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Tag Archives: All the Vermeers in New York

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All the Vermeers in New York, my 1990 film about the arts and stock market world of the time, along with other things, has been restored by the EYE Filmmuseum in Amsterdam and is to screen at the Rotterdam Film Festival in January 2020.  This has prompted the usual congratulations and nice words, though those who do so probably have little idea that while, yes, it is a very good film, and so on, in my life it is also an albatross, a shadow cast across my path. So a little story.

As the 1980’s were closing down, in 1989, I was finishing up a new film, All the Vermeers in New York.  It was my eleventh long film, and the first in which I had had anything remotely like a “budget.”  $240,000, most from the now-defunct PBS program American Playhouse, and the rest from a little NEA grant.  Against advice and the thoughts of some friends who know the “biz,” who had cautioned that AP was very script driven, and I had no chance at all to get money from them, I managed to raise all the funds myself, after two beers with Lindsay Law, then the head of AP.  I made clear there was and would be no script, that I improvised, had no “story” and would find it while making the film. I said it would be about the stock market, the arts world, with a hint of deep New York history in it. He bought it and popped for their bottom-of-the-barrel budget of $200,000.

For the first time I shot in 35mm, with acquaintances inquiring if finally I would get a DP because 35mm was, well, 35mm and different, professional etc.  I shot it myself, though I did have a camera assistant/focus puller.  No lights.  The way I always shot.

After it was finished, it was more or less mishandled, in terms of “business.”  It got a berth, to premiere at the Montreal Film Festival, via a now-dead film world hot-shot who had assured my erstwhile “producer” – to be unnamed here – a prize was in the works. Instead it was greeted with puzzlement, dubious press, and no prize.  (Somewhat later the head of the Venice festival told me he would have taken it.)  It showed then in Berlin and later at Telluride.  I personally contacted Roger Ebert (who had reviewed positively my first 1963 film Portrait) and asked him to look at it, which he did, and it got two thumbs up on Siskel and Ebert.  But American Playhouse found it just too strange for their imagined audience and they broadcast it in the TV wasteland time of August. Opened commercially by the fledgling Strand Releasing company (no established distributor was interested), against my advice it opened in 4 cities at once – New York (in a Village cinema that a month before had been a porn house –  I had argued to wait until it did BO elsewhere and then get a suitable setting), Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.  In LA it had 7 good reviews and none bad.  And as luck would have it, the LA riots happened on the opening day and the city was more or less closed down, along with the cinemas, for the next week. And so no BO, and pulled from theaters the next week. As luck would have it, it was bad luck.  While it ran for 6 months in Chicago and San Francisco, it flopped in NYC and LA, at least in $-terms, and nationally it made no money I ever saw, even though it sat on the Variety Top Grossing 50 list for nearly 6 months.

It did find some TV sales abroad and nearly recouped its costs which didn’t need to be given back to American Playhouse, so in effect it funded the next film, The Bed You Sleep In, which cost $110,000.  For a brief period in the “real” film world I existed.  The next few films did not get commercial release, and I moved to Europe where a few more unpleasant experiences inside “the business” confirmed my earlier view of Hollywood – that I just did not want to be around or deal with the people who made their living making or distributing films.

2874df95-9458-4e3c-8ca9-4a33795f36c7Emmanuelle Chaulet and Stephen Lack

Then, in 1997, shortly after it was introduced as a format, I had access to DV (digital video) through the Dokumenta arts exhibition in Kassel, Germany, and after having a camera in my hand for one minute promptly told myself I would never work in film again.  I immediately began making work in DV, using its qualities for what they were, very different from celluloid.   For some years I was deemed an outcast in the celluloid world, and treated as such.  I proselytized for digital, saying before 1998, that it was the future, like it or not.  And I began making films without worrying about money, figuring out how to make them for absurdly small sums (like a feature, La Lunga Ombra, with some modest name Italian actresses for $50 – of course no one was paid).  Since then I have made 9 narrative features in digital formats.  And 18 long films of documentary, essay &/or experimental forms. However, if one looked for public notice in reviews, articles and such, it would seem as if I had died 15 or so years ago.

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The reason for this change likely had a bit to do with aesthetics – my work in DV tended to be freer, more “experimental” and less narrative.  But it mostly had to do with money, which at bottom, is the driver for 98% of cinema.  It is a business first.  I had left, just as I had appeared ready for the cinema lime-light.  And while there is, I am sure, no written blacklist, there didn’t need to be one – there was a censoring mechanism already in place, the magical invisible hand of the market:  if it won’t make money it won’t be shown, and then it won’t be reviewed, and in practical terms it then more or less doesn’t exist.  In the old Soviet Union something similar was called making someone a non-person.  Here we use other mechanisms to accomplish the same effect.

And so while I continued to be productive, even more so than before, and while the creative/artistic quality of my work maintained and even improved, I slipped into the cultural shadows.  Lists of independent American filmmakers of one kind or another almost invariably fail to mention my name.  On the rare occasions that I exist in such contexts it is nearly always All the Vermeers in New York or  Last Chants for a Slow Dance, which attach to my name.  And never the long list of narrative features made in digital format since those times:

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Homecoming

La Lunga Ombra

Over Here

Parable

Coming to Terms

They Had It Coming

Blue Strait

These films are all as good as Vermeers, if not as glossy – sez me.  They are creatively all far more adventurous, taking risks and pulling it off.  But they are decidedly not “commercial,” and often are sharply barbed politically.  And they all cost one or two thousand dollars. Most were passed over by the festivals I sent them to – especially in America where the Iraq war trilogy of Homecoming, Over Here and Parable, each of which ends with a call for the impeachment of the Bush gang, was rejected by every festival they were sent to – ones that had shown my earlier work.

And the same could be said of my “documentaries” and “essays” which also for the most part fail to hew to conventional forms.  I was at the Yamagata Documentary festival in Japan 5 times in competition since 1989, but if you saw a list of US or world documentary filmmakers I would never appear.  Or similarly, were my landscape films Bowman Lake, Canyon and Yellowstone Canyon sent to a festival under the name James Benning, I would bet they would be shown.  Under my name they have never been screened.  Weird world.

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A list of my “documentaries” and “essays”:  Speaking Directly (1973), Plain Talk & Common Sense (1985), London Brief (1997), Nas Correntes de Luz da Ria Formosa (1999), 6 Easy Pieces (2000), Roma ritratto (2000), Chhattisgarh Sketches (2004), Rant (2007), Swimming in Nebraska (2010), Imagens de uma cidade perdida (2011), Narcissus Flowers of Katsura-shima (2012), Canyon (2013), Bowman Lake (2014), Yellowstone Canyon  (2019)

And “experimental”:  Muri Romani (2000), Vergessensfuge (2004), Passages (2006), Dissonance (2011), Muri Romani II (2019), Trinity (2012).

I, of course, have no way of really knowing why all this occurred, though to me it is pretty clear that the decades-long shift in American and European culture to raw dog-eat-dog capitalist business behaviors has taken root everywhere, including in esoteric film festivals which once at least provided a small shelf for less commercial work.  No more. Instead festivals are concerned perhaps about their corporate sponsors, about running up a high warm butts count, and… And some of them seem to be scams, charging submission fees, getting thousands of entries and cashing in.   Well, I could go on but I will stop.  The basic reality is that society at large has become totally corrupted and there is little reason to think one’s own little puddle in it is not also corrupted.  How it shows itself is varied, but it does so.

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Below are my films available on Vimeo VOD.  My website with information is

https://vimeo.com/jonjost/vod_pages

My website with information is:

http://www.jonjost.altervista.org/work.html

For two blog posts on becoming a non-person see

https://jonjost.wordpress.com/2015/01/27/on-becoming-a-non-person-part-1/

https://jonjost.wordpress.com/2017/04/04/on-becoming-a-non-person-2/

 

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articleLargeJames Rosenquist with his mother before a billboard he painted.

Once upon a time – seems like several lifetimes ago to me – in the sense mentioned in the previous post, I was a modest “person.” To say I’d made a little mark in the marginalized esoteric realm  – depending on the era and the POV – of American Independent film, avant-garde, experimental, Underground, or whatever names critics or academics cared to come up with. This began regionally – to say in Chicago, way back in the mid 60’s when I landed a little review for my first short film, Portrait, from none other than Roger Ebert. He liked it. And in the very constricted world of such filmmaking in Chicago, I seem to have emerged with a few others – John Heinz, Larry Janiak, Tom Palazzolo – as a little local name. Also in the press a bit later there was a picture of Kurt Heyl and me being arrested just prior to the Chicago Convention of 1968. A kind of “fame.”

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And then I left for the West Coast and vanished for a while, materializing once in a blue moon on some short film festival’s winners list. Big deal. And then, in 1974 or so, having made my first feature, Speaking Directly, and serendipitously having it invited to the Edinburgh Film Festival – at the time a hot festival for creative films – lo and behold it was reviewed, very favorably, by Jonathan Rosenbaum in the British film mag, Sight and Sound.  My “person” was greatly enhanced, and suddenly in the tiny realm of “new narrative”/experimental or whatever film, I became a modest “name.” I then got invited to festivals with my next films, Angel City and Last Chants for a Slow Dance, and these begot more print, which equaled more festivals, and more print. I became in the film worlds of the UK, Germany and Italy a little “name,” written up in newspapers, mentioned in magazines.  I did not become a name, for some reason, in France. But, in the terms meant here, I had become a real “person.” Around me a minor aura of fame attached. “Important people” deigned to talk to me, sometimes even to seek me out. In the words of a long ago friend from my brief sojourn in college, “You made it.” Whatever “it” was, it was having become some kind of public figure, a “name,” having acquired some kind of “fame.”

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Despite my disinterest in this phenomenon, or really my antipathy, and my peripatetic manner – moving always to new places where in one sense I had to start all over again, this new personhood grew, though modestly as the world in which it was housed was modest. After all, those who are interested in film-qua-“art” are few and far between. The dullest Hollywood hack has more of this kind of personhood than the biggest of avant-garde sorts. However, in 1989 I landed the modest funds from PBS to make a new film and came up with All the Vermeers in New York, done in 35mm, and which managed to get a very mismanaged commercial release in the USA. Courtesy of a personal note from me to Roger Ebert, it got 2 thumbs up in a national television mention, and my erstwhile “fame” squared. If nowhere near the Hollywood hacks, nevertheless I did find myself shortly thereafter on a podium with the likes of Clint Eastwood and Taylor Hackford (one of the Hwd hacks) and Abel Ferrara in the rarified airs of the Telluride Festival. Not long afterwards I was at the Beverley Hills Hotel, in the company of Kevin Costner and “the most powerful man in Hollywood”, his agent Michael Ovitz. I was being feted with a Lifetime Achievement Award (1991) from the IFP,  whose minions whispered in my ears that soon the studios would be knocking on my door. They never did, but following Vermeers, my personhood zoomed forward, little once-closed doors opened, and following a few more films – The Bed You Sleep In and Frameup, unreleased theatrically if well received critically, I had had more than enough of the total bull$hit of the film business, and I shifted to digital video when doing so was a film buff heresy.  My personhood and “fame” rapidly shriveled in the ever more money-minded ethos of the times, an era in which the sole measure of value was calculated in numbers with a dollar sign beside it. No big number there and you became socially worthless. In rapid order everything was monetized, and reviewers could only do reviews of big-time big-buck films with the aim of making more bucks.  Critics who once lavished praise on my work no longer could be bothered to take a peek – it didn’t have a “release” so the papers didn’t cover it, so they didn’t write about it, and hence did not need (or want) to see it.  It was all about money.  The rest could go die. And they did.

VER37wideSteve Lack in All the Vermeers in New York

It is getting on 25 years since my modest fame peaked, lets say around 1993 or so, though like an albatross around my psyche I still have people telling me they have “heard of” All the Vermeers, though most often they have not actually seen it, or anything else I ever did. Forget those 38 other long films and all those shorts!  Such is the nature of fickle fame, that it lingers as an echo, detached as it always was from reality. Increasingly over the decades, fame itself has become an end-all and be-all in our society.  Hence “reality TV” and YouTube and selfies.  And hence the general tone of my visits to various educational institutions where the general ethos seems to be wondering how to get rich and famous fast.  On Wall Street, or in Silicon Valley or in LA in the entertainment biz.  The examples are there to emulate, so as young people normally do, they wish to copy what they see.  Jobs? Gates?  Zuckerberg?  Kalanick?

And now, today, while in my own view (and that of some others) I am doing some of my very best work, my old fame/name is apparently so tarnished and worthless, such that people who once accorded me retrospectives, or introduced me at screenings with lavish praise, cannot be bothered to answer an email.  Happened last week as I was trying to rummage up some autumn screenings on the West Coast. Having written the same folks 2 or 3 times in the last months for the same purpose, this is what I wrote:

letter to cal arts

This was written to a place I’d been before, a few times and more in the last decades, and to people whom I apparently incorrectly imagined to be “friends” of the kind one makes among peers in this business. Ah well, live and learn. It is not, in the last years, the first time that such has occurred. MoMA, which once hosted a full retrospective of my work (1991) now declines to answer an email. I understand most the staff moved on and there are new people, but one would imagine institutional memory or rectitude would at least beget a form letter, thanks but no thanks. But instead plain old nada. Ditto with a few other such institutions I’ve dealt with over the years, in the USA and Europe. And people.

On one level I could frankly care less, except that this places large dings in my very minimal annual income, and having no pension, SS, or other fall backs, at 73 and counting, it is actually damaging.   Especially when those saying “no,” whether in word or silence, sit in comfortable institutional settings and are well paid.  And more so when one imagined them as “friends.”  Not that I am alone in America in this situation, which I think is rather more common than our national pundits would like to acknowledge. Hung out to dry.  Vets.  IT worker bees.  Factory workers.  White collar folks replaced with H1-B or AI machines.  The poor.  Artists.  Finally it’s all about the money.

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As an observer of the world, and particularly of the arts world, I know well that the fickle finger of fate (and fashion) flits bee-like from flower to flower, and nothing is so yesterday as someone older (though if your fame is hyper your decrepitude will be duly celebrated for having survived it all). And I know as well that for the most part my work has been “out of fashion” for some time, not that it was actually ever “in,” though that would scarcely seem to matter since most of “the people that matter,” to say many programmers, curators, festival directors, etc. haven’t bothered to even look at my work for more or less 20 years, so in fact they wouldn’t know if it were or weren’t “in fashion.”

Or perhaps it is my often caustic commentary in public regarding contemporary “art,” or my withering reviews of presently popular films (say those of Jarmush, or Reichart) which has silently worked, in effect, to produce an effort to silence me? Or the public engagements I have taken on of choice – such as defending Mark Rappaport in his battle with Ray Carney. Or perhaps my loud-mouthed and persistent sharp criticisms of America’s religion of capitalism, and all the mangling horrors it imposes on us, and on the world.

Who knows? Certainly not me.

I accept all these things, though not happily. One would like to think artistic quality had its own value. Or that “paying one’s dues” might accrue a certain respect. Ah, but I am just an aged curmudgeon, so what the hell?

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“In America the majority raises formidable barriers around the liberty of opinion; within these barriers an author may write what he pleases, but woe to him if he goes beyond them.”

“As one digs deeper into the national character of the Americans, one sees that they have sought the value of everything in this world only in the answer to this single question: how much money will it bring in?”
                                                                                         Alexis de Tocqueville

Frankly over the last decade or so I’ve pondered whether there is indeed some kind of blacklist at work. While I am seriously skeptical such would be, out on my loose tether to my society the feedback I receive certainly reads as if there could be one. I am certain in the small world of grants there is a rumor, which unfortunately I cannot elaborate on here, which has functioned as a black-list in that world since sometime around 1989 or so. As cynical – or is it realistic? – as I am about the nature of fashion, crowds, social politics, particularly in America which I know the best, I don’t quite think it is paranoia which animates my thoughts on this seeming banishment. Rather it seems something deeply enmeshed in the American ethos, something which has sent many of America’s artists and writers fleeing to other lands which seem more hospitable.

Today as the curtain of Donald Trump’s administration is parted, and his yahoo policies are unveiled, my sense is that if he manages to get his way, the blacklists will become very tangible,  if they haven’t already done so.  And I, and many others, will be as welcome as Muslims to the newly Made Great Again America.  And if he does not, and is booted from the White House in a few more months, it probably won’t change much anyway: the tenor of the times.  

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Money talks, bullshit walks.