Upon my first viewings, I felt an immediate affinity to Jay Rosenblatt’s work. Perhaps it is because his films are similar to films I’ve created in the past, and perhaps it is because The Smell of Burning Ants and The D Train both approach topics that are frequently on my mind. Throughout The Smell of Burning Ants, there exists a sense of dread, a fear or apprehension of that which one is only barely able understand. The D Train, too, utilizes a similar approach. Rosenblatt never explicitly names the constructs and dilemmas he is confronting, and yet in a state of both knowing and unknowing I receive his message. His films do follow narratives, and they do feature easily recognizable images and scenarios, and are in that way considered “watchable”, but there traits are hide deeper and harder to swallow ideas.
In relation to my project, Rosenblatt’s films regularly tackle issues of identity, much as I hope my film will. It is in this broad thematic connection that I see my inspiration coming from.
I want my film to be a journey like how The D Train is a journey and a revelation like how The Smell of Burning Ants is a revelation. The D Train’s inexhaustible march towards an ultimately predetermined ending has in part shaped how I’ve conceptualized my film, and I want my finale to have the cold tranquility of the old man alone on the bench, swept away.
In the summer of 2014 I travelled to Léon, Spain with a group of fellow UW students to participate in a four-week experimental learning program. During our time there, we stayed in the dormitories of the local college, sharing the facility with a few other students from around Europe. Because of our schedules, we rarely saw these dorm-mates, though every once in a while they would join us for a meal or two. Midway through my time there, Robin Williams died suddenly and to our surprise. Without exception, all of us American students we distraught, reacting far more intensely than seemed necessary. Regardless of personal connections to Williams, each of my peers committed to a mood of general mourning and melancholy for the rest of the day, and when it came time for dinner, the Americans could easily be told from the Europeans merely by facial expression. Personally, I had grown up with Williams’ movies (most notably the critically-acclaimed Flubber) and so in a way my sadness could be explained by my nostalgic connection to him, but I felt remorse far beyond that, coming from a place that was not inside of myself but distinctly other.
At various times in my life I have stumbled upon stretches or segments of reality that are incidentally surreal, that somehow seem to exist apart from everything else and carry a quality or otherness that is unapproachable.
The first of these incidents that I can recall (at least for now) took place when I was very young. I was in a school, a small one that I did not attend but instead was watched over at in the afternoons while my parents worked. Myself and the other kids in the daycare were not supposed to leave the designated daycare room, and on most days we did not. One afternoon, however, I slipped out, with a friend, while our caretakers weren’t paying enough attention. We roamed the halls, which were eerie in their emptiness, moving slowly across the school. Eventually, after getting lost a few times, we arrived in front of the gym, its door ajar. Beyond, in contrast with the daylight and the fluorescents, was utter, inky, black. I mean unnaturally black. The open door seemed to lead into nothing, but an overwhelming and almost sickeningly massive amount of nothing. At the time, looking into this space set something deeply unsettling upon my little preschool self. Looking back it seems silly and yet lingeringly haunting.
After looking, we ran into the gymnasium like we were going to run forever, and what that run felt like is something I wish I could articulate.
A Brief Analysis of The Getty
Of the many compelling narratives explored by Joan Didion in The White Album, her essay on the J. Paul Getty Museum struck me especially. In keeping with the themes of the work as a whole, The Getty is short and outwardly impartial, with profound insights contained within its story and form.
Didion begins the essay with a description of what can be called the reality of the eponymous villa, which is that it is a “giddily splendid […] commemoration of high culture” that is “so immediately productive of crowds and jammed traffic that it can now be approached by appointment only” (74), the second point being an irony that resolves in the last paragraphs of the essay. Didion then cites reviews by the Los Angeles Times and New York Times that derisively compare the Getty to “nouveau-rich” dining rooms in upscale California communities. Immediately following this section there begins an exhausting critique of the Getty that comes not so much from Didion but from the critics and inhabitants of the upscale dining rooms, by proxy.
In this section there is a clever distance between the author and what is written, with many key words and phrases surrounded by quotation marks, almost sarcastically. This disassociation of the author and the text begins to build the confusion that ends up pervading the conclusion of the essay.
On page 76, partway through the first paragraph, Didion moves away from this critique and shifts into what are apparently ideas of her own: that the Getty glorifies “opulent evidence of imperial power and acquisition” not for the sake of “bad taste” but instead to tell us “that we were never any better than we are and will never be any better than we were” and that this statement is what so deeply offends (or disturbs) the elites that criticized the Getty.
The words of Getty himself are then presented, following a concession about whether or not Getty’s intent for his museum matches Didion’s perception of its message, a further hint at the removal of the author from the text. With further quotations, Didion offers Getty’s refutation of his critics in which he takes (or at least claims to take) an anti-elitist stance. Didion grabs hold of Getty’s use of the word elitist in order to begin constructing the essay’s climactic insight.
This insight is one of what Didion calls “social secrets”, and it is hinted at in the very beginning of the essay. We are told that the Getty is immensely popular in the first paragraph of the first page, and are then immediately presented with a detailed account of its seemingly universal panning. This contradiction is seemingly ignored until Didion breaks through to clarity in the end of the essay, though the pieces of this epiphany are set throughout. Didion uses Getty’s words to attach the term elitist to the Getty’s critics, and then reverses the same words to imply that Getty fits a similar description. This confusion of contradicting opinions and observations is then ascribed to, rather than explained by, Didion’s assertion that “On the whole, ‘the critics’ distrust great wealth, but ‘the public’ does not. On the whole, “the critics” subscribe to the romantic view of man’s possibilities, but “the public” does not.” (78) This insight is very much a part of the particular flavor of 1960s cultural disorder and social upheaval that is depicted in The White Album as a whole, and in this way it slides seamlessly into the conceptual narrative that surrounds it.