The Darkness of Day: Suicide, Guilt, and Found Footage

10/18/2010 9:40 AM |

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The Darkness of Day, a collection of experimental shorts by Jay Rosenblatt, concludes its MoMA run today at 4pm.

The two longest works in this package by San Francisco-based experimental filmmaker Jay Rosenblatt treat suicide (The Darkness of Day) and the death of Rosenblatt’s seven year-old brother, when Jay was nine (Phantom Limb). Following one theme, Rosenblatt’s films layer deadpan narration (usually by Beverly Berning) over meticulously picked footage from discarded industrial and educational film prints he claims to have found in various dumpsters.

In Darkness, much of the narration is sourced from a suicide victim friend’s journal entries, and the rampant anhedonia (“I have ceased to care,” “protracted hopelessness and apathy beyond belief,” “empty beyond imagining”) is affecting in its candor. Historical anecdotes about imitation volcano-jumping suicides on Japan’s Oshima Island, and the sad legacy of the Golden Gate Bridge’s death toll, add perspective to Rosenblatt’s more typical confessionalism. Footage of Hemingway at a rodeo is accompanied by the ever-bracing statistic that, in addition to the writer himself, his father, brother, sister, and grand-daughter also committed suicide, evidence of the disease’s genetic grip.

The award-winning Phantom Limb begins as an outpouring of guilt—the young Rosenblatt bullied his sickly brother and still partially considers himself responsible for his death from surgical infection. But the technique doesn’t always complement the intentions. After a title card confesses Rosenblatt’s teasing, we’re shown stock footage of a young boy being teased. A section titled “Collapse” after one stage of grief, shows film of condemned buildings being razed. The images match the words, but don’t necessarily illuminate them.

The dirgeful music in Rosenblatt’s films, by artists including Benjamin Britten and Arvo Pärt, presumes weightiness when combined with the scratched, obscure black and white footage. The combination is more successful in smaller portions, like I Just Wanted To Be Somebody, the portrait in miniature of disgraced pop singer/homophobe Anita Bryant, clips of which were used in Gus Van Sant’s Milk. Afraid So is a bluntly effective illustrated poem (the title silently answers every line), read in three minutes by Garrison Keillor.