If you know of the filmmaker Tom Joslin, that may well be because you’ve seen footage of his last days.
In the early ’90s, Joslin and his partner of 22 years, Mark Massi, were both dying of AIDS. Joslin, a former Hampshire College professor, had long pursued ideas of self-reflexivity and artifice versus reality in his film efforts, turning the camera on himself and those around him. He chose to turn the camera on himself even then, beginning what became the film SilverlakeLife: The View from Here.
That work, completed after Joslin’s death in part by Massi and in part by Peter Friedman, was important for its raw, unflinching look at the realities of life and love in the face of impending death. Silverlake Life includes harrowing material; it’s virtually impossible not to be moved and shaken by the film, and it’s impossible not to feel somewhat close to its main subject, Joslin, even if that feeling springs from the limiting confines of 99 minutes and a camera frame.
Silverlake Life also includes footage from a 1976 Joslin film, Blackstar: Autobiography of a Close Friend, itself an important documentation of gay life in that era. In it, Joslin discusses his coming of age and his coming out to family members who seem reluctant to accept his reality and his commitment to Massi.
The latest footage of Joslin’s offers a glimpse into the filmmaker’s more formal artistic concerns, downplaying the biographical details more central to his other films. That footage, meant for a film Joslin was uncertain how to complete, languished in storage in L.A. for three decades-plus. Thanks to the efforts of Hampshire professor Abraham Ravett and some of his students, Joslin’s uncompleted film now exists as the film Architecture of Mountains.
“This came about because I was teaching a class on recycled material in visual arts and writing as well,” explains Ravett. “I called [Hampshire alum] Ken Levin and asked whatever happened to the footage. He said, ‘It’s been sitting in my garage in L.A.—I didn’t know what to do with it.’ I told him about this course and asked if he would consider letting us take a look at it.” Ravett estimates Joslin’s footage at around 10 hours of 16 millimeter film.
Ravett says Joslin was frustrated with the film when he took a sabbatical from Hampshire to go to L.A. in 1980. Joslin wasn’t granted a second year of leave, and was forced to choose between staying in L.A. or coming back to Hampshire. “I think if he had come back,” says Ravett, “he would have finished it.”
Ravett says that Joslin hadn’t decided whether the film would even be purely a film: “He did part of it as a performance piece.”
Some footage in Architecture includes Joslin using some of his material, including projections, in front of a crowd at a Hampshire lecture hall. Ravett says Joslin also found a spare space to turn into a working studio, and, in keeping with his self-reflexive concerns, then filmed himself working in that studio.
To use Joslin’s footage with contemporary editing tools, Ravett had to get it transferred to a digital format. He explains that this is “a big deal”—high-quality transfers cost thousands, but another of Joslin’s former students transferred it for free.
“We tried to assess it at a global, macro level,” says Ravett. “We knew Tom was also very much inspired and influenced by a book called The Transformative Vision: Reflections on the Nature and History of Human Expression that Jose Arguelles wrote in the mid- ’70s. A couple of people took the time to get into it. We had some notes in that box [of footage] from Tom—primarily in the form of a grant proposal. That’s it.”
Ravett and his students talked to Joslin’s students who’d been involved in shooting for Architecture, and did their best to envision a film that remains true to Joslin’s ideas.
“At the end of the semester, we didn’t have a cut or anything. We just had footage. I didn’t want to take this on, say, ‘This is what I want.’ Some of it we agreed, some of it we weren’t sure, some we knew we weren’t going to use,” says Ravett. “[Students] Ben Balcom and Sam Shapiro—they stuck with it, and Ben did most of the editing. He would give me some feedback, and we would go back and forth. The film is a kind of speculation on our part about what [Joslin] may have wanted. It could have been cut a lot of different ways.
“Aesthetically, in terms of modes of representation—we knew that Tom, as he [showed] in Blackstar, was interested in self-reflexivity—acknowledging artifice, his own presence. There’s a self-conciousness about who’s making this film, how did this come about, et cetera,” says Ravett.
Seeing Architecture is, at times, an unusual experience. In Blackstar, Joslin at times departed strikingly from standard-issue modes of documentary storytelling, offering montages of odd shots quickly cut together to create a sense of time compression as Joslin narrates. Such sequences play a major role in Architecture, aimed as it is as exploring ideas of perception, artifice and reality.
It’s hard to imagine how an editor might approach a pile of film, extract and assemble such intense sequences. Ravett explains that those montages were not in fact his group’s creations. It turns out that Joslin was a deft user of a particular kind of camera, and employed it to commit the sequences to film in the camera, not the editing room.
“That was done with a Bolex camera,” says Ravett. “On the side of the Bolex, there’s a lever that allows you to put it in ‘I’ or ‘T.’ if you put it in ‘I,’ it opens and closes one frame at a time. On ‘T,’ it opens for as long as you depress the shutter, and you get these streaks of light. With the Bolex, instead of single-frame animation, he would expose anywhere from two to four frames at a time. It gives you that rapid-action mobility. He was conversant with how to control rhythm and time in the camera. He was open to opportunities for chance.”
It’s in those moments, particularly, that Joslin’s films push at the boundaries of the medium in the most interesting ways, realizing an intuitive kind of storytelling that doesn’t depend on conventional methods. They mix well with the more standard-issue passages, especially in light of his habit of repetition and pulling back the curtain to reveal his own filmmaking. In one sequence in Blackstar, Joslin films his brother’s arrival on camera repeatedly and offers the viewers a glimpse of the meta-story, of his brother’s discomfort and emotion beyond the film’s immediate narrative.
For Ravett, working with the footage provided another surprising resonance with Joslin’s later work. In Silverlake Life, Joslin films himself in bed late at night. The roots of that idea can be seen in Architecture. In that film, Joslin explains that he wants to get at his own dreams, so he installs a camera and a light, all set to go on at random intervals in the night, in hopes that he could convey his dreams. Since Joslin blurs the lines between fact and fiction in Architecture, it’s not immediately apparent whether he actually created that setup.
Ravett says that Joslin really did. “He was truly awakened—he had an alarm that turned on the camera. There’s a mixture of truth and non-truth [in the film], but ultimately he’s very self-concious—he was, always. He was interested in the power of dreams, the subconscious. He wanted that in the film. What strikes me is how prescient he was in terms of how he looked in that footage [and how he looked in Silverlake Life]. For us it was really startling.”
Watch Joslin’s films together, and you get a full picture of an unconventional, intriguing filmmaker whose experimentations went unrealized because of his tragically early death. Ravett has, so far, offered a few audiences that experience, with screenings of Blackstar and Architecture of Mountains in L.A., San Francisco, and New York City.
Ravett says no plans are currently in place for a local screening, but he doesn’t discount the possibility. In the meantime, the best way to see Architecture is by getting it directly from Ravett at his homepage: http://faculty.hampshire.edu/aravett/pages/home.html.•