PARABLE (Jon Jost, 2008)

Jon Jost’s films have always tended toward parable. Now this is the case again with Parable, the jewel of his Fuck Bush (He Fucked Us) Trilogy. (This overarching title is mine.) Homecoming (2004) homed in on the aftermath of a returning dead soldier; Over Here (2007), of a returning living soldier. Now Jost turns to the Bush-Cheney & Co. assault on individual rights and freedom, its devastation of these, and the linkage between this war at home, on the American citizenry, with the illusory nature of American hopes and promises predating Bush 43. Jost’s parable is a perfect one: crystal-clear, yet elusive, mysterious, irreducible, unfathomable. It was videographed in Lincoln in, as Jost puts it, “the Time of Bush.”
     Like his Last Chants for a Slow Dance (1977), one of whose violent aspects it brilliantly revives, the film proceeds by set-pieces, some of which are fashioned from Nature outdoors. A long one has two men supposedly in the front seat of a car, the supposed road rapidly visible in retreat through the back window. In reality the scene is artificial; facing us, the men’s images are scrunched and thinly outlined in black. Jim, who has just abandoned his wife, is driving the other man’s car. (The owner/passenger’s license has been suspended for drunk driving.) As country-western music plays on the radio, Jim extols the virtue of American freedom, identifying with it the road of possibilities before them. But this road is excluded from the frame; and even if were it visible, it would not be real, but illusory. The men themselves are reduced by the comic strip captions that reveal what they are thinking, each about the other and in response to what the other is saying. While Jim loved going to church as a boy, the owner/passenger did not. With sore irony this disparity binds them as they both end up singing the hymn “I’m in the Lord’s Army.” Jim, sentimentally, still is; his companion “ain’t marchin’ anymore.” Recall Tennyson’s poem “The Two Voices”? Could not these two chaps represent competing aspects of a single personality?
     After Jim anally rapes and then shoots his companion in the brain point-blank, two other characters appear in the country. Their relationship, that of master/owner and slave, reminds one of Roman Polanski’s great The Fat and the Lean (1961). The androgynous slave—mime rachael levalley gives a haunting performance—has his/her ankle bound by rope. (Sometimes an upper torso shot makes the slave-in-motion seem perfectly free; but he/she isn’t.) Updating the myth of Sisyphus, the owner is continually (though not continuously) unravelling a vast, serpentine pile of rope. When he is shown first engaged in this activity, we cannot see the rope; what we see is his upper body rhythmically “at it,” his screen-right shoulder undulating in and out of sunlight. In a later, parallel scene, the owner, indoors, appears to be having sex with someone whose moans we hear but who isn’t included in the frame. No; the owner is once again unravelling rope, while the moans emanate from the slave, who is masturbating in his/her space of confinement outdoors. The poor slave pays a terrible price for getting the owner all hot and bothered. We hear the sound of a cleaver as it is being sharpened in the bathroom as the slave stands upright in the tub.
     A recurrent visual refrain is the owner’s eye through a peep-hole, looking in on the slave. The surveillance is creepy and frightening—but also, somehow, sad. I was reminded of Redon’s Cyclops. (At one point the owner at work at his pile of rope is shot through a tight-meshed screen, making him also appear to be a prisoner.) Another recurrent visual refrain is a tree or trees luminously alive in a breeze. This symbol of freedom in certain contexts ironically reflects on the lack of freedom that humans experience.
     Jim eventually reappears and comes to a bad end. (The slave’s.)
     Jost’s film concludes with a postscript indicting Bush and Cheney and other members of their administration. The collision between the preceding poetic parable and this straight shot of prose generates tremendous feeling.
     An American masterpiece.

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