Notes from practice

by Jon Jost

from Jump Cut, no. 5, 1975, pp. 4-7
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1975, 2004

To provide a series of “facts,” however accurate, is one thing. To provide a history is another. For instance:

Name: Jost, Jon S.
•D.O.B.: May 16, 1943, Chicago, Illinois
•Father’s name: Jost, H.F. (Col. USA-Ret.)
•Mother’s name: Jost, Dorothy C. (Chambers)
•Schooling: H.S;
expelled Illinois Institute of Technology Nov. 1962 after 2 yrs.
•Arrests: 1964 Selective Service Violation; convicted; incarcerated 3/65-5/67;
1968 trespassing Demo. Convention site Chicago; dropped.
•Residences past 10 yrs: Mexico City; Chicago, Ill.; Chillicothe, Ohio (Fed. Reformatory); Sandstone, Minn. (Fed. Corr. Inst.); Minneapolis, Minn.; Chicago, Ill,; Santa Cruz, Calif.; Cottage Grove, Ore.; Kalispell, Mt.
•Occupation: “Filmmaker”

Such factual compilations are the means normally used by the institutions of our society to secure a “personal history” for their uses. That such skeletal information techniques have their usefulness would be hard to dispute. Yet to call them “histories,” and to use them as such—and most certainly they are—is to fall into the miasma of a Borgian universe where the glitter of techniques disguises the perverseness of its substance. It is in fact the equation of a bourgeois society.

history ME L. historia < Gr. Historia, a learning by inquiry,
narrative < histor, knowing, learned < base of eidenai to know: for I.E. base see WISE.

A history then is not simply a recitation of dates, names, places, events. Rather it is a synthesis of these, animated by a genuine understanding of the linkages between names, places, times, events and acts. That history is antithetical to a society structured on bourgeois values is shown in Sgt. Friday’s insistent demand for “The facts, Mam, just the facts.” By such technique, systematically applied (as in the limitation of inquiry to binary yes/no responses in educational tests, opinion polls, elections), a bourgeois society usurps its members of their own history for which it substitutes an ersatz history of emasculated facts, snapshots, yearbooks and canned “feelings.”

Stripped of history, we grow increasingly alienated and uncomprehending of our place, turning ever more to the distractions of immediate sensation in the form of ever present and louder music, more bizarre and violent entertainments, an environment ever more pervasively frenetic. In the cacophony of modern society, the functions of ritual have been supplanted by noise. Understanding has been reduced to reflex reaction. The world has been abstracted to an incomprehensible series of fragments cohering only by virtue of the common agreement that none of these things are connected. Economics is not politics; politics is not culture; culture is not the collective social behavior. And finally, by such a reductive system of disconnection, we are not: history has been abolished!

In the context described, to provide, or even attempt to provide, a history, represents a subversive behavior. With this in mind, I piece together here a tentative—and specialized—history of a person named “Jon,” who in this year of 1974 is 31 years old, and who has made some films.

What impelled me to begin filmmaking? Capriciously events collided: during the Cuban missile crisis by alienation with “schooling” coupled with a widely felt psychic panic. For me it meant to flee to New Zealand; yet both my youth and circumstances conspired against me. By the time I had my grand $800 the event was gone, leaving me expelled from school, with itchy feet, a little money and “nothing to do” . Almost randomly I bought a Bolex, freighter passage, and with $50 in pocket sailed to Europe leaving a draft card in pieces on the high seas. I would, I thought, make films. Looking back, it seems reckless and mindless, the stuff of the picaresque stories and romantic epics of which bourgeois artists are so fond: Down & Out in London & Paris. My mind was riddled with the heroic posturing of that inverse social coin, the underground bohemian rebel: Pavese, Camus, Kafka, Sartre, the existentialist theologians, the careening paths of painting and theater all caught my eyes. To the degree I could at 19 in the early sixties, I lived out the mordant per prerogatives of pre-hippy youth: sleep under bridges in Oslo and London, on Greek beaches; dope in ‘61 or so; cheap—and uncluttered—travel by thumb and freighter. It was a gush of aimless passion unencumbered by the strictures of understanding. And, I began making films.

There are anecdotes that I might tell, the kind of stories we catalog for the sake of amusement or keeping track of the roles we have chosen for ourselves. Yet these anecdotes, while perhaps of “human interest” are diversions. They act to deflect us from the substance of our acts. The question is what might be said that will be of use historically.

EARLY FILMS 1963-1965

Representing a learning process involving the techniques available in film, and more importantly demonstrating an ideological cul de sac into which our society channels dissident expression, these films share the same economic (and hence technical and aesthetic) base and the same theme: each is a portrait of an alienated individual or couple. The aesthetic moves progressively from loose “underground” means using expressionistic camera movement, multiple exposures, droning sequences and shock cut (PORTRAIT, REPETITION, CITY) toward a static, didactic form of “documentary” marked with long takes, minimal camera movement, a surface concentration on showing how things are (JUDY, LINE 1202). Being silent they operate on sheerly visual means. From the outset they grapple with socio-political issues (PORTRAIT with the stifling atmosphere of Catholic family life in Italy; REPETITION with the effects of WWII on a German woman). Yet each of these, like their counterparts in both commercial and “independent” cinema, fail. Not in the bourgeois terminology of “art and culture” , but in the terminology they attempt to posit in themselves.

In the case of these films, this is understandable: they were made by a young, confused person of 19 to 22. What is of interest is that they reflect the same form, methods, and preoccupations of the whole of “serious” bourgeois narrative arts. Like these, their focus is upon an individual. The means of expression are most often symbolic, abstract, and fictional. A preoccupation with aesthetic organization is prevalent. While acknowledging the effects of the social fluid in which we live  —  sometimes even seeming to place greater emphasis on the social—they always revert to the focus on the individual. The effectual result is for such a work to gut itself of its own content, to castrate its intentions. By such a system, critical bourgeois works—Bergman and Antonioni for example—wade time and again through the same territory, shifting the angle of attack slightly, but always arriving at the same dead end. At that point, exhaustion depletes the techniques available or requires a resort to frivolity, as in the case of Fellini. The same pattern is evident in the whole of cinema and literature. The range of harmless and self-negating expressions bourgeois society can absorb seems limitless. Little wonder it forms a beguiling trap for the young and alienated. That these enticements work equally well for older and presumably wiser souls is a matter for inquiry. A listing of the modern world’s cultural heroes seems more a catalog, of pathologies than anything else: suicides—Hemingway, Pavese, Rothko, Plath, Berryman, Nishima; self-destructive pathologies  —Nietzsche, Pollock, Mailer, Behan. Or, if these more arduous roles cannot be played out, the option is thorough co-optation—Picasso, again Mailer, Warhol, Fitzgerald. The lists could be near endless and would paint the bleakest of pictures: self destruction and/or prostitution.


Short of execution, imprisonment brings upon an individual the bluntest expression of a society’s institutional forms of control. My experience in prison was “educational” in the fullest sense, and that education provided a decisive shaping of political awareness. The capacity to express this, however, as exampled in the films made after release, lagged. To explain this is a matter for consideration.  

Prisons operate on patterns of action reflective of the society they serve. In the U.S. they are structured to make their inhabitants antagonistic toward one another. They encourage abeyance to authority regardless of the justice of a given situation. They reward the behavior of isolation and punish that of connection. Such an environment, in effect the behavioral control mechanisms of our society writ large, in totalitarian form, cannot but have its impact. That one can experience prison and come away either “rehabilitated,” or else incapable of articulating one’s revolt is a testimony to the effectiveness and subtlety of the mechanisms which govern our society.

Passage through prison brought contact with a wide and diverse community: car thieves, pacifist Marxists, Billie Sol Estes, Indians, dope dealers, hacks, blacks, government bureaucrats. It brought into experience comprehension of qualities and injustices of the U.S. political system which had previously remained only intuitive and intellectual. Leaving prison in 1967 I soon began working with the draft resistance and with remnants of a Movement neighborhood organizing group in Chicago. By early 1968 with a few friends I established a Chicago Newsreel office and at the same time began working in the National Mobilization office preparing for the Democratic Convention. I mention these things as a telling indication of the words that prisons are a cradle of revolution. Prior to my prison days I had had no contact which might be considered “political.”   And my consciousness was severely limited to a bourgeois sense of rebellion expressed in self-destructive psychologies and “arty” films which had no political effect.

Despite the shift in political awareness, the films which I made on release showed little evidence of this change. Working for the first time with sound, I made TRAPS, a film scripted in jail on hearing of an acquaintance’s suicide, and LEAH. Both are “portraits” of alienated young women. TRAPS is harsh in both form and content, with long takes speaking to the camera juxtaposed against long silent sequences as, in an argument by accretion, the grounds for alienation are piled up. Ostensibly a “documentary self-portrait” made by the woman of the film, TRAPS’ seemingly uncohesive segments crystallize only at the last moment when the neutral narrator (and alleged “editor” ) informs the viewer that the woman committed suicide. LEAH, on the other hand, plays with a melancholic air, depicting a seemingly hard-edged modern young woman who lives as she wishes, sleeps with whom she wants. Inserted between sequences of her narration are texts from the romantic turn-of-the-century novel, The Wanderer. At first jarring in their apparent opposition to the woman’s thoughts, the sentimentalism of Fournier’s words finally connects as the film progresses and a corrosive pathos envelopes the narrative. While both films specifically acknowledge the social environment which their characters understand to be a source of their helplessness, both stop at a confession of futility, of being overwhelmed by social forces. Neither character admits to any political response. Leah says:

” ... they were talking about the war, about demonstrations. But I didn't say anything. I'm not going to talk about it if I'm not doing anything about it.”

The same theme is taken up, in color, with the techniques used more refined and elegant, in 13 FRAGMENTS & 3 NARRATIVES FROM LIFE. Again a portrait of alienation is sketched out, focusing on a young art student who passively, but consciously, rejects responsibility for the political storms swirling about her. The epitome of bourgeois mentality, she insists she is, or at least will be, an artist. She says, all she is responsible for is “art”—though she admits she cannot tell you what it is. Beginning with TV images from Viet Nam being turned off, the film ends with the 13th fragment, TV images of Viet Nam being turned on again. We are bracketed by history, like it or not.

With these films my thinking began turning toward attempts to analyze the political currents which surrounded my friends and myself, trying to understand their effects on our lives, and trying to formulate a way of expressing this in film in a way which would be clear and useful. In the framework of bourgeois values they are: they generate for their viewers an introspection, an acknowledgment that “yes, that’s how I am; that’s the way things are.” Yet this “mirroring” effect, common coin of critical bourgeois works, undercuts its own intentions. Focusing on a dysfunctioning bourgeois personality gains audience interest and sympathy through commonality. But simultaneously, in letting one’s analysis speak through such a character (despite whatever additional devices one uses as foils) the critique becomes ultimately no less stunted than the character presented. Such is a fundamental mechanism of bourgeois art. Insistent upon a representation of one’s own (bourgeois) image, it eliminates the possibility of any awareness outside the bourgeois framework. We go to the cinema to watch imaginary selves regurgitate the same things we already know, albeit worked through endless aesthetic and thematic variations. We leave saying, “That was real, that was powerful.” We also leave assured that nothing has, can, or will change, and the demands such change would impose upon us are indefinitely postponed. We depart SHAME or ZABRISKIE POINT or TRAPS secure and secretly comforted.

AFTER CHICAGO: 1969-1972

The Chicago Convention left as jarring a mark on my understanding as did the experience of prison. I was present both in the “street action”—with its coupling of exhilaration and paranoia—and in the backstage rooms where, to the extent things were planned at all, the theater was plotted. Chicago and its aftermath compacted and distilled essential elements present both in the Movement and in U.S. society. The romantic militancy of the street mobs, the mindlessness of mass psychology, the willingness of the Movement leaders to utilize the same media fakery as “the enemy” crystallized no less than did the police-state behavior of the ruling class. The impact of these things, intimately experienced, was for me disillusioning. After the convention I left Chicago, abandoning, on bad terms and with serious ideological differences, the Newsreel group. Like many others, I withdrew to rethink, to come to some understanding of the forces I had experienced. In California I lingered briefly on the edges of a Movement in disarray. Acquaintances stretched from pious middle-class pacifists to armed activists.

To pretend that “personal” events and circumstances are separable from so called extra-personal areas as one’s work or politics is one of the conceits of the bourgeois world. It is one of the methods by which one’s acts are disconnected from one’s self. By such technique we are dehistoricized and inoculated against responsibility (and attendant worries) about what we are actually doing. Currently playing the headlines with Mr. Nixon, this process is played out everyday by virtually all of us in our own lives. I raise this for at this juncture in this history such an event occurred. After moving to California I met and “fell in love with” Susannah, a woman of the upper classes. Sporadically, for three years I lived with her. In turn I was fed, housed, clothed—an abrupt change from seven years or so of sleeping on other people’s floors. Played out in materially modest terms, the situation presented both comfort and compromise. Proximity to wealth and participation in its dividends created a schizophrenia. While the presence and use of abstract “wealth” was a source of discomfort, release of financial worries provided a psychological relaxation which, whatever its contradictions with my political beliefs, was tempting. That the situation was muddied with a genuine liking and love of the person I lived with allowed, along with other facets, the foundation for rationalizing participation in behaviors which I saw as morally and politically wrong.

It is not surprising then that in this period the films made reflect just such a schizophrenia. One grouping is thoroughly “soft” and devoid of any but the most fatuous political usefulness: CANYON, FALL CREEK, FLOWER and SUSANNAH'S FILM. These represent an ideological collapse, the product of my own psychological failure in an environment where frivolity and the capital with which to enact it was a norm. That each of these films includes reference to concerns I still feel are pertinent in no way rescues them from their vacuity: their political edges were sops to my conscience.

During the same period, as if to compensate, the series PRIMARIES/ A TURNING POINT IN LUNATIC CHINA/ 1, 2, 3, FOUR was made. PRIMARIES is a simple film which merely establishes a definition of “politics” . Its narrative moves in paragraph blocks, with each sentence accompanied by different pictures of a young woman’s hands, feet, torso, face. The paragraphs are broken by brief walking shots with music, insertions—intended both to warm up a basically didactic presentation and to provide a mental breathing space to absorb the chain of logic. Moving from PRIMARIES’ definition of “politics”—an all encompassing: To Live Is To Be Political—A TURNING POINT IN LUNATIC CHINA provides a critique of the methods of communication employed by my fellow Leftists. The ritualistic posturing and sloganeering I had used myself and seen in action in Chicago and San Francisco State, the seizing of exotic foreign figures (Mao, Che) and ideological rhetoric (SDS debates on Stalinism)—all struck me as mistaken and useless. Working inversely to the Movement’s failure to communicate either to itself or to the public, such devices seemed more a series of theatrical mechanisms for convincing one’s self than for converting others. The more evident the collapse of the New Left became, the more strident and simplistic the theatrics became. TURNING POINT articulated this critique using the left’s own technique of analysis, dialectics, and by applying the maxims of one of its own heroes, Mao. Juxtaposing a droning recitation of an inflammatory Joseph Alsop column on China’s cultural revolution against similarly inflammatory leftwing posturing, it initiates a conscious probing of the means and techniques of mass communication, particularly film. 1, 2, 3, FOUR, draped in cloth of the left, like TURNING POINT, delivers a critique from within of the ideology—or more precisely ideologies  —of the “counter-culture” . Its schemata is simple: a series of couples are presented, each new couple retaining one member from the previous set. Each person represents one aspect of the ideological spread of the cultural “left” ; the member dropped is the least advanced of each couple. Thus we progress from liberal reformist to hippy “back-to-the-earth” dropout to a militant terrorist, and lastly to a woman who represents no stereotyped ideology, but rather questions all ideologies while not rejecting any wholesale. She advises that we must not narrow ourselves to some given Way, that we clearly do not have The Answer. Composed largely of direct readings from various counter-culture texts, 1, 2, 3, FOUR provides no answers, but rather it allows the internal dynamics of the “left” generate its own questions. It ends with the classic leftist inquiry: “What Is To Be Done?” . Threading between the needs of its audience for some form of “entertainment” and narrative structure, and the formal requirements of carrying out such an ideological debate, 1, 2, 3, FOUR represents for me—along with PRIMARIES and TURNING POINT—a distinct advance over the previous films, providing the beginnings, however flawed, of an opening through the curtain of bourgeois concepts and aesthetics.


The strains of moral and political compromise involved in accepting the benefits of upper class wealth for personal comfort eventually brought my relationship with Susannah to collapse. In the summer of 1972 I moved to Oregon to live with Elayne Ketchum and her daughter. Our “home” was a shoebox-sized cabin tucked beneath some alder and pine at the southern end of the Willamette Valley. My mood shifted to a withdrawn cynicism concerning the possibility, or meaningfulness of pursuing film at all. The cumulative experience of ten years of film work which still did not provide a base for “making a living” (average gross annual income under $2500); constant frustrations concerning distribution and publicity and their attendant impact on the political meaningfulness of filmmaking combined to throw the entire process into doubt. I attended to chopping wood, reading, hauling water and thinking. On the side I continued a longterm project of building a useful mailing list. In December the vague sense of questioning and thought quickly coalesced, and shortly a rough structural outline was sketched out for SPEAKING DIRECTLY. Susannah gave $1000 and later another $500. Others offered use of cameras, no-cost sound transfers and other help, generosities which opened the practical possibility of making the film.

With SPEAKING’ DIRECTLY, I sought to develop a film which would provide a material, dialectical analysis of the process which both I and my audience assuredly shared: the process of making and watching a film. Addressing itself directly to this, rather than skirting it with the usual metaphorical and fictional devices, the film is rooted in the belief that an examination of the objects and behavior of our daily lives is the only meaningful from which to construct a coherent picture of the world and our place in it. And likewise, that only through such a distillation might we formulate a workable basis for political action. Such an approach immediately opens one to a charge of self-indulgence by necessitating the placement of one’s self before the camera, and necessitating a discussion of the process at hand, filmmaking and film watching. Likewise, a material analysis raises the specter of didacticism. That SPEAKING DIRECTLY is both of these things I would not argue (though I would argue that the fictions and avoidances which are almost the whole of cinema constitute a far greater indulgence for both maker and viewer). The main thrust of the film’s argument throws the entire reifying process of the mass media into critical question. Thus the film similarly risks audience rejection by raising severe questions about the very process and act the viewer is engaged in. Realizing these inherent difficulties, SPEAKING DIRECTLY is constructed on a tight dialectical logic, shifting back and forth between relatively “warm” and “personal” sequences presented in an active “cinematic” style, and harder, analytical sequences in which the abstraction in form is equivalent to the content. In this manner the folksy narrative of “home” with its accompanying images of a house, Elayne’s exiting a sauna, and “psychedelic” trees, is jammed up hard against the Viet Nam sequence with its mechanistically repeated bombing loop and tension producing double track. Initially playing back and forth in this manner, then slowly reducing the pleasurable enticements in exchange for the austere flatness of the male/female sequences, and finally withdrawing all external stimulus to leave the viewers with their own thoughts and responsibility of being a “film watcher”

SPEAKING DIRECTLY risks the appearance of disunity. The capacity and willingness of the viewer to suspend the normal bourgeois viewing requirements (aesthetic pleasure, a straight narrative fictional development) and replace them with a willingness to engage in a logical and analytical process rather than a dramatic and theatrical one is the fulcrum upon which this risk swings. For the viewer who demands deflective “entertainment” and desires no more “thinking” than the jigsaw puzzle “thought” of figuring out Hitchcock, this film, will necessarily fail. A “break-out” from the form and content of bourgeois thought and its expression in the arts or in a discourse cannot occur in and of itself. Such a breakthrough in presentation is dependent on an equivalent breakthrough in the modes of perception and attitudes of the receiver. Whatever its virtues, or faults, a film such as SPEAKING DIRECTLY can be successful and meaningful only to the extent that it articulates and clarifies an awareness already inherent, however submerged and suppressed, in its viewer.

With the completion of SPEAKING DIRECTLY, this history enters the hiatus of the present. However adept the hands of its interpreter, a history a necessarily remains truncated and unfinished, subject to the alterations of further experience no less than the crust of the earth. What has been presented here has been narrow in its focus, a looking back at the making of some films and the processes by which they were molded. The result is a history riddled with gaps, more weighted with implications than explications. But, like any history, its value rests not in its capacity to describe a past, but to vault forward to prescribe a future. If this recollection is to have meaning then, it is only as a foundation upon which to construct a projection for the days ahead. Such a projection is promised.


Jost’s short films are available from Center Cinema Co-op, 237 Ontario St. E., Chicago 60611; Canyon Cinema, Room 220, Industrial Center Bldg., Sausalito, Calif. 94965