PASSAGES (Jon Jost, 2006)

Passages, Jon Jost’s latest work except for Over Here, which Jost shot last autumn in Portland, Oregon, unfolds in a different kind of world, a young child’s world of Nature, visual wonder, and a father’s implicit protection, companionship and love. In a written prologue, Jost explains that much of the film’s digital video material was shot while his young daughter, Clara, was by his side, beginning in 1997. I flip such statements for a fuller view; Clara’s being by his side means also that Jost was by her side, applying protective care without her being objectively aware of it (to which fact the video-maker’s invisibility becomes, for us, correlative). For once, normality and the romance of an idyllic state coincide. Here are father and daughter before a terrible Fall; for the written prologue proceeds to summarize unfortunate subsequent history. Jost’s legal rights regarding his daughter were severed by Portuguese courts on petition by the child’s mother, who had kidnapped Clara from their Rome apartment in 2002, following the breakup of their (non-marital) union. Kierkegaard once wrote that we deduce innocence from its subsequent loss; Jost, as a result of the malicious actions of the mother of his treasure and the lack of responsiveness to a child’s needs by Portugal’s legal system, is left to deduce the existence of Paradise from his subsequent loss of it. Passages has thus become what its material was not initially meant to be: a means by which Jost can spiritually reconnect with his daughter, to ease his side of their physical separation, and a monument to his love for her that someday Clara herself might visit, to ease the perplexing pain and anguish of lost time together that others have inflicted on her. What might have been merely a delightful work has deepened into a passionate reflection on the ties that bind and life’s unpredictability. Jost has subtitled the piece “a meditation for Clara.”

The video itself is a thing of Monetic/Turneresque beauty, of gorgeous imagery, processed in-camera, in perpetual transformation—a measured, almost entirely silent kaleidoscopic work that lives up to its title. However, Passages begins with three stills and two screens of the written introduction. The first bit of motion follows: letters of the title moving, in order, across the bottom of a blank screen, right to left—a scrolling reversal of which Jost is fond, perhaps to proclaim his independence from cultural norms. In any case, the delayed introduction of movement of any kind projects a magical aura, as though the invocation that the title represents has set the thing in motion. As the letters of the title are about to disappear off-screen left, the first image in motion appears, filling up the screen. Language has been replaced by something more elemental, primitive, enchanting. From its understandably embittered written prologue, Passages has found its way back to innocence.

Of what does this monochromatic opening image-in-motion consist? Well, that’s hard to say; and those deficient in Keatsian negative capability, who insist on knowing what literally the camera had in view, which now appears in a mysterious visual form, rather than allowing themselves to enjoy the sheer beauty of the image, may have a problem with the video’s opening movement—a problem, of course, of their own making. But a friend to whom I showed the video made a persuasive suggestion: hair; perhaps a child’s hair. However, abetted by the fact that the last of the opening stills, which comes from the film, consists of tall trees in a darkened forest, a viewer may as easily interpret the image as being a forest or some other form of plant growth. The result, in any case, is suggestive of the waving wheat at the beginning of Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s silent Earth (1930). A seemingly infinite number of vertical strands fluctuate, creating a dance of dark and shimmering light in a field, or sea, of grays. It is an image of heart-catching loveliness and pure enchantment; but as the fluctuation, after a spell, gives the appearance of slowing down because of the introduction of color (that is the effect color always has, at least to me), slightly rigidifying the image, at least impeding its luxuriant flow, a suggestion of trouble, or danger, enters in, and the image begins to resemble a forest more clearly—the kind in which children lose their way, in fairy tales. Or perhaps the light green color suggests a field of blades of grass. In any case, we are not looking at whatever it is from a distance; we are in the thick of it, and the slightly suffocating quality now makes each inflection of light seem all the more precious, as though it were an opening that’s letting in sunlit air.

Indeed, the clarification of the image suggests the perception, or the sharpening of perception, that accompanies the coming into being of someone from the oceanic “feel,” or sensitivity, of prenatal existence. Along with this, the fixed or static camera springs into life, moving screen-leftward, as the title had earlier done, only much more quickly. Layered in superimpositions, the forest sprints past. As viewer, we no longer are in the thick of something indeterminate; we are watching something apart from us, and this separation strikes us as correlative to the sharpening objectivity of an emerging consciousness. At the same time, memories of prenatal existence merge with the newer cluster of perceptions accompanied by a rapid static-like thumping on the soundtrack that can be interpreted as a heartbeat. The camera is again stationary. Dividing the forest are, first, one and then two vertical trunk-like outlines, one light and the other dark, that appear to contain the sea in motion, although in each case the sea moves up and down rather than laterally, as if the images had been cranked from their base line by 90°. This suggests a degree of unnaturalness in contradistinction to the “naturalness” of the oceanic existence that preceded it, traces of which persist. Concomitantly, a suggestion of exposure and vulnerability asserts itself. The image is dynamic; the surrounding forest disappears into blackness, the side-by-side trunk-like formations multiply, each containing its bit of ocean, the “heartbeat” persists, and we realize that at some point that we’ve passed the image has gone from color back to black and white. The further multiplication of the sea-containing trunk-like outlines results in a new forest, an abstract, symbolical one wherein the unnatural direction of flowing water implies further divisions between world and self, further self-divisions, further vulnerability and danger. The imagery becomes more and more abstract as the differently textured streams of water seemingly flow vertically upwards and, increasingly appearing as merging streams of dots, become less something than a sense or impression of something—an ironical reversal of the movement from abstraction to clarity that preceded it. For me, the ideas of our original oceanic existence (cosmic as well as prenatal), bloodstream, and the “stream of life” all merge here. This stunning passage culminates in another kind of reversal: the camera zips past clearly defined forest, only this time moving screen-right, and now in color, specifically, woodsy greens and browns. The sum of the camera movement left and and now right prompts the ironical suggestion of stasis (mathematically, zero), as though the entire passage were illuminating a single split-second of time, of being, of consciousness. The rapidity of the motion, accompanied by the “heartbeat,” besides suggesting pulse, creates the illusion that the trees themselves have taken flight and are in motion, conflating the grounded and the airborne, definition and abstraction, perception and feeling, time and timelessness, naturalness and unnaturalness. It is an evocation of life itself, with a nod to the oceanic existence that preceded it and dangers that lurk ahead. Jost’s retrospective “meditation for Clara” is also a meditation about his daughter.

Several passages later, by which time the imagery has moved back into black and white, the camera turns to put the sea back to the horizontal way that we normally perceive it. The water seems primordial, oozing with reptiles; as it degenerates into dots, sea could pass for forest or fields of grasses. Serpents, or gigantic sea-worms, appear in water that could be land or land that could be water. Sharp, jaggedy forms resembling gray glass and metal blades enter the frame, accompanied by a shrill noise like a drill—a threat. We glimpse behind this visual rendering of unnatural danger, and through it since the invading objects include transparent areas, rolling waves. As if by magic, the invaders withdraw and the shrill sound fades and is replaced by the lapping sound of the water. A child appears in the water—Clara, here perhaps five or six years old. Her blue bathing suit punctuates her gradual transformation from almost cartoonish abstraction to vibrant reality. Clara is under her father’s watchful eye. She speaks to her father: “Daddy, come swim.” Her importance is indicated by the blue of the suit (nothing else blue has appeared in the video), her removal of Jost from the realm of anonymity by her addressing him and, of course, her speech itself—the only words uttered in Passages.

Now the glass and metallic invaders re-enter the frame, this time targeting and closing in on Clara. It is one of the most striking moments of Passages when they withdraw from her, leaving the frame along with their shrill sound, leaving the happy child oblivious to all harm or threat of harm to her. What pressures danger’s withdrawal? A father’s will. Here is an expression of Jost’s parental desire to protect his daughter.

Given the associative logic of the heart, this desire of Jost’s leads him to a consideration of Clara’s birth—perhaps the piece’s most brilliant and piercing passage. Water has appeared so often in this film, how can Jost possibly signal that its next appearance is meant to evoke the cosmic ocean from which Clara, like the rest of us, sprung? In a passage of Warholian steadfastness and intentness, a gently rocking gray ocean, with hypnotic rolling patches of light, fills the screen. Jost holds this image a very long time, and, unless we foolishly resist this rhythmic expression of Clara’s (and our own) pre-conscious existence, this allows our own consciousness to be subsumed in it—at the least, imaginatively; possibly, even actually. But far more to the point is that his own entrance into this imagery allows Jost to reconnect spiritually with the daughter who has been taken away from him. At the least, in her absence he is able to reaffirm their bond. The video passes from closeup to long shot (or, at least, to an image that gives the appearance of greater distance), and bits and threads of red enter the image of water: the blood of Clara’s birth; the blood of life. This image is nearly intolerably moving because it is painfully divided. What appears to reunite father and daughter, spiritually, imaginatively, at the same time underscores their separation. The blood of birth is also the mother’s blood, and it’s the mother here who has separated parent and child. Any attempt to reimagine a child’s birth as the father’s (spiritual, imaginative, whatever) birthing process highlights the biological reality that is being imaginatively worked on, trumped and reversed. The blood of life, moreover, coincides with humanity’s mortal condition, so Jost’s endeavors to compensate for his and his daughter’s separation ironically underscore the possibility that the end of one or the other will intervene, imposing, at least on earth, a permanent separation. Pulse signifies the birth of life but also the gradual losing of it, and in Jost’s image—it is the most exquisite one in Passages—the red flows from left to right, not towards the camera, not towards either Jost or us. It signifies the connection he seeks while at the same time implying a spectacle that one is helplessly left to watch (again, the seemingly more distant image of water contributes to this outcome), like the legal ordeal that Jost has undergone. Clara’s blood is his blood, made so by paternity and love, and in the image in question we along with Jost must sit and watch it pass away. There is the ultimate irony that Clara is probably as oblivious to Jost’s efforts to reconnect with her through Passages as she was to the danger from which Jost sought to protect her in the earlier scene—danger that, in the form of her mother’s stealing her away from her father, has terribly come to pass. Accompanying the shot of ruby-tinged water isn’t the “heartbeat” we have heard but another repetitive, more jarring sound.

These dark undercurrents render more complex the water imagery itself, even apart from the ambiguity of the blood. Everywhere the water conveys the sense of absence that both father and daughter are suffering on his or her side of the enforced separation. One can’t hold on to water; it slips away, through one’s grip and grasp. (I recall an image in which water eludes the hand attempting to catch it in Jost’s 1987 Plain Talk & Common Sense (Uncommon Senses).) Passages is a poem of absence seeking an impossible alchemy to transform this into presence and reunion. One cannot say how much of this darker material is conscious on Jost’s part, but it enriches his prayer for his daughter, which conclusively becomes that she should be graced with love. Even this written declaration at the end of Passages, however, is riddled with ambiguity and a sense of loss and helplessness; for although Jost is ostensibly wishing for love to come to and protect Clara from a multitude of sources, to compensate for his enforced absence in his daughter’s life, Jost is also praying that Clara receive his love, somehow, from close-up rather than afar. Every hope in Passages implies the absence or loss that requires hopefulness as compensation. This helps make everything that is seemingly simple in it emotionally complex and terribly moving.

The image of the stream of life baptized in blood turns out to be, like every other image in Passages, a bridge to something else, a transformation, a passage—only more so. A whirling image implying creation—the video has summoned similar motifs before—moves the piece into another sustained dimension. Favoring pale, luminous yellow, pink and pink-violet, this long passage is as pure an expression of original awakening as I have seen. It is like a series of constantly, kaleidoscopically changing Turner watercolors—all that light, sunlit color, transparency, evanescence. We scarcely know how to explain to young people nowadays how decades of deepening pollution have robbed flowers and fruits in the United States of the richness of their perfumes and sweetness; but for those of us who cherish trace memories of the past richness, this passage in Jost’s piece has the capacity to restore our sensory delight to the imaginative full. That is how perfectly beautiful it is.

This “fall” into innocence culminates in a closeup of (I presume) Clara in the fullness of her glowing infancy. Not since Chris Marker’s La jetée (1962) has a closeup of someone’s sleeping eyes drawn such total attention. The baby is bathed in light. Imaginatively, spiritually, heartrendingly, Jost has worked his way back to a moment when he was there at his daughter’s side and their whole life together lay before them. The end of Passages is in search of a new beginning.

The title has at least a double meaning, referring not only to the transformations that images in the video seem to undergo but also to the state of visual form at a given point along that transformational journey—taken together, “passages” in the sense of parts, like passages in a piece of writing, or chapters of a book. However, it is the transformational implication of the title that most deeply engages my interest. In its course Passages moves back and forth between black and white and color, vast silence and some sound, mysteriously indeterminate imagery and clear-cut live action (Clara at play), the prenatal suggestion that this “mysteriously indeterminate,” oceanic imagery conjures and the live suggestion of the child’s soon-after-birth, a fixed camera and one in quick lateral motion. At any given point the imagery is in motion, fluctuating; but there is also this movement from one category of images to another, creating an impression of powerful cycles of movement inside larger powerful cycles of movement. Jost is thus able to evoke some sense of the force of life. It is an amazing accomplishment.

Postscript: Passages is my choice of the best “film” of 2006.

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