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The 10-Minute Masterpiece 

Short-film maker Jay Rosenblatt has devoted 20 years to making remarkable movies that almost no one will ever see

Wednesday, Dec 13 2000
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In Mrs. Bromberg's fifth-grade class at P.S. 194, there were four Richards. The politics of the Brooklyn schoolyard demanded that they distinguish themselves somehow from one another, so almost unthinkingly a pecking order of nicknames was devised. One got to remain Richard. One became Rich. Another Richie. And the fourth Richard -- an ungainly, quiet kid who wore Coke-bottle glasses and got teased by everybody -- got called Dick.

One day -- this was in 1965 -- Mrs. Bromberg held the entire class after school because somebody was misbehaving. The fifth-graders eventually were dismissed, but not before being told that they would have gotten out earlier had Richard not been talking. There was no doubt in anybody's mind which Richard was the perpetrator -- it was, of course, Dick. And so an army of 10-year-olds -- most of Mrs. Bromberg's class -- tailed Dick outside the school, grabbed him, threw him to the ground, beat him up, and spit on him. One of his classmates, Jay Rosenblatt, was one of the popular kids. He joined in. He had to.

In the scheme of the wider world, it was a thoroughly unspectacular incident, one that usually fades like a childhood crush. But it's funny what sticks with us.

Jay Rosenblatt grew up, became a filmmaker, and moved to San Francisco. His chosen style is the "collage" movie -- compiling pieces of other films into wholly different creations. So he was pretty much going about his normal business one day when he went through some old footage of boys roughhousing in a back yard. His eye caught a moment -- a split second, really -- of one boy punching another. And suddenly, the memory of what he had done in that schoolyard flooded back to him after nearly 30 years -- as did a slew of guilts and anxieties about his boyhood.

He expanded the scene into The Smell of Burning Ants, a 20-minute film finished in 1994 that chillingly tackles what it means to grow up male -- how the fear of being called a sissy or a faggot exacts its toll in violence, rape, or suicide. Like most of his work, it is a strange, unnerving movie -- "dreamlike" is a word that comes up often when people discuss his films. The script isn't so much a narrative as it is a catalog of the things certain boys do in their youth -- hang out with the "bad crowd," live in fear of their fathers, fight, have pissing and jerking-off contests, and take out their rage on insects, hence the title. "Richie is a faggot, Marty is a faggot, Eddie is a faggot," says the flat, dispassionate narrator. "Call everyone a faggot, then if they call you one, it won't matter." Jarringly, the statements are set against mundane film footage -- shots of boys playing, fighting, or sitting in classrooms. Most of it is drawn from Eisenhower-era educational films, with their original soundtracks excised. Repurposed and slowed down, the shots become weightier, and in a way even frightening. "A child is told to smile," the voice-over at the end of the film says. "He does not feel happy. In fact, he feels sad. But nonetheless he is told, "Smile -- it won't kill you.' But, in fact, it does." Today, dozens of institutions -- jails, schools, youth and men's groups -- have requested to use the film.

The movie -- and the others that have followed -- have given Rosenblatt a reputation as one of the best and most important short experimental filmmakers working today. He has garnered dozens of awards. He has won prestigious grants from major foundations. And yet outside of a handful of hard-core cinéastes, he is virtually unknown to the moviegoing public. As a filmmaker, he has been straitjacketed by those two adjectives: "short" and "experimental." For better or worse, "short film" suggests mediocrity -- student films or pieces made mostly to get a foot in the door in Hollywood. As for "experimental" -- well, that invokes a whole passel of clichés about beret-wearing Eurotrash making black-and-white movies that get described with German words like Weltschmerz and Schadenfreude.

The short film is the forgotten stepchild of moviemaking. When the films are shown at all, they are relegated to the festival circuit. Mainstream cineplexes won't touch them, and even art houses generally avoid them: Adding a 10-minute film before the main feature can throw off a theater's schedule, pushing a late screening toward midnight and driving away audiences. The short film's latest indignity came last year, when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences tried to get rid of the short documentary Oscar, only to change its mind once heavyweights like Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg leaned on them. The Bay Area has long been considered a hotbed of creativity in experimental shorts and independent documentaries, but even here, with the best efforts of support groups like the Film Arts Foundation, they are rarely seen. Despite the occasional "buzz" that follows Rosenblatt's work, "I don't put much hope or weight in that," he says. "I know my films are" -- he pauses -- "an anomaly."

And yet Rosenblatt has spent the last 20 years making nothing but short films. Even with overtures from Hollywood, he has persevered in the genre with a dedication that is almost perverse. He spent three years -- at no profit and only limited screenings -- making The Smell of Burning Ants, because he couldn't let go of the memories that one image evoked. "It was this traumatic event in all our lives," he says. "Because we were caught, and we were ashamed after it. It stood out." That commitment reflects a compulsion to publicly express our knottiest and most private feelings about relationships, faith, and atrocity. The result has been some of the nerviest and most important experimental short films around. 1998's Human Remains was constructed of footage of the 20th century's most hated dictators -- Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Mao, and Franco -- but focused only on their love lives and personal idiosyncrasies, never once mentioning the horrors that occurred at their hands. Last year's RESTRICTED cataloged our collective unconscious fears about sex, religion, and family in the space of precisely one minute. And this year, his King of the Jews explored the misconceptions about Jesus Christ, and how Rosenblatt feels they led to 2,000 years of routinized atrocities.

About The Author

Mark Athitakis

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