Frame from City
1964. I was living in the largish 3rd floor janitor’s closet of a residential building in Chicago’s Hyde Park, no rent. 21 years old, awaiting trial from an October bust. I slept on a wide shelf at the window, just long enough to lay out with a slight tuck-in of the legs. It was December, Christmas eve to be precise. On the window ledge outside was a seemingly ceramic melted glass bead, dark yellow in color. It was actually the crystalized gunk I’d spit up some days earlier, the result of chronic post-nasal drip I’ve had all my life, aggravated by smoking, which I was doing at the time.
On the inside window ledge was a razor blade, placed there to taunt me. After getting arrested I’d been, in my own mind, a bit suicidal. I thought about it.
A friend, Jerry Geary, who worked at a film lab, lived in the building and had arranged for me to stay in the closet. Up a few floors was a young woman, Kathy Handler, a would-be artist, like myself. We were very on/off lovers. I recall her once coming down to knock on my door and announce, plain and simple, she wanted to fuck, now. We did.
Jerry would take printer’s tails from the lab for me – a very very low speed ASA stock (5) meant to make B&W prints. I used it for camera stock though it was so slow it required sunlight to use and was merciless on exposure settings. It was on the nose within 1/4 a stop, or nothing. I did have some normal camera stock too, and was at the time busy trying to shoot that up as I knew I’d soon be gone to prison for a few years, and they said film stock doesn’t age well. Use it up!
That Christmas eve there was a light snow. I stood at the window watching it come down, flickering in the street lamps, the dark street and side-walk turning slowly to white. That reminded me of a year earlier, in Salzburg, Austria, and being up somewhere high overlooking the city as the first snowfall of the year arrived, and the city becoming a crystal clear etching, the lines of the copper roofing emerging as everything else turned white, and the forms of the old baroque architecture standing out clear and beautiful. It was magical.
There was no one on the streets in Hyde Park, everyone gone home for the holiday. I stood alone in the window, watching the street below, lost in whatever thoughts my young mind might have had.
On the ground floor of the building I lived in there was a bar, I don’t recall the name. As I looked down, the sidewalk now covered with a half-inch of powdery snow, a man came out of the bar. He walked to a wire trash bin on the corner and stood a moment, and then clutched its sides. His body seemed to heave, and I saw tiny little black dots begin to speckle the white blanket around him. I instantly imagined his story – an abandoned or lost family, a wife, children, all gone. He stood there a few minutes, the dots multiplying, and then walked away leaving a trail of foot prints impressed in the snow.
That image is embedded in my mind like a Goya etching and I have over the years toyed with the idea of using it in a film. An image that needs no words.
There is an etching by Edward Hopper that reminds me of the image in my mind each time I see it:
In March of 1965, having shot up most of my film stock with a few short films – City, We Didn’t Go To Unique’s, and Judith – I took the El to the loop, went into Federal Court alone, and was sentenced to 3 years in prison for failure to fill out Selective Service form 1000. Or was it 100? The judge said I’d spend the rest of my life in prison because I’d get out and rebel again. He was right about half of that.
In the first year in prison, I received a note from Judy Noerdlinger, the woman who had been in the film Judith. It was a newspaper clipping, a black-framed obit announcement saying that Kathy Handler had been found dead in Lake Michigan, an apparent suicide. I recall being jolted, and in some way feeling guilty from this. And shortly after I quickly wrote, rather unconsciously, the text for a film I would make not long after leaving prison: TRAPS. It is one of my best films – crude, direct, poetic, and still these decades later, powerful.
Frame stills of Traps
A handful of years ago I learned that Judy had died. And today, as I write this and checked on-line about the deli in Chicago, I read that its owner, Sam Creinin, died in January 2017 at the age of 100.
Jon Jost, December 23, 2018
[To see City, Traps and other early short films, go here.]