Aug 3, 2015
Out of all the filmmakers that have been associated with the hermetic aesthetic autism of so-called ‘Structural film,’ Jon Jost (Angel City, The Bed You Sleep In), who to his credit does not actually associate himself with the movement (in an interview with Jonathan Rosenbaum, he stated candidly regarding Structural film, “I’ve hardly seen any. What little I’ve seen strikes me as technical exercises, so I end up not being too interested—or I’m interested only if there’s some technical thing I can learn from it”), is probably the only one who has directed cinematic works that would appeal to more people than just actual Structural filmmakers and certain pedantic film theorists that consider Stan Brakhage a right-wing ‘reactionary.’ A self-taught auteur and born rebel who had to temporarily put his filmmaking career on hold in 1965 after only directing a couple shorts because he had to serve over 2 years in prison at the behest of U.S. authorities for adamantly refusing to cooperate with the Selective Service System by burning up his draft card (ironically, the filmmaker was a military brat), Jost is a rare true lone wolf of cinema who is not part of any avant-garde movement or the mainstream, though, unlike a lot of his underground contemporaries, he actually desired be part of the latter. Indeed, as his distinctly gritty and visceral (anti)road movie Last Chants for a Slow Dance (1977) vividly demonstrates, Jost’s most accessible works also tend to be his greatest, which is a sentiment that top American film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum also seems to share as reflected in his book Film: The Front Line 1983 (1983) where he wrote, “At once the easiest and most disturbing of Jost’s features, and to my mind the best, LAST CHANTS conceivably gets closer to the mentality of the alienated and seemingly motiveless killer than either Mailer or Capote.” A delectably disturbing and refreshingly confrontational work that was written, directed, shot, and edited by Jost on a mere budget of $3,000, this truly radical road movie, which was notably the auteur's first excursion in narrative feature filmmaking, easily comes closer than any other cinematic work that I have ever seen in terms of depicting the innately nihilistic life of an authentic everyday psychopath. Indeed, while people typically think of them as lawyers, bankers, CEOs, Hollywood producers, and genocidal dictators, the average psychopath is actually an ill-restrained, irresponsible, sexually impulsive, and parasitic emotional void and perennial lowlife loser that essentially drifts through life with no real long-term plans and typically relies on the generosity of the weak and/or inordinately empathetic to survive, but of course Hollywood would never dare to make a film about such a hopelessly humdrum individual and instead makes quasi-tributes to such unsavory individual like Martin Scorsese did with Zionist swindler Jordan Belfort via his keenly kosher big budget Bacchanalian celluloid Shylock bugger The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). Inspired by the loser life of American killer Gary Gilmore (who was executed the same year the film was released and who was formally diagnosed by a prison psychiatrist as suffering from antisocial personality disorder with intermittent psychotic decompensation) and the sort of degenerate hardened criminals that Jost met during his prison sentence for draft-dodging, the auteur notably described his objective with the film as follows to Rosenbaum, “I tried to make an honest picture of a small segment of American society.” Of course, there is no glamour in Jost's America.
A sort of Wrangler Jeans ‘realist fever dream’ that would probably make even the driest of feminist cunts wet due to its depiction of what misandristic she-bitches regularly refer to as “toxic masculinity,” Last Chants for a Slow Dance is chilling in a manner comparable to when you are having an awkward conversation with a fellow that you know has actually murdered or raped someone. To a European, sheltered bourgeois pansy, or NYC Jewish intellectual who has nil experience with or understanding of America’s white working-classic, Jost’s film might be misinterpreted as a portrait of the typical Montana neo-cowboy ‘everyman’ who thinks that John Wayne is the greatest American who has ever lived and who enjoys watching the pseudo-hillbillies on Duck Dynasty, but it is really a candid depiction of a lumpenprole psychopath who lets his family suffer while driving aimlessly in his truck and living life more or less off the grid. In terms of counterculture road movies, Jost’s film makes Monte Hellman’s existentialist cult classic Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) seem like the prototype for the dreaded The Fast and the Furious (2001) franchise by comparison. Indeed, a sort of more eccentric yet calm celluloid cousin to Werner Herzog’s Stroszek (1977) as a work that depicts America and its people and landscapes in a way that is usually more typical of European arthouse filmmakers, Last Chants for a Slow Dance features an outlaw man in an outlaw land where sex, death, and alcohol are the only available ingredients for making life worth living, especially if you’re an emotionally, spiritually, and economically bankrupt loser who will do anything to avoid confronting the reality of your dead-end (non)existence. Featuring an original dark and dejecting yet sometimes lyrically ironical country-western soundtrack composed by Jost that seems like something Ed Gein might have basked in while suffering a melancholic episode while confronting the loss of his beloved mommy, the film is not only the most organic of existentialist road movies, but also a completely stripped down modernist western where the cowboys has a truck instead of a horse and just kills to kill in a most cowardly and inexplicable way that reminds the viewer that there is not much left of the great wild American frontier, as all the injuns have been defeated and the only real rebels left are pacifistic pansy hippies who take pride in living off the government and banging the girlfriend of some sorry sap who is overseas in some nightmarish third world country fighting for an America that hardly has his interests in mind. The first film in Jost’s ‘Tom Blair Trilogy’ preceding Sure Fire (1990) and The Bed You Sleep In (1993), Last Chants for a Slow Dance features the hidden America that makes Hollywood producers question whether or not they should permanently relocate to Israel.
After opening with a black screen with the film’s title flashing across the middle of the frame, Last Chants for a Slow Dance dissolves to footage of scorching Montana asphalt juxtaposed with a man saying, “We’re on the road again,” thus making the viewer think that Willie Nelson will unfortunately soon start singing, but nothing of the sort happens, as the viewer is soon subjected to the incessant self-pitying ravings of the disturbingly loony yet sometimes crudely charismatic lead character. The man talking off-screen is perennially unemployed blond antihero Tom Bates (drama teacher Tom Blair) and he is incessantly running his mouth off to a dirty young longhaired hippie hitchhiker who he complains to, “No, I never did think about where I was going. I can hardly remember where I’ve been. Shit, it’s like life’s too complicated, you know?” Without the hitchhiker even asking him a single question, Tom more or less tells him the abridged version of his pathetic life-story, including how he was regularly whipped by his parents as a child and how he remembers it “really good.” Ostensibly on the road to find a job, working-class antihero Tom oftentimes ran away from home as a kid and now he is a deadbeat dad and less than loyal husband who has no problem admitting, “I’ve always been that way I guess, like…too much, too much inside my head, you know…and some of it I just had to get out, you know…just go off and drive and drink beers and get laid, you know.” Obviously, Tom's ceaseless driving and traveling is an ultimately futile way for him to both physically and emotionally escape from personal responsibility and the patently pathetic nature of his life in general, yet somehow he has not realized that he is really trapped and has nowhere to go.
Despite having two young sons, Tom has no problem admitting to the hitchhiker, “I never wanted any kids, I never did, I never wanted any kids. And I got two of them, two of them. For not wanting any, that’s a whole lot,” hence why he is never home. Tom has been driving around for two months while pretending to look for work, yet he has the gall to say regarding his wife, “Of course Darlene is on my back, fucking bitch.” It is only when Tom begins speaking about his favorite subject, “pussy,” that he begins to tone down his grating self-pitying rants. Despite having a reasonably attractive wife that has sired two healthy sons, Tom still seems to think he is a young bachelor and tells the hippie hitchhiker, “Pussy, I can smell it, I can smell it a mile away. If I was blind I could smell it a mile away, I can smell it see. Smell that? There’s some pussy out there, you smell that? Gimme pussy! Fuck I’m horny, there’s some pussy around.” When Tom asks the hippie, “Hey, you got pussy waiting for you?” and he somewhat meekly replies, “I got a girl. I don’t think of her like that,” the mentally perturbed protagonist begins acting irrationally agitated and attempts to accuse his passenger of being a queer, stating, “Hey sunshine, all girls are pussy. You got me?” and asking him, “You one of them god damn funnies? That’s it, you’re one of them…what do you call them?” When the hippie complains regarding rural Montana, “everything is burnt up” and “…a lot of people will be in trouble if they don’t get some rain,” Tom gets even more ticked off and bitches, “What’s that got to do with me? […] I don’t see that shit, I don’t load that shit. There’s nothing there. There is nothing out there.” Naturally, when the hippie responds to Tom’s prideful and hostile ignorance by remarking, “You’d have to be blind not to notice that,” the protagonist decides that the hitchhiker is an enemy and soon kicks him out of his car, but not before the young man accuses him of being crazy. Unbeknownst to the hitchhiker, he is lucky that he survived the car ride, as Tom will soon kill another man for a much pettier reason.
Naturally, after randomly showing up at the house without so much as calling once over the course of the past six weeks, Tom is forced to face the wrath of his emotionally neglected wife Darlene (Jessica St. John of John Cassavetes’ Ted Allan adaptation Love Streams (1984)), who frankly states to her emotionally estranged hubby while applying make-up in the mirror, “You come home all lovey dovey trying to honey me up…and get you a piece of ass. I’m not dumb Tom. That’s one thing I’m not.” After Darlene complains about the fact that people look at her strange while she is at the grocery store because she has been reduced to using food stamps to get groceries since he refuses to work and properly provide for his family, Tom demonstrates his deep sense of psychopathy by refusing to accept guilt and instead angrily retorting, “Fuck. You think this is gonna help Darlene? I mean, you think this is gonna make me want to stay here and put up with all your shit? I mean, what? This is supposed to make me want to get a job…this is supposed to make me get up in the morning and make money…and what? Drive that fucking truck down in that fucking hole for Anaconda?” (apparently, Tom used to work as a miner). When Darlene tells Tom that he is “really fucked up,” he somewhat humorously replies, “I know that, I admit that. But you just have to say it again and again and again,” thus demonstrating that he is less perturbed by his defective mind than the fact that Darlene reminds him of the fact that he has a defective mind. Of course, Tom is not too happy when Darlene reveals that she is pregnant and then threatens him by asking him, “Am I gonna have to D-I-V-O-R-C-E you?” and then laughing in an almost sadistic fashion. Naturally, after his disharmonious conversation with Darlene, Tom decides to get back to doing what he does by best by wandering aimlessly on the open road.
After driving around aimlessly all night, Tom goes to a diner where he unwittingly exposes his morbid mind by asking a swarthy hippie slob sitting next to him if he has read a letter featured in a tabloid newspaper where a woman complains that her husband forced her to soak herself in bath water for a long time so that she would resemble a wrinkly corpse while they had sex on their honeymoon. After self-righteously proclaiming that the newspaper is “nothing but garbage,” the idiotically idealistic hippie goes on a paranoid rant that somewhat intrigues Tom where he states, “It’s all bullshit. You know, these rags are put out by the government just to pacify people so that they forget about their real problems.” A deluded hippie bum that proudly lives off the government, the hippie espouses a sort of bullshit pseudo-back-to-nature philosophy and tells Tom, “If you just quit reading that stuff and do as the animals do, you’ll be alright.” Of course, for Tom, everything goes back to pussy, so he cannot help but ask the hippie about his sexual experiences with college girls. While there is no way in hell he would ever consider seeking a formal education and having to suffer listening to some bombastic beta-male liberal professor spouting off esoteric anti-reality theories about how to transform the world into a pan-sexual multicultural collectivist utopia, Tom is at least happy to hear from the hippie regarding the sexual proclivities of college girls that they are, “as willing as they get.” Undoubtedly, the diner scene with the hippie emphasizes that, despite his unyielding arrogance, Tom can get along with certain strangers, so long as they are just as morally bankrupt as he is, hence why he did not get along with the young dirty bohemian at the beginning of the film who was offended by his pathological use of the word “pussy” to describe women.
With his wife denying him her naughty bits during his brief stop at home, Tom soon goes on the prowl for young pussy at a local bar and soon begins somewhat awkwardly hitting on a 22-year-old dame named Mary who he foolishly accidentally calls “Sarah” while plying her with cheap beer and shallow flattery. Notably, it seems to take all of the energy that he has for Tom to pay another person a compliment and muster up the courage to say to Mary, “I’m guess I’m trying to say…I think you’re real pretty,” which the young lady is absolutely delighted to hear, but of course pussy is one of the few things that the protagonist is willing to make a ‘sacrifice’ for. When Mary playfully remarks that he is drinking too much, Tom almost botches his chance at young gash by getting somewhat angry with her and grunting, “I don’t like women telling me how to drink.” Like virtually all psychopaths, Tom cannot handle any form of criticism, even if it is in the form of a silly flirtatious joke. Of course, Tom eventually seals the deal by going back to Mary’s apartment and getting some pussy in a long 14-minute scene where The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson plays while the two characters have remarkably quiet and seemingly lackluster sex in the other room. Somewhat absurdly and inconsiderately, Tom makes the careless decision to call his wife Darlene in the same exact bedroom where he had sex with Mary not long after coitus has commenced. While Mary is lurking around the corner and listening to every single stupid thing that he says, Tom ends his phone call with his wife by calling her a, “Fucking bitch.” Although Mary heard a good portion of the phone conversation, including the antihero reciting his wife’s name in a nagging fashion, Tom treats his one-night-stand like a stupid fool and lies to her face by claiming that he was talking to somebody “about a job.” When he finally realizes that he can no longer keep defending his stupid half-ass lie, Tom's inner-psychopath rears its ugly head and, as a man that refuses to accept any form of responsibility and culpability, he blames Mary for his extramarital affair by saying to her, “I don’t remember being asked about a wife last night.” In fact, Tom goes so far as to accuse Mary of being a lecherous bar whore who was looking to catch herself some cowboy cock, stating to her, “Last night you would’ve taken on the whole goddamn bar.” Ultimately, Mary asks Tom to leave her apartment by saying “okay, bye,” to which the protagonist replies, “Fucking shit…wherever you go. I don’t have to listen to this bullshit […] Hey, no hard feelings.” As a psychopath that completely lacks empathy, Tom is never wrong, so it is only natural that he will inevitably up the ante in terms of his mean bastard behavior.
While Tom tells his one-night-stand “no hard feelings” after being a complete and utter asshole to her, it is clear by this point in the film that he is about ready to give up any pretense of humanity that he might have pretended to have before and begins studying the case records of various criminals, as if to compare himself with their backgrounds and to see if he has what it takes to be just like them. Indeed, Tom seems like he is admiring the funny page of a newspaper while reading the criminal profile of a 21-year-old high yellow negro named Roosevelt Green from Minter, Alabama who committed armed robbery, kidnapping, rape, and murder. Unlike the real-life people that he interacts with on a daily basis, Tom seems to feel a special kinship with these violent criminals and drifters just from reading their criminal records. In a scene where Jost seems to insinuate that it is not much of a leap for a country boy who hunts and kill animals to become a coldblooded murderer (Structural filmmaker James Benning seemed to use a similar technique in his feature Landscape Suicide (1987) in a scene where the dismembering of a deer is abstractly connected to the necrophiliac crimes of Ed Gein), a live bunny rabbit is not only depicted being clubbed to death, but also decapitated and then completely dismembered while its limbs are still moving. Immediately after the hare is hacked into pieces, Tom is depicted pulling off the road in his truck to assumedly help a somewhat overweight fellow whose car has just broken down. Upon talking to the man, Tom learns that his name is Fred Wilson and that he is also from his hometown of Butte, Montana. While Tom initially acts fairly cordial with Fred and intentionally asks him if he has children (which he does), he is merely putting up a false front as his motives are certainly less than savory.
After agreeing to take a look at Fred’s broken down car, Tom goes back to his truck under the pretense of grabbing some tools so that he can grab his trusty revolver. After shooting the shit a little bit more with Fred in a extremely comfortable and relaxed way that would make one assume that they are longtime best friends, Tom randomly declares, “Well I guess it’s time…it’s time, as good as time as any. Fred, I got something to tell you” and then points his revolver at the poor unwitting family man, who just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. As reflected in petty remarks he makes, Tom is jealous of Fred because he is a fairly successful family man who owns his gas station and whose loving wife just bought him a new car (even if it is a piece of junk that broke down on him). Even though Fred only has a couple dollars on him, Tom demands all of his money, stating with a sickening sense of self-pity, “I’ll tell you why I have to have this. See…I haven’t got a goddamn job or a goddamn thing, Fred. You just bought this car…and you got a goddamn gas station. See this? [points to gun] This is all I got left. Now, I ain’t ever going home so it don’t much matter to me.” After taking his money, Tom leads Fred to the woods with his gun and deceptively attempts to calm the unfortunate gas station owner's fears by claiming that he only plans to tie him to a tree, adding, “ain’t nothin’ gonna happen to ya.’” Of course, Tom is lying and not long after the two men enter the depths of the woods and disappear from the frame, two gun blasts can be heard. Ultimately, Tom runs out of the woods by himself and seems somewhat excited by what he has down. In the end, Tom is depicted driving with a vacant expression on his face while occasionally picking his nose for about five minutes in a scene that potently reflects the antihero’s complete and utter lack of guilt in regard to killing a man. At the very conclusion of this final sequence, a rather fitting inter-title pops over Tom reading “(Dead End),” which is a perfect summary of the character’s life as a lone drifting loser of the psychopathic sort. Judging by how he executed the craven killing of Fred with such gleeful ease, the viewer can only assume that Tom has just begun his murderous reign of terror. Indeed, it seems that Tom has more than just pussy to look forward to now.
It is not very often that I watch a film and then completely forget that I had ever seen it, but that is exactly what happened to with me Last Chants for a Slow Dance, which I originally viewed about three years ago and rather enjoyed but completely forget about until rather recently after deciding to checkout Jost’s oeuvre and instantly gravitating towards wanting to watch his slow-burning psychopath road movie. Undoubtedly, upon watching the film for the second time, I genuinely felt like I was catching up with an old enemy. Personally, I think that I completely forgot about viewing the film because it felt more like a real life experience than a piece of vintage fictional celluloid art that I watched from the comfort of my living room. Indeed, the film’s antihero Tom Blair reminded me a lot of an undiagnosed psychopath that I have known for most of my life who has spent a good portion of his distinctly deplorable existence figuratively and literally wandering around in an aimless fashion while destroying various lives in the process just so he can have some temporary relief from the barrenness of his truly dead-end life of perpetual (self)destruction and nihilistic excess. Indeed, if someone were to ask me to recommend a film about an ‘everyday psychopath’ that lacks the gross romantic glorification of such psychologically forsaken individuals that is typical of Hollywood films like The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Cape Fear (1991), Basic Instinct (1992), and The Good Son (1993), among countless other examples, I would unequivocally name Jost’s masterpiece, which the auteur hoped would be seen by more mainstream audiences as indicated by his remark to Rosenbaum, “I mean, there’s no reason why LAST CHANTS FOR A SLOW DANCE shouldn’t book as well as a lot of Fassbinder. It’s certainly no less accessible.” It is interesting that Jost mentions Fassbinder, as the only film that I can really compare to his flick to is Warum läuft Herr R. Amok (1970) aka Why Does Herr R. Run Amok?, which is also a fairly minimalistic work with long static takes about a fairly mediocre mensch who commits a shocking and completely senseless act of violence in the end after getting fed up with the banality of his life and no longer being able to ignore his deep resentment towards his family. Certainly, aside from more or less reinventing cinematic storytelling, Jost was also able to make the psychopathic mind accessible to virtually anyone with his film which, although carefully constructed and exquisitely nuanced, never resorts to asininely arcane avant-gardism. Despite the director's clear dislike for certain aspects of the American West, Jost's respect for the landscape and kind simple folk of the area also bleeds through the film in an entrancing manner that you would never find in a Hollywood movie, so it should be no surprise that the auteur once stated in relation to Last Chants for a Slow Dance and its production, “I had lived in Oregon and Montana for five years, and the rural West was very real and familiar terrain to me, a place in which I felt at home and comfortable, nevermind its many rough manners. Despite the gun racks, the macho sexism, and the overall conservatism of the West, it is generally a place where people are genuinely friendly and helpful. For shooting a no-budget film like LAST CHANTS it was ideal: ask for a bar, you got it, no questions asked, no money exchanged. Aside from Tom Blair, whom I’d met when living near Kalispell when he was the theater department of the local community college, and Jessica St. John, a type-cast hooker sort in Hollywood TV productions who I’d met in LA, the rest of the cast were locals who I gathered in the space of a week. Places, trucks, people—what little I needed fell easily in my hands for the asking. True West.”
While not exactly the sort of film that one can expect the Criterion Collection to release anytime soon (though the company did include the documentary short Godard 1980 (1980) co-directed by Jost as an extra feature with their DVD/Blu-ray release of Sauve qui peut (la vie) (1980) aka Every Man for Himself), Last Chants for a Slow Dance did manage to make it into the fairly popular film reference book 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die (2003) edited by Steven Jay Schneider where film critic Adrian Martin argues regarding Jost’s film, “The best index of its ambivalent sensitivity to the real world it traverses are its constant songs, simultaneously soulful and ironic tunes (“Hank Williams wrote it long ago,” runs one chorus) that take us far deeper than the smarmy musical pastiches in Robert Altman’s NASHVILLE (1975).” Indeed, aside from being thankfully devoid of the left-wing nihilism of Altman’s epically long-winded anti-musical, Jost’s film makes John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1990) seem like a Herschell Gordon Lewis flick due to Jost's cultivated true grit approach to a lone psychopathic cowboy in America’s ‘Land of the Shining Mountains.’ Ultimately, the film seems like the sort of work that the dilettantes of Dogme 95 hoped to make but mostly failed miserably at. If there is any benefit to going to prison, Last Chants for a Slow Dance certainly stands out as a notable example, as if it were not for Jost’s real-life experience with hardened lowlifes while he was in the slammer, it is dubious at best that he could have created such an intriguingly insightful cinematic work that should be made mandatory viewing for any prospective police officer or film student. Of course, the irony is that Jost must have had an inordinately high capacity for empathy for him to understand the psyches of the less than empathetic psychopathic inmates who acted as the inspiration for the antihero of his film. One can only speculate the sort of war film that Jost might have assembled had he not been a draft-dodger and actually fought in the Vietnam War. As Jost’s hero Jean-Luc Godard once stated regarding his great contribution to cinema, “He is not a traitor to the movies, like almost all American directors. He makes them move,” and in nowhere does he move further than in his truly radically rugged road movie Last Chants for a Slow Dance.
Posted by Soiled Sinema at 5:35 AM
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