"The film you have just seen was produced for about $2,000," reads the closing title card for Last Chants for a Slow Dance, writer-director Jon Jost's slow-burning 1977 thriller/road movie. It's a statement that trumpets a fierce, confrontationally noncommercial approach to filmmaking. And it informs almost a half-century of challenging and often deeply personal work by Jost, one of the heroes of American independent cinema, who makes a rare Nashville appearance Wednesday, March 28, at Vanderbilt's Sarratt Cinema.
You may not find Jost's work coursing through the minds of many aspiring film production students. His movies are short on ain't-it-cool bloodshed and hip pop-culture shout-outs. But any short list of indie cinema's true iconoclasts would be gravely remiss without his name. Comparisons to Cassavetes would not be inaccurate, if not for the fact that Jost's single-handed accomplishments make Cassavetes' lowest-budgeted film look like Avatar by scale comparison. On the budgets some so-called independent filmmakers spend just on catering, Jost makes fully realized features.
Given this ultra-streamlined approach, it only makes sense that Jost was an early adopter of digital cinema. An immediacy and need to capture the moment permeates his work going back to the early '70s in films like Speaking Directly, which at one point shows him surrounded by rows of the cumbersome equipment needed to produce that filmic diary. It suggests he is as much a slave to the medium as he is liberated by it, a point raised in a previous scene where an interview subject — a close friend — walks away mid-conversation, put off by the imposing presence and pageantry of the filmmaking process intruding on their intimate exchange.
For Jost, to whom the harvest of these candid moments is essential, digital production has given him the freedom to experiment beyond the genre elements that appear in many of his celluloid features, including 1993's Frameup and 1990's Sure Fire. An early example of Jost's digital transformation is the project Jost will be showing at Sarratt, 2000's 6 Easy Pieces. It's a collection of six meditations — short-form ventures that find Jost exploring both the aesthetic qualities and documentary potential of the medium.
Perhaps best described as video art, 6 Easy Pieces does not reflect Jost's tradition of narrative tinkering. Because of that, it does not really serve as a rounded introduction to his body of work. You will see, however, the before-your-very-eyes evolution of an artist testing the limits of a new methodology while conforming to a decades-long vision — always looking ahead to new means of expression. Even though he is nearly 70, you get the feeling Jon Jost has never looked back once.