Jon Jost, Independent Film-maker – Last Chants for a Slow Dance

Tom of ‘Last Chants for a Slow Dance’ (1977) is one of those statistics; married, father of two, on the verge of divorce, and unemployed. He is also a desperate human being, unable to cope with marriage, fatherhood, or steady employment, and, in the eyes of society, a misfit.

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Here, for the first time, Jost has created a convincing character in a convincing situation. The direct communication between film-maker and audience has gone, or at least, taken a step back, and the film presents us with a narrative in more or less the same way that other films present us with a narrative. A deliberate hole, however, is left in the illusion; at the beginning of the film, before the ‘character’ speaks, we hear the actor say: “Shall I start now? You said thirty seconds.” In this, and other ways, Jost reminds us that we are sitting in a cinema watching a film, and therefore that any meanings we perceive have been deliberately put there as a means of communication between himself and us red rock entertainment testimonials.

‘Last Chants for a Slow Dance’ works partly as a psychological study, in that Tom’s decline from restless young man to murderer can be seen as a function of his own maladjusted personality; we are even given an indication of the origin of his problems: “Everything goes so fast. I don’t remember anything. I don’t remember my childhood, except that my father was always beating me, and I was always running away.” Running away is all he learned to do as a child, and all he knows how to do as an adult. But at the same time, Jost makes it clear that, whatever the reasons for Tom’s maladjustment, it is cues from society which prompt him to take the action he does take.

Tom is already desperate when the film opens; in a society which places high value on employment, material wealth, and family life, he is unemployed, broke, and alienated from his wife and children. He resorts to the only way of life he can cope with; driving around in his truck from town to town, ostensibly looking for work, but really seeking the comfort of anonymity, casual sex, and escape from responsibilities.

When Tom does return home it is only to be harangued, and threatened with divorce, by his wife, who is now pregnant for the third time. She verbally attacks him for his long absences from home, his failure to find a job, and his lack of concern for her and the children. Her attack is justified, of course, and she probably shouldn’t have married him in the first place, but this is no help to Tom, who cannot help the way he is, and no consolation for the society upon which he will take out his frustration. It is Jost’s view, and his case is convincing, that Tom is society’s problem.

Having been finally rejected by his wife, Tom hits the road again. He stops at a cafe, and while eating comes across an amusing letter in a newspaper and reads it out to a man sitting next to him. The letter is a sexual joke, and the man says: “You don’t believe that’s really a letter do you? Those letters are made up by some guy sitting in a back room. The government puts out that trash to keep people’s minds off their real problems.” This is the nub of Jost’s argument; that the media floods society with stories which distract people from their real problems, and perpetuate dehumanised values, in this case that a wife exists as a sexual object for her husband, which encourage them to remain distracted even when the story is forgotten. It is Jost’s contention that Tom, with his lack of intellect, and lack of purpose in his life, is a helpless victim of such stories.

In a later scene Tom spends the night with a girl he meets in a bar. The camera is positioned so that, on the right of the screen, we see the couple’s legs through an open door, while on the left of the screen we see a TV showing a game show. The scene is in black and white, except, strangely, for the TV screen, which is in colour. Because of this the distribution of values within the frame is curiously and disturbingly balanced, and, being one of Jost’s long takes, we have ample time to consider why this should be. When Jost draws attention to colour, such as in his frequent shots of a girl applying make-up, it is nearly always to emphasise its artificiality, its capacity to distract and conceal. In this scene the TV and the rest of the screen vie for our attention. What is going on in the rest of the screen is really terribly bleak; Tom is having a meaningless one-night-stand with a girl he has just met and doesn’t care about, and in the morning he will be gone.

But what is happening on the TV screen is depressing too; an audience-participation game show, in which people’s lives literally become merged with TV, and which, broadcasting its phoney spirit of competitive bonhomie, is nothing less than a brain-washing exercise, designed to sedate its viewers while instilling values favourable to capitalism.

The whole scene is a depiction of emptiness disguised, and as such is a depiction of Tom’s world, in which the distribution of values is out of balance with the needs of reality. Later in the scene, when the girl walks in front of the TV, we see the coloured image of the screen superimposed on her body. This betrayal of the illusion is Jost’s way of ensuring that we are not merely fascinated and distracted by his trick photography.

The turning point for Tom comes after he has looked at a folder of criminal records. Each page has a photo of the criminal and a summary of his activities and characteristics, including (the detail which fascinates Tom the most) his tattoos. In Tom’s eyes these little ‘stories’, which situate their subjects in a recognisable relationship to society, give meaning to their subjects’ lives. And so he has found a last chance to give meaning to his own life; by becoming a criminal he can become a story, in newspapers, on TV, and preserved for posterity in police records.

Jost only interpolates one ‘montage’ shot into the narrative, but it is one the viewer will never forget: suddenly we are watching, in merciless close up, a live rabbit having its head forced over a chopping-block. We see the helpless look in its eye as it struggles, then it is decapitated and we see the blood spurt. Then, one by one, its paws are chopped from its still-twitching body. That, Jost implies, is how much chance a man like Tom has against the coercive power of society and its media.

Tom’s final, irreversible act is even more disturbing than the slaughter of the rabbit. He comes across a man whose car has broken down in an isolated rural spot, and stops to help him. They chat, and it turns out that the man comes from the same town as Tom, and, like Tom, has a wife and children. They have something in common, but the man has kept all the things Tom has lost, and for the first time we seem to be seeing Tom engaging in a friendly conversation, talking for the pleasure of communicating.

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