In true indie spirit, both economical, ethical, and aesthetically, Jon Jost’s 1977 $3000 ninety minute road movie stands out as a great unseen example of just how little you truly need to make an intelligent, provocative, and rather engaging feature film without selling your soul. But is it entertaining?
That all depends on a personal definition of entertaining. On my own, I had seen this particular work five or six times, but I never had the experience of watching it with an audience. Nervously, I wondered if others in the room would find the same entertainment I find in this film, but as the movie began and as the first few scenes crawled across the screen I felt a bit of tension creep up my spine.
Had I never noticed the rather droll pacing? Did I overlook obvious visual flaws or was this projector just further exploiting the faults in the video transfer? Had the lead actor’s character always been this annoying? And, why didn’t I remember there being so many black screens and so much honky-tonk music?
Or was I just worried that the younger, male audience members who had grown up after Robert Rodriguez’s El Mariachi and the digital video revolution would not be impressed with Jon Jost’s low budget skills, that they would still expect some mirror image of a Hollywood action film, and that they would utterly hate this slow-boiling character study of a less than likable character?
Set in the upper mid-west regions of America, a landscape Jost is familiar with and one he has often used as his backdrops for many of his films, Last Chants For A Slow Dance follows the rambling life of a man who refuses to settle down, take responsibility for his life and his actions – the sort of man who thinks he sees everything, but has an inability to see just how he comes of too others. Tom Blair makes his first appearance in a Jost film and in some way he sets the stages for later appearances, each a variation on the same American male. Out for himself, willing to take what he can get, but usually by less than noble means, Tom Blair’s character is unflinchingly annoying from beginning to end, but as this is not a fault of acting or directing, but rather a character fault it is something that can be easily overlooked and even understood as long as audience members consider that Jost and Blair have constructed this character not as a role model, but rather as an example. It is never easy to watch a film where the director has chosen to make a point through an unsavory character, but in some ways this notion dates back to early fables.
If there is a lesson in Last Chants For A Slow Dance which is also known as (Dead End) it is that this mythic notion of a rambling modern day outlaw or desperado traveling across the now less than wild west is really no hear at all. Made myth through country and western music, Jost juxtaposes his well constructed long take scenes with self-penned, self-played, and self-sung honky-tonk songs that explore, if not poke fun at his main character and the events in the film. It is only upon subsequent viewing that one starts to recognize the black humor buried in this long stretches of blackened screens that connect each segment of the film.
Of all the independent directors out there, Jost might have the greatest eye for cinematography. What his images lack in elaborate lighting design – Jost realize heavily on natural light – he makes up for in his striking compositions and his innovate use of the camera. Never flashy, but always providing an original look to his film, Jost’s eye is trained not by other films, but more classically. His images resemble paintings more than frames from some other film. He’s also not hesitant to try something new as he does in a long hotel scene that stretches from day to night. The room is shot entirely in black and white, with subtle lighting changes due to variations in the light streaming in through the curtains, but at the center of his frame is a color television, droning on and on with late show banter and the traditional playing of the national anthem at the end of the broadcast day. It’s note a perfect effect, but most filmmakers would spend more than Jost’s entire budget on a special effect and most of the effects would not be as special as this one, both visually interesting, but also laced with a deeper meaning.
To my surprise, the screening went well and there was a more than enthusiastic response to the film. It leaves hope that future filmmakers may come to realize the importance of creating an film that is not just independent by means of a low-budget, but one that also dares to try something different, and not mimic Hollywood. Then again, it is much easier to just watch a film like Last Chants For A Slow Dance than it is to make it. Few people are willing to write, direct, shoot, edit, and produce their own film, even fewer will also go on to write and record their own soundtrack. It takes a real maverick to do that and do it well. But, after seeing this film at least others know it can be done.