men and action and emotion than 20 years of Hollywood blockbuster filmmaking combined.
Ironically, Rosenblatt's work says more precisely by combining images gleaned from Hollywood's (and television's) past, using found footage optically printed at various speeds to force the viewer's recognition of the moral complexity of our collective, imagistic unconscious. For example, Human Remains sets found footage of five of this century's most reviled dictators--Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Franco, and Mao--to an at-times hilarious voice-over, which chronicles, in achingly minute detail, the most banal aspects of their personal lives, thereby toying with our perception of them as monsters. "I always had terrible problems with gas," recalls Human Remain's Hitler, as we see him shift slightly in staccato slow motion.
The effect of Rosenblatt's work is something akin to science fiction. It is as if we were seeing a version of our world that might have been, or reading between the lines of written images. Over and over, Rosenblatt assaults our complacency with the subconscious image, forcing us to consider the intent that lurks within: A simple shot of children on a playground becomes an allegory for emotional violence in The Smell of Burning Ants; innocent images of domestic life take on a horrific, internal pallor in Short of Breath. Throughout his work, the benign is recast as malignant, and mundane images break open to reveal their dark underpinnings.
And yet, if on the whole Rosenblatt's work is about pain, it is not painful. In each of his films, there emerges a healing tone, or some sort of transcending image. In Human Remains, the repeated image of a digging shovel (one of the few shots Rosenblatt actually created for the film, rather than found) may signify uncovering--the uncovering of these dictators' banal, human sides--but it more importantly signifies burial. Similarly, the young cameraman observing playground brutality in The Smell of Burning Ants is on one hand a damning image of Rosenblatt himself, but serves also to remind us that the filmmaker is actively trying to reconcile his own past; that he is trying to heal. And then there's the eight-minute coda of King of the Jews, the filmmaker's most elegant, sustained image of transcendence to date. It may just break your heart.
That Rosenblatt is only now beginning to achieve the recognition he deserves for his excellent, vital work is the happy end of a petty tragedy. American cinema historically has had little room for self-examination, let alone in the short format. Rosenblatt's work, funded largely by grants and gifts, has had to wait patiently outside the mainstream for more than 20 years now--most directors would have thrown in the towel long ago. We are fortunate for Rosenblatt's persistence, and we should count ourselves lucky to have this unique program of his work. And while it may be short, so are many graceful things that change the world.
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