Jon Jost’s The Bed You Sleep In: art, truth, and subversion.

By Hing Tsang

Just over forty years ago, an important essay by Julia Lesage (reprinted in this issue) championed the early work of celebrated U.S. independent filmmaker Jon Jost, praising both its formal innovation and socio-political relevance.[1] [open endnotes in new window] The film in question was Speaking Directly: Some American Notes, an essay film that according to Lesage took much from the highly personal and often autobiographically flavored work of U.S. writers such as Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson, Herman Melville, and Sylvia Plath, yet it was also informed by the political and formal experimentation of Jean Luc Godard and Jean Pierre Gorin. Lesage remarked that Jost’s film was a “gentler, more personable, more humane, and very U.S. version” of the Marxist post- 68 work from the two French filmmakers. Her essay also emphasized that the film was distinct from the closure of either narrative fiction or the linearity of documentary, but it also attempted to link personal and collective concerns in a way that as an audience we “question our and others’ experiences.” This was also achieved through an emphasis on locality and place—characterized by a “human use of the environment” that took into account the often improvised and uncertain nature of our emergent historical and political relationships. Lesage ends her analysis in an open fashion, wondering how Jost would develop these themes in his subsequent work.

What follows is an attempt to answer this, with special reference to one of Jost’s most acclaimed and accessible features called The Bed You Sleep In (1993). This was a film that was part of a long career that continues to blur the boundaries between experimental practice, documentary, and fiction[2] through practice that has been exhibited in cinemas and art galleries as well as being broadcast on television in Europe and the United States.[3]

The Bed You Sleep In arguably represents Jost at the height of his powers during his foray into more narrative-style filmmaking in the 1990s. Jost had recently won the John Cassavetes Lifetime Achievement Award in 1991, and his work was both publically funded and seen at film festivals and in art cinemas. At the time of its release, the film was highly praised by Jonathan Rosenbaum, as a “tragic, beautiful, and mysterious film” (1995) .[4] Outside of the United States, the Australian film scholar, Adrian Martin, described the film as a “brilliant corrosive work” (1995).[5] Taken together with two other films, which also starred the same actor Tom Blair—Last Chants for a Slow Dance (1977) and Sure Fire(1989-1990)—Martin has also claimed that The Bed You Sleep In was part of “one of the greatest, most important and powerful bodies of work in all cinema.” More recently, in a book about independent U.S. cinema, the British film critic, Geoff King, draws our attention to the fact that the film is a narrative centering on the break down of trust within family relationships which nevertheless radically subverts Hollywood norms of continuity and mise en scène, straddling the line between “avant-garde abstraction and more costly narrative film production” (2005: 139). While a little more needs to be explained about the avant-garde elements in Jost’s work, it should be noted that Jost’ working practice has always been more akin to the artisanal practices associated with documentary and experimental filmmaking.[6] With little more assistance than that of a sound recordist and a camera assistant, Jost has always operated his own camera and edited his films.

Tom Blair began a long lasting collaboration with Jost in Last Chants for a Slow Dance (1977). Here, he plays a misogynist drifter. Tom Blair as Wes, the small town business man in Sure Fire (1990
Tom Blair as Ray in one of the final scenes of the Bed You Sleep In (1993) An early sequence in The Bed You Sleep In establishes Ray as a family man and a lover of nature.

It is important to note as well that Jost’s work (at this stage of his career) is resolutely narrative. This can be more readily understood through a brief overview of the film’s plot and formal structure. The film is a story of an ostensibly happily married middle-aged man who is a nature lover and the owner of a lumber mill in a small U.S. town. His life is turned upside down when he is accused by his second wife Jean of sexually abusing his own daughter Tracy. Ray denies this, but we later learn that the daughter has committed suicide. Upon returning home, Ray finds that Jean has taken her own life. Unable to bear this he shoots himself at the end of the film. In other words, this is a tight story with a classical structure, involving a limited amount of characters, which takes place in a unified time and place. The location in which the film was shot is a small town called Toledo which had seen much better days, especially during the long-gone heyday of the timber trade.[7] Jost also wanted to represent something quite general that was directly relevant to the contemporary United States. On repeated occasions, Jost has defined the film as a testament to the breakdown of social trust and dialogue within the United States, referring both to the hysteria surrounding issues of childhood sexual abuse and a more widespread deterioration of all areas of public discourse.[8] Shouting and accusation replaced listening and understanding.

Nevertheless, it should be noted at this stage that the film is also characterized by extended moments when the camera moves away from the characters and their story to look languidly at images of nature, the workplace and winding narrow country roads, producing “a sense of the mood and texture” of small-town United States. (King 2005: 140). Indeed, over a third of the film shows pure descriptions of workplaces and landscapes, some of which do not feature people. The duration of the shots—many of which last over two minutes and are entirely static—exceed what viewers might be used to experiencing within a narrative feature or even an informative documentary.

But it is here that a recent essay by Lesage[9] can also inform our engagement with the seemingly more forbidding experimental elements in much of Jost’s work. Rather than emphasising the “abstract nature” of avant-garde practices, she refers instead to what she calls the “lyrical avant garde,” embodied in the work of contemporary colleagues of Jon Jost, most notably Leighton Pierce,[10] but also Bruce Baille, Gunvor Nelson and Midi Onodera. She contextualizes this practice through making connections with a documentary description of place. Lesage tells us that “objects and environments always have a story to tell about social relations, about what’s unique and typical.” For the filmmaker, this is accompanied by a strong acknowledgement of the importance of visual pleasure and an engagement with the aesthetics of film craft. Lesage remarks that

“great viewing pleasure comes when a film/video maker structures a vision of everyday spaces for me so that I can attend to urban and domestic locales in ever new ways, and I return to the such films to re-experience their expressive perspectives.”

These remarks highlight both the importance of our ever shifting relation to place and the role that film as a creative art form has to play in renewing and transforming these relationships.

And this is an important idea during a time when there has arguably been a reification of form within mainstream U.S. fiction filmmaking. This is implicit in David Bordwell’s recent writing on cinematic staging. He reminds us that “the standard scene remains a conversation” within much commercial fiction practice. Bordwell also refers to a generalized “stand and deliver approach.” This is characterized by an “intensified continuity” style (2005: 22), dependent on the use of master shots and reverse close-ups; it has been influenced by standardized television practice across all continents (30). As an alternative, Bordwell recommends “depth-oriented” cinematic direction in which “staging and editing cooperate” (17). Bordwell applies this concept of depth-oriented directing through an analysis of the work of filmmakers such as Mizoguchi, Angelopoulos, and Hou Hsiao-hsien. But Bordwell’s overall account of filmmakers, as active agents in the pursuit of their craft, working within specific social contexts, also applies to the work of Jon Jost.

And with equal relevance to what I am trying to say in this essay, Adrian Martin, has recently espoused an idea of “social mise en scène.” He highlights the social commitments of the filmmaker, so that we are aware of contexts as well as the long established rituals and habits that are then defamiliarized and even contested within a given film (2014:129-131). Martin is careful to remind us that he does not want to repeat the tired tropes of “auteur theory” but instead draws our attention to shared engagement with “the newly grasped raw material of social codes.” It is then that “known rituals are recreated, marked, inscribed in the flow of the film, usually in order to be transformed” (Martin 2014: 134). Nevertheless, what both Lesage and Martin have referred to in terms of “ritual” and “interaction” takes place in a physical environment whose physical and temporal depth is expressed through camera position and composition. This is what I shall now attend to first of all. Jon Jost’s The Bed You Sleep In is very much a film about place.

Jon Jost’s dramatic landscapes

Jost’s landscape shots are integrated within the overall aesthetic of his films. Intimate narrative sequences which highlight human interaction are interposed amongst lengthy sequences that draw our attention to the wider social and geographical contexts of the region. In this sense, the overall structure of this later film, The Bed You Sleep In, shares much in common with the earlier 1970s film, Speaking Directly, in regard to which Lesage referred to the juxtaposition of more “homely” sequences and other more abstract sequences that described the global realpolitik of the United States in the early 1970s.

Almost twenty years later in a film likewise shot in Oregon,[11] in The Bed You Sleep In Jost begins and ends his narrative with the world of work and the factory. The film does not so much convey a picture of unmediated nature but rather the often uneasy relations between humans and nature at the end of the 20th century, constantly being worked out in provisional and contested terms. The film begins with extended sequences of the logging mill, lasting over three minutes; it ends with a wide shot of the hills desolated by long-term deforestation.

Furthermore, if we look at individual compositions in formal terms, we see that Jost emphasizes deep perspective so that we gain a sense of an evolving social world. Within the shots of the workplace, the use of a wide lens and accompanying depth of field provide strong perspectival lines, drawing our attention towards both the centre and exterior of the composition. Planks of wood or logs at the bottom frame point perpendicularly to the centre of the composition and also overlap with the borders of the frame so that we have a sense of a world outside the frame.

Part of the reason for the dynamism within the individual frame lies in the fact that this particular town has a hilly landscape, allowing Jost to include the paper mill and the logging factory juxtaposed within one single shot. This often gives a slightly cartographical feel to the film; the landscape shots link individual viewers to a wider landscape without such an image ever becoming the equivalent of a scientific view from nowhere. Therefore, in one of the first compositions we see traces of the paper mill from the perspective of the logging mill. The camera is positioned for a slightly high angle shot that privileges the perpendicular lines of the foreground. These perpendicular lines are also perspectival lines, whose vanishing point lies just to the right of the paper mill in the distant background.

Formally, this composition anticipates much of the deep staging and aesthetic concerns of the rest of the film. The fact that the smoke of the paper factory almost engulfs a group of trees and is seen from the perspective of another workplace that employs local people anticipates the themes of community, labor and (global) environment also highlighted in the film. But it is also an extremely ambivalent image that anticipates the epistemological and ethical questions explored in explosive terms later in the film. Implicit here is an acknowledgement that we perceive reality from a situated perspective that reflects a specific historical horizon not of our own making. The individual’s view is limited and deeply colored, for better or for worse, by the beliefs of the communities one identifies with. But Jost’s visual style here also hints at the importance of lived perception and our need to see our shared world in ways that exceed the contingent and take into account wider global contexts.[12]

Nevertheless, it suffices at this stage to highlight the painterly nature of Jost’s imagery. Color and light are equally as important as line within Jost’s compositions. Strong contrasts between bright and shaded areas contribute to the internal dynamism within the frame. Tonal contrast contributes to the energy of the overall composition where shaded areas occupy most of the upper part of the frame. Small objects such as a brightly illuminated car parked on a more diagonally-orientated road break up the composition, preventing it from being monotonous or oppressive. In fact, Jost’s practice takes much from the pictorial disciplines of painting and photography. Jost himself[13] has often spoken about his admiration for other visual artists, referring in particular to the paintings of Edward Hopper—where strong tonal contrasts are further broken up by small but very visible objects or human figures often placed away from the center of the frame. Jost has also expressed his admiration for the landscape photography of Joel Sternfeld.[14] The work of this U.S. photographer is notable for its use of strong diagonals within compositions that document across urban and rural contexts neo-liberalism’s excesses and its detrimental effects on the quality of life. In Sternfeld’s work (and Jost’s), roads and railway tracks are foregrounded in a way that they break up the frame either laterally or twisting into the distance. We gain a view of the environment which might be lyrical but does not shy away from focusing on the effects of industrialization and consumer culture.

Automat by Edward Hopper (1927) Lake Oswego by Joel Sternfeld (1979)
This color photograph of an abandoned train line in New York was taken in  2000 as part of the Walking the Highline photo-series. All the Vermeers in New York (1990) has remained one of Jost’s most accessible and popular features but was also totally improvised without a script. Jost was granted access to the Metropolitan  Museum of Art

Perhaps even more well-known is Jost’s long-term admiration of Vermeer. He refers directly to the Dutch artist’s existing work in the eponymously named film, All the Vermeers in New York (1990). Here, I can trace some of Vermeer’s influence on Jost’s visual style by recalling some of the observations of Svetlana Alpers in her analysis of Northern Painting. Alpers makes a clear distinction between the descriptive presentations of everyday life which characterize Dutch painting and the rhetorical persuasion and dramatic narratives of earlier Italian painting. She also draws our attention to cartographical elements within the Dutch painters’ composition, through their inclusion of maps and diagrams and the slightly heightened perspective of many of the paintings from this period. The U.S. theorist also draws links between painting, early lens culture, and mapping, where “the distinctions between measuring, recording, and picturing were blurred” (134); thus the paintings achieved through graphic description “a meeting place of the world seen and the world pictured” (35). Many of these kinds of visual concerns are reinvigorated in Jost’s work, as I shall attempt to demonstrate, although there are also major differences that reflect different worldviews of these artists across centuries.

Nevertheless, for the time being it suffices to note that Jost also uses flat planes that might otherwise block our perspectival vision within overall compositions that still suggest spatial depth. For example, the four following images which occur between more overtly dramatic sequences, flat surfaces are incorporated within compositions that overall still suggest depth and context.

Strong lines and expanses of a single color are combined with strong perpsectival lines that direct our sight line beyond the borders of the frame. The flat surfaces of modern human habits are off-set by perspectival lines that direct our eye towards an environment that is not man-made.
The prettyness of the house is off-set by the dark woods in the background. Specks of color at the bottom of the frame also provide tonal contrasts. Strong modernist lines, which emphasize flatness and the harshness of contemporary civilization, are broken up by both foliage and small areas of color.

In the first of these, the image’s flatness is broken up by both perpendiculars which draw our line of vision towards vanishing points which would otherwise be obscured, while in the second image perpendicular lines hint at the existence of a vanishing point far outside the frame’s right edge. Elsewhere, as we can see in an image of a small house and a larger town-building, the flatness of a surface, which is presented to us face-on, is broken up by dark foliage either in the foreground or the background. In the images, graphicality is always integrated with a painterly texture emphasized by strong tonal contrasts between light and shadow.

Pictoriality and social mise en scène

My emphasis on graphic elements and tonal contrast emphasizes the dramatic elements within Jost’s visual depiction of the Oregon landscape. Equally, it could also be argued that Jost’s visual approach to dramatic sequences with actors is also highly pictorial in a way that stands in contrast to much Hollywood production and televisual practice.[15] For Jost offers something aesthetically much richer, through his use of composition, camera movement, and staging of characters within the social context of small-town United States.

This is evident in sequences that would otherwise resort to the kind of standard set-ups decried by Bordwell (2005) and Martin (2014). After an extended descriptive sequence that shows the mill’s workings, we are introduced to the mill owner, Ray, who is speaking to his colleague, Doug. In other words, this is a standard conversational set-up between two people. But immediately notable is the absence of a master shot that would allow us some kind of privileged access to the geography of the room. Instead, Jost employs “aperture framing.”[16] This term, taken from Bordwell, simply means a frame within a frame. Jost uses the visual device to allow us equal and even access to the individual psychology of the close up, the inter-subjective interaction of a conventional two shot, and a wider sense of social geography. Therefore, the close ups either Ray or Doug include the window on either side of the frame or near center in the background. In addition, Jost’s aperture framing also includes maps and diagrams in the background, which break up the flat surfaces by adding tonal contrast and texture. The presence of maps which locate the mill within a specific local U.S. geography also remind us of the potential connections between the individual and the collective[17] even if the events of the later sections of the film also show that these relations can be extremely fraught.

The individual close-ups themselves are also distinct from the symmetry and parity in shot-size associated with classic reverse shots in mainstream Hollywood films and across televisual practice. Instead of focussing our attention solely on faces and individual psychology, Jost’s compositions convey a sense of pictorial autonomy because of their internal dynamism. Backgrounds are broken up and the slightly off-center positioning of the human figure combine with background elements to create strong lines of vision that point outside of the frame at different angles. Such cinematographic composition is different from more televisual methods of breaking down a scene, where the most important concern is “matching” shots of human faces.[18]

It should also be noted that the dialogue of the scene is rooted in the cadences of everyday speech yet still reflects widely held attitudes towards the United States’ precarious position on the global stage. The two men speak about everyday business procedure, before complaining about competition from Japan and also about local environmentalists. The acting here is extremely low key, as if we are eavesdropping on a private conversation between colleagues. Both men move rapidly between different topics, often not enouncing their words fully, sometimes looking away from one another—in a way that works in a differently from either Hollywood melodrama or televisual fiction. “Social mise en scène” is used here in such a way that we are immersed in the everyday attempts of people grappling with situations that are not of their own making and whose consequences they do not yet fully understand. Their attempts to attribute a poor business climate on environmentalism and competition from Japan ignore many complex factors such as the long-term effects of over-logging and the many changes within economies of scale and technology.[19] In other words, Ray and Doug are wrong about most things. But it should be noted that Lesage elsewhere has also reminded us that the emergence of social identity is always provisional and fallible, and “we may also want to show how they or we misrecognize ourselves, misunderstand our own identity or social roles” (2014). It is the tragic dimension of these issues that I will be bringing to the fore in the latter part of this essay.

Nevertheless, for the time being, I would note that Jost’s The Bed You Sleep In is not strictly speaking a documentary in formal or technical terms. In contrast to the spontaneous practice of, say, Frederick Wiseman or the Maysles brothers, Jon Jost’s film is a fictional narrative that was fully scripted before shooting, unlike some of his earlier improvised fiction films. It is therefore characterized by a formal control associated with fiction film direction that also allows us access to intimate scenes amongst its characters that would be intrusive in non-fictional contexts.

This can be seen in a short romantic interlude that portrays the seemingly loving relationship between Ray and his second wife Jean. The scene is simple enough. We see a middle-aged couple prepare a picnic. They kiss and then leave frame to make love. But here I want to show how Jost’s economy of means provides us both with a sense of the environment and also strong emotional empathy for his protagonists.

The sequence consists of just two shots, but it is the combination of camera position, choreography of actors and accompanying camera movement that sustain and heighten our involvement as viewers. Jost begins with a wide shot that is framed from a high angle, allowing us to see the textures of both the wood and the table. His choreography of the actors also allows the characters to enter the frame individually at slightly perpendicular angles, thus adding to the depth within the frame. As an audience we are able to see the full-bodied gestures and rhythms of two individual people who have become totally at ease with one another. It is only after we see Jean place food on the table and the couple have sat down on the flat surface in such a way that we see them frontally that Jost cuts to a tighter shot. This shot, which is filmed almost over Jean’s shoulder, reminds us of her status as a strong confident woman. The height of the camera gives even more prominence to the textures of the woodland and the interplay between light and shadow. The sequence ends with a pan that follows the couple embracing and leaving the frame to make love, so that as viewers we are left with a view of strong sunlight shining through the trees.

Therefore, in a relatively short and simple sequence we can see Jost as a painterly visual artist who explores the interplay between texture, light and color. But we are also aware of Jost as a fiction director, where composition, choreographed movement within the frame, and co-ordinated camera movement work in tandem in a way which is consonant with Bordwell’s attention to cinema’s potential to combined both theatricality and pictoriality (2005: 9). And finally, we also sense an underlying documentary attention to the daily details of working people’s lives in Jost’s work, which in this particular instance is marked by lyricism and gentle sensuality.

Nevertheless, the apparent harmony between husband and wife is short lived and never again repeated. Instead, the film proceeds to demarcate distinct spaces for men and women. We become increasingly aware of two distinct physical and mental “worlds” within Jost’s account of small-town United States. Men are seen going out and about in the town, conducting their business activities, eating and drinking with other men, or fishing together near a stream. These activities, which occur either outdoors or in brightly lit interiors, are contrasted with the more intimate relationships between women that take place within the enclosed spaces of private homes. Behind these closed doors, Jost also presents us with forms of female communication and intuitive understanding that are more oblique yet more intimate than the different forms of male impression management, seen in this and other films by Jost.[20] Most notably, we also become witnesses to conversations between women friends that confront the very dark side of human nature, which here includes physical and psychological abuse.