Jon Jost, Independent Film-maker – Slow Moves
Jon Jost’s film ‘Slow Moves’ (1983) tells its story through the juxtaposition of a variety of narrative techniques. Along with the action, dialogue, and mise-en-scene, we have a verbal commentary from the actors, both in and out of character, and from Jost a musical commentary in the form of Jost’s song lyrics, and a visual commentary in the photography and editing. What emerges is a film which, while offering multiple points of view, sustains a carefully controlled narrative from beginning to end.
The film tells the story of a young couple, Marshall and Roxanne, who meet, live together for a while, then take to the road. This is the first of Jost’s films to focus on a personal relationship. It is an implicit criticism of the artificial way relationships are normally portrayed in films, and draws on a number of themes opened up in the early shorts, specifically the male/female conflicts of ‘1,2,3, Four’, and the portrayal of ordinary people and everyday events of ’13 Fragments’ red rock entertainment testimonials
The twin themes of imprisonment and escape, seen both in the characters’ lifestyles and states of mind, are responsible for much of the film’s structure and imagery. The opening sequence introduces Roxanne as a girl condemned to perpetual imprisonment, and Marshall as a man condemned to perpetual escape.
An early shot is taken over Roxanne’s head as she gazes out to sea. Then the camera pulls back to show that she is standing on a bridge, seemingly trapped between the imprisoning bars of the parapet in front of her and the ceaseless flow of traffic behind. Marshall approaches, leans on the parapet beside her, then speaks the first words of the film: “Isn’t that Alcatraz over there? I don’t see why the prisoners couldn’t have swum across.” Roxanne doesn’t want to know. “I came out here to be alone,” she says, and walks off. Marshall chases after her and offers to buy her a coffee, she accepts, and they start chatting, or, in the language of the film, telling each other stories
Marshall’s comments: “And they began to dream together,” while at the same time we hear a song about the unpredictable effects of time, warning us that this shared dream may not last forever. Marshall’s comment is made out of character; he uses the word ‘they’ rather than ‘we’, and this temporarily disrupts our attachment to him as a fictional character. Roxanne also gives a commentary in which she shifts her role from character to actress: “I could have lied and told him I was thinking of jumping from the bridge. Actually the day we were out there making this film a woman really did jump. There was a story about it in the paper the next day.”
These comments disrupt the conventional relationship between ourselves and characters in a film. The character in the story makes us aware of the actress in the film, who makes us aware of the real world, and its stories in newspapers. Similar disruptions of the illusion have been noted at the beginning of ‘Last Chants’ and the end of ‘Stagefright’, but these were made to appear almost as accidents. Here, being situated some way into the narrative, the disruption is conspicuously deliberate, and its effect is to engage us, with Jost and the actor and actress, in the process of creating the film and locating it in relation to our real lives.
The characters in the story are not so aware of the misleading nature of stories as the actor and actress are, and the stories Roxanne and Marshall tell each other form the basis for their relationship and the hopes they build upon each other. Roxanne presents herself to Marshall as something of a drifter, saying that she has lived in San Francisco for four years, but that four years is too long to stay in one place. He presents himself to her as a sailor who has returned from the sea. He says he has worked in construction recently, as a riveter on skyscrapers, but is temporarily out of work.
“And, like most people, they told their stories badly,” comments Marshall. Their stories are full of holes, holes which the partner fills in by projecting his or her own fantasies.
The visual metaphor associating the couple’s shared dream of freedom is taken one step further when they go into a camera obscura together, and we are treated to a beautiful shot of the sea and the beach taken through a telephoto lens on a camera panning on a tilted axis. The image, reinforced by romantic music on the sound-track, suggests an unreal, distant, dreamlike world in which it seems impossible not to be free. But this dream-world is inaccessible, a point which Jost makes by accompanying the scene with a mini-history of cinematography, suggesting that the world can only look like this in films.
Marshall’s purchase of a car causes an argument between the couple, and by now, thanks to the fragments of commentary, we can see that they are mismatched. But while the multi-layered narrative can give us privileged information, it can also withhold information, and there are times, such as in this argument, when our point of view is limited to that of the characters. We don’t know why Marshall has bought the car any more than Roxanne does, and in fact, although we do not realise it until the end of the film, for much of the time we are only seeing Marshall from Roxanne’s point of view, and large chunks of his ‘story’ which he has withheld from her, are also withheld from us.
But there is one important section, in which we are shown their separate activities during the day, where we are given insights into their characters that are unavailable to each other. With Marshall, in a sequence in which he tries to claim money from a workers’ compensation board, we are given a complex study of an individual in relation to society.
Marshall says that he can’t work on skyscrapers any more because of an accident. His claim, though he is barely able to articulate it, is that although this accident didn’t cause any detectable physical injury, it caused him to lose his nerve, in other words that his ‘injury’ is psychological. The board don’t accept this, and don’t even understand his claim, and politely show him out of the office,
The insight yielded into Marshall’s character through this confrontation is similar to that yielded into Tom’s character through his confrontation with his wife. On the one hand we could be critical, seeing him as a lazy irresponsible parasite, trying to con his way into a hand-out rather than looking for an honest job. But on the other hand it is clear that Marshall’s choice of behaviour is limited by his personality, which has to a large extent been formed by society. He is doing the only thing he knows how to do, trying to escape responsibility and take the easy way out. On this wider level Marshall’s claim to be suffering from psychological injury has some justification, and his approach to the compensation board could be seen as a quasi-legitimate, though misplaced, request for help from society.
With Tom and Marshall Jost is treading the difficult ground which often comes to the fore in murder trials. To what extent can such an abnormal man be considered responsible for his own actions? Is he evil or ill? What is the distinction? And what are society’s responsibilities towards such an individual? We have no ready answers, but Jost is presenting the problem more responsibly than the many films which glamorise crime and violence, making it look an attractive proposition for those who have, or who have been made to feel that they have, no other choice.
That this more general reading of the scene is appropriate is suggested by the language with which the manager turns down Marshall’s claim: “You’re rejected,” he says. “Rejected?” says Marshall. All society can do for a man like Marshall is to reject him, brand him as an outcast. Whose fault is it then, when he slips towards the only role that seems to be left for him, that of outlaw?
The episode has political overtones too, for it takes place high up in a skyscraper, just the kind of building Marshall used to work on. Marshall’s labour went into the construction, but there is no reward for him, no help when he needs it from those who now occupy the building.
When the turning point comes, and Marshall has decided to take to the road and wants Roxanne to come with him, the scene is set in a dockyard, a location evocative of travel and escape, while at the same time the bar-like pillars and cranes against the sky suggest imprisonment.
Roxanne has a hard time deciding whether or not to go, and when she does decide to go their journey begins, oddly, with an image of her apparently being left behind. This seems to suggest that while she is going along with Marshall’s wishes, she is still imprisoned by her need for security, domesticity, and ‘divertimenti’. While Marshall was making his compensation claim we saw Roxanne selling theatre tickets and buying a paperback novel. And now, on the journey, she is listening to rock music on a personal stereo.
The couple find temporary happiness and freedom on the road, but, as the contrasting shots taken from the left and right sides of the car suggest, they are really on two separate journeys. From Marshall’s side we see the masculine, practical world of the road, lorries, and industrial buildings, while from Roxanne’s side we see the feminine, romantic world; the trees, a river, and, occasionally, interpolated shots of the sea.
These two do not really know each other at all. Marshall, as we realise at the end of the film, is acting out his fantasy of their being a couple of outlaws on the run, and thinks Roxanne can be a Bonnie to his Clyde. Roxanne thinks they are just travelling to another town where they will settle down and Marshall will get a job. The contrasting shots from the two sides of the car seem to suggest that their once-shared world is rapidly coming apart.
At the same time the narrative itself starts to come apart. At a motel Marshall suddenly produces a wallet full of bank notes; neither Roxanne nor we know where he got it, and although Roxanne chooses to ignore the fact, we realise that there is something about Marshall that neither she nor we have been told.
In a later sequence the narrative breaks down altogether. Marshall and Roxanne have stopped in a little roadside town, but their visit is presented to us in a sequence of disconnected shots separated by frames of black, giving an impression more like a slide-show than a film. We don’t know what is going on, the gaps are taking over from the narrative, and our story, like theirs, is breaking up.
The scene only comes together when Marshall and Roxanne are having their final confrontation. They are ‘on the rocks’, literally, beside a river. “I’ve got to have a house!” shouts Roxanne. “You’ve got to settle down and get a job!”‘ The river flows behind her, a reminder of the beautiful open sea seen at the beginning.
“OK,” says Marshall, “I’ll settle down and get a job. I love you.” This proposition, like the one at the end of ‘1,2,3, Four’ (I love you, therefore I’ll never use electricity again.) comes across as a statement of the impossible.
Later they stop at a grocery store. Marshall enters alone, while we and Roxanne, who is totally wrapped up in the music on her personal stereo, lose sight of him. We have arrived at the gap in the narrative, which is filled in when Roxanne eventually goes into the store and finds Marshall dead on the floor with a gun beside him. He has apparently tried to rob the store and been shot in the process.
Roxanne, in a belated expression of the need for real communication, tries to rouse Marshall and weeps over his body, while the camera pans in a circle, revealing a man, absorbed in a book, sitting beside the body, and the paltry commodities in the shop, commodities for which Marshall has died.