“Is it going to rain?” The question, so common and seemingly inconsequential, gives way to a series of similar questions in Afraid So, questions you’ve heard or asked a hundred times. A steady thrum, low and creepy, provides background sound, and, as each question is asked in voiceover, an image offers an answer. The rain is a downpour. “Did the check bounce?” A bank teller stamps its back decisively. “Are we out of coffee?” A cup is empty. “Is this going to hurt?” A boy writhes in animated agony as older boys — maybe young men — hold him in preparation for some abuse. A cotton swab suggests the next step, unseen here, has to do with a doctor. It may be a schoolyardish prank, or it may be something else. You see only a second of footage, and no faces clearly. It’s hard to tell.
A compilation of possibilities, of worries expressed and perhaps confirmed. The point is the fear, voiced so, imagined. Voiced and so, real. Comprised of found footage like all of Jay Rosenblatt’s films, this three-minute short (2006) is one of a selection screening on 25 October at Stranger Than Fiction, followed by a Q&A with the filmmaker. Sometimes lyrical, sometimes alarming, often provocative, the films always pose questions — though not always as explicitly as Afraid So.
“Could you lose your job?” comes the next question, followed by men standing on a picket line, placards proclaiming they’re “On strike for a decent contract.” The images are black and white, the stories behind them lost, or at least now open for reimagining. “Did the glass break?” A glass full of milk slides from a hand, headed for certain destruction. “Was the baggage misrouted?” A plane soars, dark and large, toward the camera. As familiar as the scenarios may be, so too are the implications even of asking them. If the question is coming to mind, the outcome — worst possible — does too.
And yet, even as Afraid So presents the familiar, it makes it strange. And that’s the ingenuity of Rosenblatt’s found footage assemblies, their invitation that you see both at once, and moreover, that you see yourself seeing. Your own process of reading is always the subject, and you can’t help but become aware of yourself as you respond, whether you find in the films comedy and ironic juxtaposition, tragedies revealed, or memories evoked.
Some of the films here seem the filmmaker’s own memories recalled, such as King of the Jews (2008), which begins with a personal recollection over yet another generic image. “When I was a little boy,” the voiceover begins as a little found-footage child beams over a birthday cake with candles, “I was scared to death of Jesus Christ. My mother and grandmother had told me over and over that Jews were killed in the name of Christ and I had imagined Jesus himself as doing the killing.” The film goes on, over 18 minutes, to ponder the dilemmas posed by Jesus and Jewishness, isolation and community. How can a child begin to make sense of the stories of Christ and the obligations of religion?
King of the Jews
The speaker remembers going to Radio City Music Hall to see King of Kings. “My mother shifted in her seat,” recalls the narrator, “opened and closed her purse, and during the crucifixion scene, vanished into the ladies room.” The film cuts between Jeffrey Hunter looking large and Technicolored on screen and black and white close-ups illustrating the boy’s focus on his mother’s anxiety. The experience is multilayered, the context shapes the memory, even as the memory becomes context. Created and recreated in stories on screen and off, Jesus remains both elusive and too material, a fearsome idea and accidental strategy.
The angle is slightly different in The D Train (2011) or The Darkness of Day (2009), where the foundness of the footage is more pronounced. The allegories in these films are at once more abstract and more immediate, as the clips offer the chance for thinking through narrative logic and progression. As a man rides the D train, light reflects off the window onto his face and he seems to look at what you see, a five-minute series of impressions, generic but also specific to someone you’ll never know, someone lost as the footage as been found. Intercut among these images is a repeated cutaway view of an office building, a ride up inside a magical elevator, a metaphor for growing up, or more precisely, conforming. This repeated idea provides a kind of architecture for the found images: kids and moms, families at a public pool, a dad, a lawnmower, boys and girls flirting, ideas of sex, genitals drawn on paper and imagined in a new blue nightie, modeled proudly, maybe shyly. When the man gets off the train, he’s stopped moving — but to where?
The D Train
This question is hardly answered in Human Remains, Rosenblatt’s much-discussed 1998 short on evil men of history, from Hitler to Mussolini to Mao. As a voiceover reads English translations of bits of interviews and biographical information. You hear that Hitler liked chocolate éclairs and his dog Blondie, Stalin never got over the death of his first wife, and Mao believed “Everyone should taste some bitterness in his life.” Footage of the dictators shows them before crowds as on their own, smiling at times, odious always. The structure is at once fantastic and familiar, again asking more questions than it might answer. As Franco, like the other bullies, is reassembled here out of his own fragments, he seems to observe his end: when he dies following painful surgeries (“two thirds of my stomach removed”), he says — in translation, as told by a biographer — “The last words I murmured were how hard it is to die.”
This might be one point to be gleaned from the idea of found footage — none of it ever dies, and neither do the figures lost and found in it. Once individuals, now meaningful across eras and locations, they’re ever past and present.