I cannot say that I am able to follow all the plot elements of Jon Jost’s Rembrandt Laughing. Jost himself has explained that he was aiming to tell the story “without telling the story”—indirectly, elliptically; and some early-Godardian business involving gangsters defeated my comprehension. But what a marvelous movie this is—and one with renewed relevance because of the current crop of anti-evolutionists.
     Rembrandt Laughing is a San Francisco movie as deeply mysterious as Hitchcock’s San Francisco movie, Vertigo (1958); and, again like Vertigo, it is a meditation on human transience. And more: the film meditates on the mind-boggling propensities of time and space as related to the speed of light, and the eternal mystery of cosmos in/against which our mortal scurrying about plays out. Recall the incredible overhead shot of a cup of mysteriously swirling coffee in Godard’s Two or Three Things I Know About Her (1967)? Jost tenders his version of the shot—and it is even more mysterious in his eye, as the whole galaxy seems to be churning and turning in his coffee (or, perhaps, cocoa) cup. Like Godard, Jost gives the lie to the notion that spirituality requires religious faith. Either filmmaker explores universal mystery without allowing the exploration, or the mystery, to degenerate into some convenient religious explanation that solves the mystery and kills the wonder.
     Friends and friends-of-friends populated Jost’s cast (with one exception), and there wasn’t any script, with the “actors” improvising most everything.
     The framing of the shots in this film! The exquisite use of natural light! The resonant use of the color red throughout! Nearly every shot is fresh, lovely, unexpected. And anchoring Rembrandt Laughing is the unassailable humanity of the two lead characters: a scientist/musician and an employee in an architectural firm—a one-time couple, where the man still is in love with the woman, and the woman has moved on, but not out of the man’s life. They remain united in friendship. Paradoxically, the pair are eternally bonded in Time.

5 thoughts on “REMBRANDT LAUGHING (Jon Jost, 1988)

  1. it should probably be noted that the coffee cup scene you write about I believe is actually from the film “Speaking Directly”, not “Rembrandt Laughing”.
    That said I agree with your assessment of both the coffee cup shot and “Rembrandt Laughing”. Similar scenes in RL may include the close ups of sand moving around, which were actually done by Nathaniel Dorsky, the actor who played the sand collector in this film. They are from his film “Ayala”. Knowing Dorsky’s status as an experimental filmmaker makes his feelings on the Toyota ad he discusses with Jon English all the more hilarious, but in a very subtle yet absurd way. Much of the film is like this.

    Like “Chan is Missing”, RL is a rare opportunity to get a taste of what San Francisco was like before yuppification took over. The editing is very skillful, as it’s filled with great shot compositions but nothing to flashy. Jon has a decent quality DVD available from his website, Worth the money.

  2. Frank is right, there are overhead cup shots in each films. In RL it’s actually miso soup. It’s the beginning of the conversation between English and Dorsky. In SD Jon accompanies his cup shot with a monologue about the nature of spirituality, and it’s disconnection from faith, or the lie that it must come “from out of this world”. In the RL cup shot, the other Jon (English) is talking about juggling three jobs that have “no relation to each other”. While the camera is still framed on the cup, Dorsky then starts a storry about a friend of theirs taking a pic of a flower in Golden Gate park that is from “outer space”. The conversation gets somewhat philosophical but not in the way that Dennis describes above which is far more akin to SD.

    To further nitpick, I’ll also say that the overhead cup shot in RL is more akin to the one in “2 or 3 things…” as it shows a spoon and the liquid swirling. With SD the shot featured the liquid being poured. I can see where one can get the two confused, but Dennis is claiming he hasn’t seen SD so that leads me to think either;

    a.) he’s seen the shot I’m referring to in SD, if not the whole film, and mistook it for the one in RL

    b.) he’s heard about the shot in SD and mistakenly applied it to the shot in RL


    c.) he’s psychic and somehow intuitively understood what Jost meant with the cup shot, as outlined in his “Speaking Directly” monologue.

    hey, stranger things have happened…;p

  3. For updating some things on website I found this, and just a note – the substance in the overhead shot in Speaking Directly is BEER. Home-made DIY beer. In Rembrandt Laughing it is indeed miso soup. Either cosmos is wonderful.

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