Inquiring about Jay Rosenblatt


–חשמל [chashmal] (from Hebrew, “speaking silence”)

Born in New York in 1955, Jay Rosenblatt (often in collaboration with Caveh Zahedi, Stephanie Rapp, Dina Ciraulo, Jennifer Frame, or his daughter Ella Rosenblatt) has been making short collage and diary films since 1980, has taught film and video production at various schools in the San Francisco Bay area since 1989, and is currently the program director for the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. He has a Master’s Degree in Counseling Psychology and previously worked as a therapist.

Rosenblatt is arguably the most highly esteemed composer of short films working in the United States today, and one known primarily for his painstakingly crafted and tightly controlled assemblages. His “hybrid compositions”evoke a sense of mystery and challenge audiences through their meditations on controversial topics such as childhood abuse, filial relations, menstruation, the connections between filmmaking and fatherhood, Jewish-Christian-Muslim relations, battles over gay rights, and suicide. His more than twenty-eight films displace simplistic views of human motivations and interactions by acting as interlocutor rather than inquisitor. Since The Session Rosenblatt’s goal has been to provoke rather than convince viewers.

His films are ironic, humorous compositions–he refers to them as “collages”–that disturb viewers with their juxtapositions and ambiguity, exposing enigmatic and yet indissoluble relationships within films, between films, and among films and their viewers in general. Since the bulk of his work is composed from archival and found footage it is a highly intertextual rereading and redeployment of cinema that recontextualizes (and thus affects) both the past and present. This complex interlacing of images, sounds, and subjects allows Rosenblatt’s films to fuse serious political analysis, open ethical response, and provocative imaginative digression while navigating the dynamics between history and memory. Thus, his films articulate the relation between two logics. In the process of engaging with the invisible condition of the possibility of making film, his films personalize history and collectivizing memory.


Jay Rosenblatt

Like many, I was introduced to Jay Rosenblatt’s cinema through a five-film program that ran in theaters throughout 2000. [The program consisted of Short of Breath (1990, 10 min.) on the dangers of postpartum depression, The Smell of Burning Ants (1994, 21 min.) on the violence that turns boys into men,  Human Remains (1998, 30 min.) a catalog of the mundane humanity of five twentieth-century dictators, the humorous one-minute Restricted (1999) on gratification and denial, and King of the Jews (2000, 18 min.) an essay on fear, Christian-Jewish relations, Jesus, and transcendence.]

After seeing The Films of Jay Rosenblatt at Facets Cinémathèque in Chicago, I was intrigued and began writing about his work, especially from an ethico-religious perspective. The short essay I wrote in 2001 but never published, “The Erasure of Human Remains,” considers only one of Rosenblatt’s films from that program but inaugurated a line of inquiry I have followed in a number of presentations and two essays, “Jay Rosenblatt” (Senses Of Cinema, Issue 53, 2009) and “The Skin of the Other: Documentary, Ethics, Embodiment.” (The Ethics of Documentary Filmmaking and the Politics of Identity. Spec. issue of Journal of Information Ethics. 19:2 (Fall 2010): 100-113.)

Rosenblatt and I have corresponded for several years now, mostly over email and by way of a few notes exchanged through the mail. In 2010, I spent some time with him in New York City, where MoMA was presenting a new program of his work–The Darkness of Day: Recent Films by Jay Rosenblatt. This past Wednesday afternoon (for me in Singapore) / Tuesday night (for Rosenblatt in San Francisco), we sat down to chat about family, his work, and some recent films we had seen. After joking about time differences and global distances, part of that conversation turned to his latest film, Inquire Within (2012).


Inquire Within

Inquire Within was completed in 2012 and has screened at over a dozen film festivals, including Rotterdam International, SXSW, and Tribeca. It won Best Experimental Film, Marin County Festival of Short Film and Video.

According to Rosenblatt’s own description, “Inquire Within is a hypnotic, apocalyptic examination of false choices, double binds, vulnerability and faith.” It is a four-minute collage of images from archival footage.

Inquire Within is a film about, “This? Or this?”

A match is struck. A metronome begins to tick. We see footage from an epilepsy examination as a light flashes in a patient’s eyes. Then, footage of a man balancing on chairs atop a skyscraper is juxtaposed with an image of the same man from another angle. A fawn trying to escape from a mud pit is opposed with a gecko shedding its tail to escape a snake. In what looks like a scene from a bathing-beauty pageant, male doctors perform spinal examinations on a line of swimsuit clad women. When the film cuts, we see police beating a man in a street.

At the half-way point, we return to the epilepsy test. The patient breathes deep. The metronome continues.

Then, we see footage of a monkey held akimbo. It is contrasted with a clinical film of a drastically thin boy. Imagery of the shock delivered by a frayed electrical cord is juxtaposed with footage from Electrocuting an Elephant–the actuality on the execution of Topsy in 1903–one of the most widely seen films of that decade. A scene of ice breaking from a glacier is opposed with footage of a house destroyed in an atomic bomb test. We return to the flashing light of the epilepsy test. Another match is struck. It burns brightly in a man’s hands. “What would you do?” asks the narrator. The closing credits are juxtaposed with x-ray images of a person swallowing and a hand turning over.

All these oppositions, of course, also function as associations, linkages, connecting what we might not have anticipated. Inquire Within, then, is a film about editing, about montage, about how composition and thematics rely upon one another.

* * *

While we were talking, Rosenblatt and I considered the relation between transcendence and sacrifice in his films: how these aspects might relate to a religious understanding of his work.

Q: This dynamic between transcendence and sacrifice has a long relation to religion, of course. And so, I’m curious. I don’t know if you’ve talked much about religious aspects to your films or religious perspectives to your films. Outside history or memory or however you want to interpret that relationship: Is there a religious influence behind your films? Would you speak about religion in relationship to your films?

JR: I would prefer the word “spiritual” more than “religious.”

Q: Which is the word you use in describing Inquire Within. I believe “spiritual” is part of your description.

JR: Is it? I don’t remember.

[We both laugh.]

Q: No, you say “faith.” Sorry. “Faith,” not “spiritual.”

JR: “Faith.” Yes. Yes. Well…faith. In terms of that film, that reference is a quirky little personal association. Have you seen Nostalghia by Tarkovsky? There’s a scene in that film that’s one of my favorite scenes in any film, where he’s [the main character] walking across this empty swimming pool…

Q: Sure…with the candle!

JR: With a candle and just trying to keep the flame going.

Q: That scene’s amazing.

JR: I love that scene. And Inquire Within has a match at the beginning and a flame a the end. That’s a little personal homage to that scene in Nostalghia but also to representing faith through film. I made that connection with Tarkovsky, and that image, that way of bookending Inquire Within, I wanted to put what I associate with faith, that image. [Rosenblatt pauses.]

I think several of my films have a spiritual, at least, element if not an underpinning. I think Human Remains, even though it ostensibly is about something else is a very spiritual film.

Yes. Going back to what you were saying earlier about taking these people we see as monsters and confronting the viewer with them being human brings out spiritual, philosophical issues, I think.

Q: Let me ask you, then, why would you separate that from “religion”? Or, when I asked you about religion, you said you’d rather speak about spirituality.

JR: Well, for me “religion” evokes organized religion, and more dogmatic stances. All these religions have a spiritual component that gets lost. I tend not to think that way myself, in terms of dogma.

It is a good question you ask, though. Why separate religion and spirituality. I have to think about that more in regard to my films.

The candle scene from Nostalghia, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, 1983

* * *

For the past two years or so, I’ve been writing a book about Rosenblatt’s films, The Prayers and Tears of Jay Rosenblatt: Relation without Relation. The book considers the ways in which Rosenblatt’s films work between the invisible aspects of flimmaking that make film possible (the transcendental or “prayers” of his filmmaking) and the visible images he (re)deploys in his films (the sacrificial or “tears” of his films). Because his films navigate between the transcendental and the sacrificial, something I think religion also does, I have begun more and more to consider Rosenblatt a religious filmmaker.

During our conversation, Rosenblatt said he would prefer to talk about his films in terms of a spirituality rather than a religiosity. Religion, for him, implies dogma, and that’s not what he is trying to do in his films. His films are not aligned with established religious institutions, even if they are significantly concerned with transcendence.

In writing about “post-secularism” in Radical Evil and the Scarcity of Hope (Indiana, 2008) the philosopher Martin Beck Matustíck asks, “Apart from mythical counterexperiential epiphanies or theophanies, what could institute the religious within ordinary human condition? Is it the holy midrash of undecidables or the iconic trace of the wholly other in face of the human other?” (p. 17). In my Senses of Cinema piece, I consider Rosenblatt’s films as just such engagements with “the iconic trace of the wholly other in the face of the human other.” Now, I wonder if in asking after the religious (not after “religions” as Matustíck might caution) I am only pushing the question further. Matustíck continues a few pages later in his book to ask, “Is the religious that is not articulated as theism worthy of faith?” Might we separate theism from religion? Might we approach religion in terms of faith and hope and love? Might we approach faith and hope and love in terms of religion, what in so many ways bridges the two logics: the transcendental and the sacrificial, our prayers and our tears?

What would you do?

Rosenblatt is our post-secular filmmaker.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s