Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The time I went to a filmmaking seminar with Jon Jost

Sherman's March, Bell Diamond

I don't remember if it was the workshop or the seminar.

In 1986, I attended the world premiere of Jon Jost's movie Bell Diamond at the University of Oregon. If I remember right, it was the first showing outside of the town where it was filmed. There had been a John Jost film festival. Every weekend for a few weeks, they showed Jon Jost movies. I hadn't been able to go to any. I just went to the last one.

That was just a few days after I had seen the documentary, Sherman's March, at Cinema 7, the local art theater at the time. I had been reading a lot about movie-making and the shockingly high cost of production. Then I saw Sherman's March, filmed in much the same way as Jost's films---by a fellow with a movie camera on one shoulder and a tape recorder on the other and not much else.

I had sat there in the theater thinking that it looked fine to me. Maybe you don't have to spend a fortune to make a movie after all.

So I was interested in seeing Bell Diamond. It was made for around $6,000, although, when asked about it, Jost gave a higher figure which included the value of the of the unpaid actors and his own work.

I was interested in seeing the movie, and I wanted to see Jost who was there and was going to speak at the end. But I went to this one having no idea what to expect. I hadn't seen his other movies and I didn't know what it would be like. There were a couple of very good scenes that stood out in my mind. I suspect that if I saw it again, my reaction would be different--I've liked Jost's movies I've seen since then--but I found it incredibly boring. It seemed to go on for hours and hours.

The movie was about a Vietnam veteran whose wife leaves him because he was rendered sterile, by exposure to Agent Orange.

There was one shot that went on for several minutes. The shot started with a painting. We could see the entire painting. As the shot progresses, the camera zooms out very, very slowly. When the shot ends, the camera has zoomed out enough that we can also see the picture frame. There's a conversation going on as we watch this.

Several people walked out. I thought it was rude since the filmmaker was sitting in the back of the room. I still wanted to see him. I sat there. My body hurt. My muscles were aching. I've never suffered physical effects of boredom before.

When the movie ended, the lights came on and Jon Jost, white haired, came trotting down to the front of the room. He discussed his belief, which I mentioned elsewhere in this blog, that Hollywood movies were brutalizing, making people feel bad about their own lives. They sit in a theater watching people who are better looking, richer and more powerful than they are.

There were a lot of film students there. They seemed very enthusiastic.

One thing about Jon Jost is that he laughs a lot. So the film student were laughing, too, as they asked their questions.

There was one shot where the camera looks over the edge of a building. A film student noted that the movement wasn't completely smooth and, at first, he thought this was a subjective shot from the point of view of one of the characters. Jost laughed that next time he would pay $200 a day to rent a steadicam.

Another person noted that a clock in the kitchen where the movie was filmed stopped working after the first scene. Did this symbolize how the character's life had come to a halt when his wife left? No, the clock broke. He had hoped no one would notice.

One person asked about the long takes. The scenes were all shot in long takes. Jost replied that he happened to like long takes and that he was working with non-actors who had little concept of film continuity. He pointed out a continuity error. When they cut to a close up of a guy smoking, the cigarette was suddenly much shorter.

Okay---but then....

The anarchist

There was an old anarchist in the crowd. Keep in mind that this was 1986. Anarchists are everywhere now, but they were a rare breed in those days. The anarchist in this case was in his 50s. He would attend meetings of local radical political groups and, being an anarchist, call on them to disband as soon as they had served their immediate purpose.

Jost had said that he considered the film a success. The anarchist asked what he based that on.

Jost replied that he was in the back of the room watching and only ten people walked out during the movie. And it was a free showing. There was nothing keeping anyone there.

The anarchist said that he found himself falling asleep. He added that he was trying to be positive. He wasn't trying to tear Jost down.

Jost laughed. The film students laughed, too.

The anarchist seemed slightly annoyed. He stayed another few minutes and left.

But, anyway, the person who had organized the Jon Jost festival asked Jost if he could stay and put on a workshop and a seminar on extreme-low-budget filmmaking the next day and said he would pull together the money to pay him.

The seminar. Or the workshop.

I had to work that day. I couldn't attend the workshop that went on for several hours. I did, however, attend the seminar. Or I missed the seminar and went to the workshop. I'm not sure which was which.

Jost sat at the head of a table. It was a small room and was fairly crowded. Someone went out and brought back some beer.

Jost discussed movie lighting---how Hollywood would spend a fortune to blot out all existing light so they could artifically light a scene. He mentioned how, in the movies, there was always enough light from the dashboard to illuminate the actors riding in cars. He also discussed financing a movie applying for grants. Some people wanted detailed budgets, but no one does a detailed budget on a $6,000 movie. He used a Sony Walkman Professional which cost about the same as a day's rental for a Nagra recorder.

Video 8

Remember, this was 1986. We didn't even have Hi8 yet, or digital video. We had VHS and 8mm. Sony had just given up on Beta.

Jost said that, if he were starting out in movie-making at that point, he wouldn't use film. He would use 8mm video.

The 8mm camcorders were the first to come with flying eraser heads. This made for clean cuts between shots. Before that, there would be a big glitch on the videotape between each shot.

He said he would film the movie in sequence. If you had to shoot a retake, rewind and record over the bad shot. Do all the editing in camera. And when you're done, just push eject and there it is---he held up his hand like he was holding a cassette tape---your finished movie, a $10 cassette. If you want to add music, transfer it to one inch tape so you won't lose quality.

Someone said something about a tape-to-film transfer, but Jost said there was no need. Just view it on video tape.

The film students were aghast. Back in those days, the idea of a direct-to-video movie was entirely alien. Everyone wanted a theatrical release.

"If it's your first movie, it probably won't be any good anyway," Jost assured them.

And, well, he was probably right.

But he did warn about one problem with video. The tape was practically free. It meant you might shoot too much footage and have it come out boring----and he mentioned the anarchist who had said he was bored the night before.

"It probably won't be any good anyway."

I decided to make those words my motto.

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