Right up front, it should be understood that Jon Jost's 1977 deconstruction of the road movie, Last Chants for a Slow Dance (Dead End), nudges the viewer to abandon the need to know where the story is heading for most of the film. Sure, there are familiar signposts and very subtle hints at genre conventions; at times, it appears as if we might be moving into territory once mined by Monte Hellman, but Jost isn't as interested in sustaining an existentially-flavored narrative or tone as much as he is in offering up a character piece that doesn't rely on the safety of a three-act structure. Produced for only $2000, Slow Chants is a film like no other, a reminder that cinema doesn't always have to embrace the all-too-common formalism of the mainstream to successfully relay a story.
Jost introduces us to Tom (Tom Blair), a man on the road with the expressed goal of finding employment. Except, he's really not looking for a job. He complains about his wife (Jessica St. John), his kids ("I never wanted kids") and his duty to them, never once acknowledging that there might have been choices that lead him to this reality. Although the journey is necessitated by his familial responsibilities, Tom mostly uses it to free himself of them, drifting aimlessly away from the orbit of those that need him the most, expressing only disdain for them when he can be troubled to acknowledge their existence at all.
There's an episodic quality to the situations that Tom wanders through, whether it be time spent drinking at a bar, a conversation with a hitchhiker, or an encounter with a man on the side of the road. Jost stitches these moments together with stubbornly static, visual compositions (of the road, an abandoned storefront, clouds, etc.) and sustained fades to black, pulling the audience into a disjointed fugue that reflects the protagonist's lost meanderings through an undefined landscape. At times, it's easy to forget the few details we've gleaned thus far, as Jost invites us to watch as Tom flips through a stack of postcards in real time, for instance.
All of which sounds like a recipe for a film lacking meaning; an assessment that couldn't be further from the truth. The last scene of the film; the one that comes after the film's most shocking (and, yet, still emotionally numbed) sequence, provokes one to reassess the entire piece based on what we've just witnessed. It plays out as a clear-eyed, glorious end to an otherwise elliptical portrait of a sociopath.
On Sunday, June 3rd, two more films by Jost, The Long Shadow (La Lunga Ombra) and Images of a Lost City will screen at 6:30pm and 8:15pm, respectively. More info available here.
Jon Jost will be in attendance for all four screenings. He's also leading a workshop on digital production on June 2nd and 3rd.
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