Jon Jost, independent film-maker. The early films
'Stagefright' (1981) is very different from the other early Jost films. The reason for the difference is two-fold: firstly it was originally made (in shorter form) for German TV, and Jost has adapted his methods to suit the medium, and secondly the subject under examination, the theatre, is examined in close-up, rather than, as in the pervious two films, through its effect on society at large.
The film looks different because it is all shot in a studio with actors performing against a black background. The emphasis, therefore, in on expression through the human figure, which both suits the TV medium and reproduces the methods of the theatre. In fact, since we are made constantly aware that we are watching actors performing, and since the camera does not move, watching the film is almost as much like being at the theatre as like being at the cinema.
The film has no plot, and like 'l, 2, 3, Four' and other early shorts, the sub-text is in essay form. The argument has four stages: an introduction, an exposition, a climax, and a conclusion. The introduction is a short history of human communication, and, like everything else in Jost's films, it can be read on more than one level. Firstly we are made aware that the subject being illustrated is communication as part of the evolution of mankind. Secondly we are aware that the story is being illustrated by actors, and that developments in communication have also taken place in the theatre. And thirdly we are aware that what we are watching is a film, another area in which developments in communication have taken place.
The film opens with a dance representing birth. It can be seen as the birth of mankind, and, in the way the dancer communicates through the use of her body, as the birth of human communication, and of theatre. The following sequences illustrate, visually and aurally, the refinement of this process towards communication through language. First we see the human face, which communicates states of mind through its expressions, then we close in on the mouth, and the extraordinary range of sounds it is capable of making. Then comes the addition of vocal sounds, and finally, as the image cuts back to reveal the full-length naked figure, we hear the first word of the film: 'Human'.
The next sequence follows the development of language, first with a figure clad in a toga reading Latin from a book, illustrating the birth of Western civilisation, the written word, and costume, and then, as letters proliferate wildly on the screen, the arrival of printing. The latter scene is the first with no human figure in it, showing that language has now taken on a life of its own; and the power of this new medium of communication is shown in the next scene: we see a close-up of a text, and, as it is read aloud, drops of blood-red ink fall on the pages, eventually obscuring the words.
So far, other than "Human", not a word of English has been spoken; we have been looking at forms of communication in relation to their source and raison d'être - the human being - without being distracted by meanings.
The next scene, in which a cabaret hostess welcomes us to the show, marks the beginning of the exposition. We have followed the evolution of language into an important arena of communication: the theatre; in other words, as we sit there watching the performance, into our immediate situation.