The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Jay Rosenblatt chooses challenging material to translate into film - suicide, depression, loss of loved ones, the rise of religion post 9/11, to name a few. Words are kept to a minimum in his films, so the images must often tell the story, as they did in silent films. He does not hesitate to enlist the help of poetry and beautiful music, which represent the best of our positive, creative selves. There are no special effects in his films beyond the magical properties inherent in "found," or neglected, educational and industrial film footage that was heading for oblivion or the garbage dump, until the filmmaker found it.
It takes a visionary to understand that this footage carries more weight because of its potential-for-extinct-ness, like wildlife we suddenly find on the endangered species list. Watching these films, we become aware of our power to forget or destroy. It feels good when something valuable about our civilization is rescued because someone is paying attention. More amazing when the footage becomes a powerful film like "Darkness of Day."
The films in this program are mostly black-and-white, except for short bursts of faded color in "Phamtom Limb," "The Darkness of Day," and "I Just Want to Be Somebody." The issues portrayed blow into the sub-conscious like a sudden gust of wind, activating dark material most of us don't want to be reminded of, but it moves us. These films capture our longing to understand unfathomable things. Rosenblatt injects humor - that potent elixir - at just the right moment in a disturbing modern tale of discrimination. Healing music of Benjamin Britten and Arvo Part bring hope to others. Arvo Part is a famous contemporary composer of religious music, influenced by Gregorian chants, among other ancient musical genres. He grew up in a totalitarian regime that banned worship and religion.
Rosenblatt incorporates home movies taken decades ago into his films when they align with the story he is telling, and he mixes it with "found" footage that is older, or taken around the same time. We live in an age of home-movie makers that post their efforts on U-Tube or web stream them from their own web sites. We are now able to make increasingly glamorous home movies with state-of-the-art video cameras, and, as this film program shows, they are entering the hallowed halls of documentaries. Because technology has advanced so dramatically, important events are captured today by ordinary people using a video camera, or camera phone, just by being in the right place at the right time. Something important happens, and the cameras are right there - in our pockets. It is now possible for anyone to capture a defining moment in history by pulling out a camera phone. They can then choose to send the footage to a T.V. network, or U-Tube. When Neda Soltan was shot dead in cold blood at a demonstration in Iran, the government did not count on people with camera phones locking on and transmitting footage across the world before they could stop them. The truth could not be blocked, as it was in the past, and as it still is in totalitarian regimes that censor the press. Jay Rosenblatt's "found images" tell a good story. They become part of our collective history via his documentary films and films. When his films contain personal memories and home movies, they inspire us to cherish life's ordinary moments, and those we love.
Rosenblatt understands the emotional weight of home-movies. One of his most painful experiences is re-told via a home movie that is incorporated into his award winning film, "Phantom Limb," (2005). Instead of a commentary, he uses text on a black screen. As I watched, I was reminded how delightfully home movies ooze imperfection. We love them more because of their lack of formality. They are often taken from odd angles, and the "subject" is free to run into or out of the frame. There are no rules, no requirement that anyone pose dutifully, or read from a script. Suddenly, as it does in life, tragedy strikes and the joyfulness of youth turns to grief and personal loss, which the filmmaker chronicles with the same honesty in "Phantom Limb" as he does in all his films. He does not retreat from dark material because it is personal. Death is the most difficult loss because it is final. Some of the music in "Phantom Limb" is by Arvo Part. It is as if music is the only thing that can fill the painful, gaping void, or offer any solace.
"Afraid So," (2006) is based on a poem by Jeanne Marie Beaumot. Rosenblatt layers a soundtrack of poetry, music, journal entries and personal memoir with news clips and educational and industrial films. The beautiful narration is by Garrison Keillor. The human voice is strangely comforting, even when it tells chilling stories about our civilization. These films celebrate the human voice. They celebrate music, the creative forces - even as the filmmaker documents our denial, fear, negative behavior and repetition of destruction.
"Darkness of Day," (2009), is about suicide and depression. A quick search of artists and poets, movie stars and famous people that committed suicide is sobering. Two of my favorite artists took their own lives. It is a phenomenon that has been around forever, but it is still a taboo subject in many societies. Is there anyone who does not know someone, a family member, or a friend of someone, who has decided enough is enough and taken their own life, or attempted to? It is often the most unexpected people, the ones who "sang a happy tune." This film deepens the mystery and the sadness. "Darkness of Day" is a recent film by Jay Rosenblatt, so it should be seen in person, before reading reviews about it. I will only say that it begins with important information about documentary footage: "In the 1980's, with the advent of video, school districts began disposing of their entire film libraries. Thousands of 16mm prints ended up in garbage dumps...The following film is comprised entirely of clips from discarded films that were saved from destruction."
"Prayer," (2001), was made in the aftermath of 9/11. Many of us pray but we do not "see" ourselves praying. Some people are not religious, but they lead good lives. Being good and being religious are not always the same thing! Whatever our beliefs, the majority of us take the day off on Christmas Day, Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah, Easter Sunday, Good Friday, Ramadan, the Pujas, Kwaanza, among other "high holy days", or religious holidays. Traditionally we are supposed to remember why this "holy" day is special, but many people see a "holiday" as a time to go shopping because they hope to get a good bargain, or gather together around the table and eat an abundance of good food. We don't always know why we take the day off, except that everyone else is. "Prayer" captures our longing to feel part of something bigger than ourselves. We don't want to be left out of the group. For many, the ritualistic side of religion is ignored, but they wear the label.
"Prayer," is the earliest film in the program and it is silent except for a beautiful soundrack, Rimsky Korsakov's "Scherezade." In a grainy segment of footage there is an old, wrinkled man in long robes staring out into the desert, praying, or meditating, it could be either. He looks like a prophet in the Bible. We do not know which religion he belongs to, but we are curious. There are no dates, and no places or persons are identified. All we know is "this is a holy man." The images in "Prayer" are timeless. They remind us that religion and spirituality persist tenaciously in the contemporary world.
Confusion begins to set in when children are filmed with eyes shut, hands placed together, praying fervently in Sunday school or church. I remember doing that. But they look too young to be performing such a serious ritual. These films suddenly become auto-biographical. "Them" becomes "us."
We are now in the 21st century and religious fervor is intensifying, inciting more anxiety, controversy and debate than ever, challenging our own beliefs about what constitutes freedom of expression and personal freedom in a post 9/11 world. We perceived religion as a big part of the 9/11 attacks. Suddenly religion was center-stage. When one group proclaims their religion, other groups proclaim theirs.
While watching "Prayer" and "I Just WantedTo Be Somebody," I was reminded of an anecdote about Oscar Wilde:
"Wilde couldn't get his son Cyril to ask God to make him good. He didn't want to be good, said the obstinate boy. Why pray for something he didn't want? When Wilde pressed the point, Cyril suggested an alternative: he'd ask God to make his baby brother good. Wilde loved recounting this story. He thought it made perfectly the point that we'd much rather reform others than ourselves..." (Courtesy of "The Wit and Wisdom of Oscar Wilde," by Ralph Keyes)
Without moralizing, "Prayer" reminds us that being tolerant and "good" does not come easy to us. It reminds us that the history of our civilization has been one long persecution of people of different faiths, religious wars, and power-grabs using religion as the reason. History is often about people believing their religion should prevail, or no religion should prevail - totalitarian regimes - or certain races or groups should not even exist because of the religion or lifestyle they practice, or the culture they come from. When any powerful group believes that a specific religion, or no religion, is the acceptable "norm," it can be deadly for those that are "different" or "unacceptable." The footage of worshippers in "Prayer" implies the enormous power "groups" hold to do positive or negative things, a recurring theme in Rosenblatt's films. It reminds us that innocent children have been violated by perverted individuals with hidden agendas that operate behind the "screen" of powerful religious institutions. Some religious organizations solicit children so they can indoctrinate them to become terrorists. Young children are easier to mold, which is why individuals and organizations with destructive hidden agendas seek them out. The image above is from "Prayer," and it says it all about the vulnerability of the youngest members of society.
It is amazing how many associations are made, and how much information can be transmitted, in a silent, 3 minute film.
"I Just Wanted to Be Somebody" is about a "reformer." The 10 minute "short" features the singer and anti-gay rights activist Anita Bryant, who had everything going for her, except tolerance of anything or anyone that did not mirror her idea of perfection. She describes how she was very poor growing up, and had to wear hand-me-downs. So, she says "I just wanted to be somebody." She became a successful pop singer, and appeared in high profile orange juice commercials. When she was on every TV set in the country she began a self-righteous, anti-gay rights campaign in her state. However, her opinions soon began to make her audience uneasy, she lost her TV commercials, her marriage broke up and her perfect life crumbled. In the midst of this depressing tale of fear and prejudice, Rosenblatt skillfully injects humor via orange juice commercials starring Bryant, and her own home videos. In a free society it takes all sorts to help us see who we really are - and who we would rather not be. But Bryant gets to say what she believes, which has the positive effect of galvanizing the Dade County gay community into action. They became more vocal and they get organized. This film includes a letter written and narrated by Fenton Johnson that is a powerful expression of what it feels like to be excluded, and how Bryant's opinions helped motivate him and the movement to fight for their rights as equals in a free society.
I did not know about this chapter in American history, so I watched "I Just Wanted to Be Somebody" with someone who remembered Anita Bryant. He said her extreme views helped put gay rights in the headlines in an important way because it was a taboo subject people just did not talk about back then, but many silently shared her opinions. But when they heard Bryant's extreme anti-gay views - "we the normal majority" - it made them change their minds for gay rights. Rosenblatt captures the hypocrisy of people that want to get in the way of other people that just want the same rights they have.
Rosenblatt's visionary films explore life's most difficult, controversial and unfathomable issues. They patiently remind us of things we did in the past, show us that we repeat the same mistakes, and encourage us to educate each new generation about them. They inspire the preservation of documentary film footage, because it protects the truth.
Jay Rosenblatt will introduce the opening night screening at MoMA on October 13, as well as the screening on October 15, 2010. "Darkness of Day" is organized by Joshua Siegel, Associate Curator, with Rajendra Roy, The Celeste Bartos Chief Curator, Department of Film, The Museum of Modern Art.
Wednesday, October 13, 7:00 (introduced by Rosenblatt)
Thursday, October 14, 4:00
Friday, October 15, 6:00 (introduced by Rosenblatt)
Saturday, October 16, 1:30
Sunday, October 17, 2:00
Monday, October 18, 4:00