Sifting through the past, reading symptoms and letting subjects reveal themselves are the strategies of psychoanalysis, but they‘re also the tools of found-footage filmmaker Jay Rosenblatt, whose body of extraordinary short films, which screens this weekend at UCLA, is testament to the power of close scrutiny. It comes as no surprise, then, to discover that Rosenblatt’s early career was split between psychology and filmmaking. The San Francisco–based filmmaker was drawn to the slippery depths of the past and of the human psyche, but ultimately found filmmaking a more apt form of exploration.
Rosenblatt stumbled into his second career when he took a Super-8 production class while finishing his master‘s degree in counseling psychology at the University of Oregon. ”I fell in love with film,“ says the soft-spoken 45-year-old, who now teaches filmmaking himself, ”and I became obsessed.“ After enrolling in the graduate film program at San Francisco State University, however, the artist quickly discovered that he disliked the stress of working with an unpaid crew on narrative projects. He opted instead for a quieter, more solitary practice. Using an optical printer, he reworks footage that he’s come across in archives or private collections. He slows it down, speeds it up, and generally re-focuses our attention in a process of critical revision.
It wasn‘t until Rosenblatt literally found some footage that his style took shape: ”I was going to work one day and saw these 16mm film cans being thrown out. I had no idea what they were, but I couldn’t let film go to waste, so I put them in the trunk of my car.“ A year later, he was mulling over ideas for his next film when he decided to look at the abandoned footage. ”It turned out that they were training films for doctors in bedside manner, from the early ‘60s, and they were very campy, very corny,“ he says. ”It was a bit of a gold mine. I realized that by playing around with the footage, I could make the doctor seem like a psychiatrist, and I could use it as a way of structuring Short of Breath.“
In Short of Breath (1990), Rosenblatt built a story about an unhappy young woman out of the images taken from the cans. Visually, the images reference the past, but the actual historical time and place remain unclear, creating a creepy sense of dislocation not unlike what the character in the story feels. ”It’s a back-and-forth process,“ he says about making the film from the 11 reels he had at his disposal. ”I liken it to a jigsaw puzzle, except that you have no idea what it all looks like.“
With his next film, The Smell of Burning Ants (1994), a tour-de-force rumination on growing up male, Rosenblatt‘s two original career paths merged quite fruitfully, and the process of self-analysis came to the foreground. The film grew out of a single image showing two boys fighting, and a third boy sticking his fist into the melee. ”The image triggered this fifth-grade memory of being part of a mob that beat up this kid,“ he explains, ”and from there I started thinking about male socialization and how cruel boys can be.“ The film’s heart-rending sequences show how the fear and anger of boyhood find expression in various forms of torture and violence. Rosenblatt drew from a dizzying array of sources, combining them to form the story of a single boy. Slow motion, repetition and re-framing give the film its compositional elegance, while a voiceover grounds the argument and the score lends emotional guidance.
Although inspired by collage artists such as John Heartfield, whose satirical photomontages of Hitler in the 1930s wrenched images from their ”proper“ contexts and offered them back with biting political commentary, Rosenblatt belongs to a tradition that dates back to Russian filmmaker Ester Schub, who, in the 1920s, retold the Russian Revolution through found footage. But the contemporary model for found-footage filmmaking is Bruce Conner‘s 1958 landmark A Movie, in which the artist used sounds and images appropriated from Hollywood and documentary films against an ugly corporate culture and trashed the cherished, very American ideals of the originality of the original and the authority of the author. A long list of filmmakers quickly followed suit. Needless to say, the practice of appropriation raises copyright issues, but they only seem to surface when large amounts of money are at stake, which for compilation filmmakers means never.
The recent proliferation of found-footage films may be due to the ever-increasing costs of traditional production, or to the coming of age of a film-school generation steeped in post-structuralist theory. Or maybe a culture hell-bent on self-improvement and introspection finds solace in being able to revisit the past; a psyche built with images may best be investigated through imagery. But perhaps most important, we’re just tired of images telling us what to be and do. ”On some level, a lot of us feel used and taken advantage of by images,“ says Rosenblatt. ”We‘re bombarded with advertising, and so many images are thrown at us, with a lot of agendas that we don’t necessarily subscribe to. There‘s something very empowering in taking some of those same images and throwing them back.“