Primal Therapist


Mining the resonant arcana of yesterday’s educational, religious, and news film like artists from Joseph Cornell to David Sherman, Jay Rosenblatt places a uniquely personal flowchart over his findings. What’s at work is an effort to understand his own life tensions by way of ephemeral dross: disposable hygiene training films, Christian tracts, newsreel glimpses of dictators. For Rosenblatt, they are fragments not from a mustily covert media history we’ve forgotten, but from an intimate image-bank we all share and in which Rosenblatt optimistically searches for answers. “I’m attracted to found footage,” Rosenblatt says from his home station in San Francisco, “because I find that a lot of the images I end up using are on some level in our collective unconscious already, and by tweaking them what you get is in many ways more powerful than the artifice of the fiction film. It’s recontextualizing something that’s in you already. If I used actors to make the same points, it wouldn’t be as honest. That the footage was made with a different intent gives it a certain credibility—it has a genuineness that makes it powerful.”

“I’m not so drawn to kitschy stuff; I react more to what’s lyrical.”

Rosenblatt’s movies are so up-front about the issues they explore—the banality of genocidal evil, the social brutality of boyhood, Rosenblatt’s own childhood fear of and ultimate truce with the Jesus myth—it comes as little surprise that he spent 10 years working as a Bay Area therapist. “I actually took my first 8mm class in grad school, and I got the filmmaking bug. I then made a living as a therapist while in graduate film school, at hospital psychiatric wards.” Is his festival-beloved type of bricolage as agenda-driven as it seems? “Sometimes I start with an issue, but with, say, Short of Breath“—an angsty hymn to primal scenes and misogynist psychotherapy—”I started with a mood, and I came across this footage in a dumpster—it’s really ‘found’—of what was apparently a training film about bedside manners for doctors. That structured the film. For Burning Ants, it was the one image of the boy pushing another around, and the third boy sticks his fist in, the collaborator—I did something like that as a kid, that rang true for me. Human Remains started with the image of Hitler, eating. I found it disturbing: I never imagined I’d ever see him doing something so human, so mundane.”

On the other hand, King of the Jews (in which cheap images of Christ chart Rosenblatt’s own love-hate crisis of non-faith) was thoroughly researched; a source of footage was notorious “cargo cultist” and fellow Frisco scrap artist Craig Baldwin (“I’ve gotten a fair amount of footage from Craig. He sells it for two or three dollars a shot”). Rosenblatt doesn’t, however, count Baldwin as an influence. “I’m not so drawn to kitschy stuff; I react more to what’s lyrical. For some reason I’m drawn to when people make direct eye contact with the camera. But I can’t say that other found-footage movies have been an influence. Maybe Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil—it wasn’t so much the film itself, but how you imagine he went about making it. It seemed as if he just shot a lot, and wrote it as he was shooting. In terms of method, that really freed me up.”