Three local venues are partnering this weekend to screen films by Jon Jost, a self-taught artist whose work ranges from filmed features to avant-garde digital essays. While on Sunday L.A. Filmforum will host the U.S. premiere of Jost's 2010 experimental video Swimming to Nebraska — which he describes as “an oblique critique of the kind of provincialism in which New Yorkers or Parisians or Angelinos [sic] … refer to the American mid-West [sic] as 'fly-over country' ” — the highlights of the program are the two early, rarely seen Jost features screening on Friday and Saturday.
Angel City (screening Saturday at Cinefamily), shot on 16 mm in 1976 for a budget of $6,000, is part Godardian detective story (with Robert Glaudini as a camera-addressing, bohemian private eye), and part spacey essay on Los Angeles as a place and as an idea. It's more episodic than narrative: One long chunk of its 76 minutes consists of an infomercial for the corporate mogul whose wife's death the detective is investigating; another is the wife's single-shot screen test for big-time director “Martin F. Spielkin,” which consists of a monologue about “eating yogurt with Adolf and Eva”: “It was the greatest moment of my life — it was a triumph of the will!”
The film's fiction is threaded together with long, unbroken shots of Los Angeles seen from a moving vehicle, soundtracked by monotonous voices trading off between reciting dry statistics (“Los Angeles, a city of 5 1/2 million telephones …”) and equally empty poetic proclamations (“L.A., city of ghosts, hungers fed by migrant labor …”). The overall tone is bitingly self-reflexive: Late in the game, the detective diffuses the potential pretension by saying to the camera, “While you were sort of dreaming about Los Angeles, I was plodding in it for real.”
Jost's 1978 feature, the Bret Easton Ellis–presaging Chameleon (screening at the Echo Park Film Center on Friday night) is a more cohesive, potent dose of similar stuff. Glaudini stars again in this day-in-the-life of a hustler who moves fluidly among shady corners of the art, film and drug trades. He's a scam artist whose main racket is peddling sham art (counterfeit paintings) to pseudo artists (Hollywood phonies). That business is threatened when a movieland wife claims, on the advice of an “investment counselor” named Spielberg, that she's switched her patronage over to photorealism. But she's still in the market for blow.
As in Angel City, here Jost distills the L.A. experience to the view from the driver's seat, but that tactic is used in Chameleon to much stronger effect. An early scene re-creates the mundane, free-associative, internal monologue that plays through all of our heads as we drive; over the course of the movie, that behind-the-wheel inner voice morphs into a spooky-silly paranoid coke delusion.
Armed with a $35,000 budget this time around, Jost again shot on 16 mm, which he had blown up to 35 mm in a Valley porn lab. Chameleon won the top prize at the American Film Festival, which later would become known as Sundance. At that point, as Jost writes on his website, “I turned my back on L.A., having had enough exposure in the year to make me 100% sure I wanted nothing to do with the place.”
He'll return this weekend — his presence is scheduled at all three shows.
LOS ANGELES FILMFORUM PRESENTS JON JOST | March 16-18 | Echo Park Film Center, Cinefamily, Egyptian Theatre | lafilmforum.org