Jay Rosenblatt’s Phantom Limb and the Accessible Avant-Garde

The films of Jay Rosenblatt are unique in that they pose what we might call “genre trouble” in the world of experimental cinema. If contemporary avant-garde film is as defined by its provenance and its community ethos as it is by its specific textual procedures – and I certainly think this is the case – then Rosenblatt is indeed a part of that part of cinema we would call avant-garde. He is a veteran of the San Francisco Bay Area’s experimental film scene, and his pre-digital works were all made in 16mm, which not only permitted but required his films to be distributed through avant-garde channels such as Canyon Cinema. The look and style of many of his films also speaks to an aesthetic deeply imbibed in the historical practices of experimentalism, particularly the found footage / assemblage works of Joseph Cornell, Arthur Lipsett, and especially Bruce Conner.

At the same time, like any films, Rosenblatt’s seem to have an implied viewer. And part of what makes them interesting, and perhaps makes them fit somewhat uneasily into the recent history of experimental cinema, is the fact that this implied viewer, as encoded by the structure of Rosenblatt’s films, is a strikingly broad one. To simply call these films “accessible” doesn’t quite get to the heart of the matter. This is partly because it calls forth a number of misleading assumptions about the films themselves, and also because it is a term loaded with ideological freight. Accessibility is neither good nor bad, but it’s seldom taken as a neutral descriptor. If, for example, I claim that it is in their broadly based appeal that Rosenblatt’s films depart from the major historical tenets of avant-garde cinema, this will seem to be an elitist claim, rather than a formalist one.

But there are numerous ways in which films can dip into the generic codes of experimental cinema, or tap into its historical energies, while still remaining fundamentally outside of the traditions from which it borrows. For instance, two recent commercial releases, Godfrey Reggio’s Visitors and Bill Morrison’s The Great Flood, are examples of works which are widely characterized by their promoters and the mainstream press as being “avant-garde,” even though in most demonstrable respects – aesthetic approach, material presentation, community ethos – they barely connect with the contemporary filmic avant-garde, that which is a direct outgrowth of the historical lineage from Surrealism and Constructivism through Deren and Brakhage up to the structuralists and beyond. This is not a value judgment, but a historical materialist one. In terms of key elements, such as sound / image relationship (e.g., musical accompaniment vs. integral / dialectical sound), institutional alignment (artisanal vs. commercial distribution), and compositional approach (modernist relationships among parts vs. either narrative organization or nonhierarchical seriality), Reggio and Morrison are outliers to a tradition to which various commentators have absentmindedly yoked them. The same could be said of Matthew Barney; by the time a filmmaker like David Lynch (however great he may be in his own right) is described as “avant-garde,” the term is meaningless, a section heading card that’s gathering dust at a shuttered video store.

By contrast, Rosenblatt’s work is situated within the materialist parameters of experimental cinema. It is based in the ethos of non-industrial production and addresses its viewer with the genre codes (black-and-white found footage; associative editing; short to medium running times; first-person artisanal creation and authorial address) that bespeak a firm commitment to experimental cinema. That is, the films themselves ask to be read as experimental. At the same time, Rosenblatt’s films depart from many of the shibboleths of avant-garde film in notable ways. His longer films especially, such as The Smell of Burning Ants (1994), Human Remains (1998), and Phantom Limb (2005), are guided by a narrative voiceover and largely undergirded by a musical soundtrack whose artistic function is accompaniment, not counterpoint or self-assertion. (This is not exactly the case with Burning Ants, which has a rather aggressive score. In fact, its relationship is nearly the reverse, with the specific images often serving as secondary accompaniment.)In these ways, Rosenblatt is combining two distinct languages or genre categories, those of avant-garde cinema and those more properly belonging to something else.

Defining that “something else” is tricky, and that’s the place where “genre trouble” arises. Are these works documentaries, or perhaps essay films? In the case of Burning Ants, which is an inquiry into childhood accession into violent masculinity, or Phantom Limb, Rosenblatt’s film about the death of his younger brother when they were children, the essay-film designation seems most appropriate. Both films are governed by central themes, and around this radius Rosenblatt assembles a variety of related material. Burning Ants is a personally tinged sociological documentary, almost but not quite following a developmental model. It also draws on feminism and men’s studies for its broader organization.

Phantom Limb, on the other hand, is an assembly of twelve semi-autonomous parts, some of which do not adhere to Rosenblatt’s signature filmmaking style at all. In the opening chapters, Rosenblatt uses onscreen text to explain the specific autobiographical content of the film. When the filmmaker was nine, his brother Eliot died from an infection during surgery. The text speaks from the first-person; Rosenblatt explains that he made fun of his ill brother and, upon his death, felt partly responsible and fell into irrational thinking as a means to try to bring his brother back from the dead.

Phantom Limb starts out in a mode that is similar to but still somewhat distinct from Rosenblatt’s other films. The prologue shows a black-and-white clip of a tree being downed. After showing his own home movies in chapter one, “Separation,” chapter two consists only of a single shot of a building imploding. Three, “Sorrow,” shows mourners filing through a cathedral and placing flowers on a gravesite. What we can see at this point is that Rosenblatt is separating the very elements that he has combined in his previous films. The text replaces voiceover, and several passages consist of found-footage clips presented in complete isolation.

As the film continues, Rosenblatt articulates the lasting impact of Eliot’s death on his family, his parents in particular. Phantom Limb combines very direct statements about his family’s past (“Suffering was the last way my parents could love their child”) and appropriated imagery that engages with the film’s overt text (e.g., a scene of a Jewish burial and the performance of the Kaddish) with segments which fan out from the particulars of Rosenblatt’s family history. That is to say, Phantom Limb becomes more and more essayistic as it goes along. In “Denial” (chapter four), we see a brief interview with Tyler Cassity, the president of the famed Hollywood Forever Cemetery, speaking about the role of observance in coping with mortality. In “Shock” (chapter six), we see a brief clip from a science film showing two rats in an electrified chamber. The experiment proves that once the floor becomes electrified, and the rats discover there is no way out, the two animals begin attacking each other. In “Longing” (chapter nine), we are shown a short interview with John Lambert, a man who lost his right arm in an accident. He describes “phantom limb” syndrome, the difficulty of still feeling pain in the missing arm. And in “Depression” (chapter ten), Rosenblatt veers strangely close to punning, including a short tracking shot of men on the bread lines during the Great Depression. Chapter ten features an interview with scholar George Dalzell, who discusses why people use mediums to try to contact the recently deceased.

And so, in Phantom Limb, Rosenblatt uses his own personal history as a touchstone in order to open the topic of his brother’s death outward, into a broader consideration of loss. Moreover, the film coordinates significant differences in form in order to emphasize this move from the extremely private into the social and the general. Rosenblatt connects original, contemporary color footage (the interview material) to the found footage that characterizes his usual working method. What’s more, Phantom Limb is organized through the concatenation of semi-autonomous segments, some of which are purely metaphorical (the rats, the falling building, a documentary scene from an observation in a daycare, and others). This deeply personal topic – the death of his young brother – results in Rosenblatt both adopting a highly uncharacteristic formal approach, and letting more “impersonal” material into the film.

We could perhaps read this stylistic openness in a few different ways. The incomplete, permeable textual structure of Rosenblatt’s film has been identified by many commentators (most notably Pascal, Theodor Adorno, and Philip Lopate) as a function of the “attempt” or “assaying” element that defines the essay form, and by extension the essay-film. But perhaps more than this, the dominant theme of Phantom Limb is the painful removal of a vital part of one’s life, followed by the ineluctable sense that in some way that missing part is still there, as a ghost presence. How does that phantom entity assert itself? Perhaps the digressive style of Phantom Limb, in which disjunctive material intrudes but somehow makes itself at home in its very intrusion, speaks to the intrusive thinking that accompanies lifelong mourning, a “whole” comprised of ill-fitting parts.

So what kind of element do Rosenblatt’s films comprise, in relation to the “whole” that is the body of avant-garde cinema? Although Rosenblatt’s overarching style, mode of address and community ethos is clearly that of the Bay Area avant-garde, I think we can understand that these films are more accessible that many of the other films to have emerged from the 1990s experimental milieu. This is because of their engagement with narration and storytelling, as well as their treatment of sound and music (in the case of Limb, the music of Arvo Pärt) as accompaniment rather than a fully integrated compositional element.

They occupy a space within a hypothetical Venn diagram, between the avant-garde cinema of Conner, Lipsett, Craig Baldwin and Phil Solomon on the one hand, and the independent essay-films of Alan Berliner, Lynne Sachs, Deborah Stratman, and Caveh Zahedi on the other. Trying to explain that Rosenblatt works within more accessible means is, again, an attempt at a purely formal description, which might hopefully clarify his particular strengths and achievements by differentiating the genre cues to which viewers intuitively respond, as well as eliminating needless category errors. And while this explication may seem more like a dry, classificatory exercise rather than an appreciation of Rosenblatt’s often bracing, affectively resonant films, I will conclude with an explanatory comparison. There are composers of the modern era whose music is much more deeply connected to earlier models, while using experimental flourishes as emotive accent – Barber, Messiaen, Hindemith. Rosenblatt’s films could perhaps be understood as having a somewhat similar relationship to avant-garde cinema.