OVER HERE (Jon Jost, 2008) (Dennis Grunes, critic)
Jon Jost, who has said he is “independently poor,” is thus able, as he tells it, to make without interference or compromise the films he wants to. For a decade now he has been working in digital video. Last year’s Passages is, for me, bar none, the best film of 2006; this year’s Over Here is “a kind of companion-piece,” according to Jost, to Homecoming, which for me is the best American film of 2004. Both films were shot in Oregon, Homecoming in Newport, Over Here in Portland. Both revolve around George W. Bush’s self- and crony-serving war in Iraq, but from the vantage of the homefront. In the ironically titled Homecoming (the title refers also to Jost’s own return from Europe to the U.S.), a soldier has been sent home for burial from Iraq following his absurd drowning death; the returning veteran is alive in “Over Here,” but, shattered, he is lost both to himself and the parents who love him. Jason is as lost to America as America is to him. He ends up homeless, living with a companion under a bridge. His silent tenderness towards her—he caresses her head, gently awakening her to a new day—suggests the waste of his humanity that a mendacious, oil-mad administration has wrought. It also suggests Jason’s adaptability, the humanity he is able to bring to an alternative world apart from the America that Bush’s poisonous presidency has befouled. The title reverses the jingoistic geographical reference of the George M. Cohan song from World War I, “Over There.” Following film’s end, there appears Jost’s statement about the war, including his call for domestic impeachments and trials in the World Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity. It is unlikely that there will be any more powerful movie than this one this year.
The pre-credit opening is poetic and poignant. It is the long-held tight closeup of a boy in his twenties. The image is in black and white except (perhaps!) for an elusive tinge of orange-pink in the boy’s “white” face. It is a degenerative image, a blowup appearing as a dark sea of dots, and its aural accompaniment is electronic discordance, science-fiction chords. The image itself—the boy—is mute. He speaks (to whom, we later find out, although a prefaratory snip suggests an answer); but his ordeal “over there,” which has rearranged his psyche, dissolving into dots his connections to reality, he finds himself at a loss to communicate. He covers his face with his hands. This pre-credit passage is subtitled Over There, as though that were the film’s title. Jason, the boy, has brought “over there” back home with him. It has taken over him as might an alien-something in a sci-fi horror film.
Post-opening credits, the first sequence takes place in a Portland café. There is a glossy shot of the clean interior. Jason is at the counter, and even when he is out of the shot or in the background, no matter what Jost’s camera sets in the foreground, we cannot take our mind off the boy. In effect, we have followed him from the pre-credit sequence and we want to learn more about him. Sometimes we see in closeup, in the foreground, some man doing business on the phone; for as long as the mise-en-scène allows, however, our eye is drawn to Jason in the background. At another time, a chessboard fills the front of the shot: chess—a board game based on a medieval battlefield. Finally, Jason leaves, and the brief stroboscopic shot of him outside in overcast weather conveys his agitation, which is further underscored by an unexpected cut back to the café, where all is calm and ordinary. Three brief static shots follow, the first two of which establish locale in the Ozuvian manner, and the third of which is similar except that Jason, in long-shot, walks into the frame, away from the camera, and leans against a parked car. This transforms the first two shots in the sequence, which now tell us that Jason has been walking a long way. A subsequent sequence of shots finds Jason walking into the frame, away from the camera, down a street. A subsequent traveling shot across a bridge suggests one of two things: Jason has hitched a ride to where he is staying; a merciful Jost has found a way to get us to Jason’s immediate destination more quickly than Jason has been able to manage. Somehow Jost succeeds in giving the combat veteran’s focused walking—Jason is proceeding to a definite place—a condition of aimlessness and passivity, as though Jason’s war experience has rendered him a will-o’-the-wisp.
In between the two passages of Jason walking is an interlude in an advertising agency. It is Saturday, and only the head of the agency and one of his minions are in the otherwise abandoned place, the head in his private office, the employee, Chris, in his cubicle, and this arrangement, besides relieving Jost of the necessity to come up with a bunch of extras, intensifies the exchange between the two men. The claustrophobic nature of the shots that Jost devises also assists in this, as does the contrast between the office space and the outdoor scenes where Jason proceeds under an immense, darkening sky.
Clearly the agency head is distracted in his private office, which not coincidentally posits him up against a brick wall. Restless, he ventures out of his official space to needle Chris for his being distracted. (It is Saturday, after all, and Portland is famous for being a city where “people work to live rather than live to work.”) Chris is devising the front page of a Web site for a client, which the boss finds too busy, the implication being that Chris’s head is too full of irrelevant clutter that he is (as is his wont) projecting onto his work. “Boy trouble?” the agency head asks, reminding Chris that he is obligated to leave all that at home and concentrate at work to meet the looming deadline for the agency client. The “boy” in question is Jason, whom Chris has picked up off the street, in front of the county’s main library, and taken into his home. “He’s not like the others,” Chris remarks. Chris, it turns out, has successfully rationalized his exploitation of Jason as pure compassion, and he is attempting to enlarge the reference of his positive self-image by putting his boss into the picture. A Vietnam veteran, surely this man might talk to the house-guest. The boss won’t have any of Chris’s plan; he has spent a lifetime suppressing his identity as warrior and the after-effects of his tour(s) of duty. It may even be the case that his own level of distraction is part of these distant after-effects. Instead, he warns Chris not to play social worker and to turn Jason over to those who might really be able to help him. In effect, he is telling his employee to stop playing with fire. The two men are alike, each dressing his inclination to exploit in the garb of concern. Workplace politics prevail, and the agency head, standing, looms over Chris, who is seated in front of his computer.
The passage is fairly clunkish; indeed, the entire film lacks fluidity, is structured instead as a series of set-pieces with fadeouts and deep blackouts, which in concert with other techniques suggests Jason’s mental and moral fragmentation and the disintegration of his ego. Form expresses content.
Chris fails to take his boss’s advice; he cannot bring himself to give up the boy. But fueled by his boss’s derision and his own consequent humiliation, he compensates by confronting Jason. Have you really been looking for work? Why is your jacket on the floor? Where is my iPod, Jason? (Jason, we know, does steal.) Home politics prevail, and Chris, standing, looms over Jason, who is on the living room couch as a radio or television program proceeds. We hear the program, and hear it clearly, but the verbal exchange between the two men fluctuates in clarity and volume as Jost, as he does throughout the film, plays with sound levels in an effort to express Jason’s interiority—just how, that is, that Jason feels. This is one of the film’s most brilliant aspects. In any case, Chris keeps at Jason relentlessly, verbally spanking him again and again, and in a subsequent scene Jason explodes. He had been in agitated sleep in a living room chair, his mind back in Iraq, and an inaudible Chris, standing, looms over him pontificating about something or other. Jost cuts from the sleeping Jason, one of whose hands grips an arm of the chair, to Chris, whose annoying intimidation is captured by a low camera tilted upwards. At first we aren’t certain whether Chris at that moment is a part of Jason’s dream; but all of a sudden, accompanied by a rocketing into normal sound, Jason is on the floor attempting to break Chris’s neck. His nightmare flashback—what occupied his mind until Chris broke his slumber—has him, now that he is nominally awake, back in Iraq still. We know this because Jason shouts “fucking Hadji!” as he assaults Chris. Or does he kill Chris? A shot holds on Chris’s lifeless face as though to decide the matter; but what we see may be a Chris playing possum whom Jason leaves on the living room floor.
This in-effect flashback to war is followed by an actual flashback that indeed may disclose the content of Jason’s in-chair dream of Iraq. It is a social scene whose centerpiece, out of focus and stroboscopic (and hence a projection of Jason’s own agitation), is someone singing the song “Hadji Girl” whose lyrics got their author, Marine Cpl. Joshua Belile, into such hot water. In the song, a U.S. Marine in Iraq foils an attempt to assassinate him by grabbing a girl’s “little sister” and having her take the lethal bullets meant for him from the girls’ father and brothers. In addition to making monstrous fun out of murder, the lyrics ridicule Islam. The song is also, of course, racist. We hear the soldiers in attendance laughing. Jost edits into this scene a montage of scenes, some of them snippets of Iraqi humanity that contest the song’s dehumanizing cruelty. The song, we understand, boosts the morale of the troops, like an old-time Bob Hope Christmastime show; its viciousness allows us to gauge the unhinged humanity of the U.S. warriors given the perilous situation into which they have been plunged. The song, then, encapsulates the horror of Bush’s war from which returning soldiers like Jason may never be able to escape.
This is the song’s refrain: “Durka Durka Mohammed Jihad/ Sherpa Sherpa Bak Allah.” But another line is thematically relevant to Over Here: “I can’t understand what you’re saying.” The lyric refers to U.S. ignorance of Arabic; but it becomes meaningful in another way as well. Throughout the film Jost stresses Jason’s feeling that he no longer belongs at home, that he cannot connect with others at the very moment that he most needs to, because his war experience has discombobulated him, leaving him incapable of communicating what he has undergone and what his needs are. Ryan Harper Gray, who plays Jason, is deeply affecting disclosing enormous pain and sadness, a broken soul. This is a great performance.
After leaving his adoptive/adopted home, Chris’s house, Jason visits his parents, apparently for the first time since returning to Portland. This passage is massively moving, nearly intolerably so. Despite parental pleas, Jason cannot stay. He must move on, accepting his condition of homelessness much as Ethan Edwards at the close of John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) chooses to wander between the winds.
The “conversation” among parents and son before Jason’s sad though perhaps necessary departure constitutes the part of the film I love most. (The entire film, incidentally, is 1¼ hours in length.) With darkness at the top and bottom of the screen, the face of each of the three characters occupies his or her own square in a row across the screen. Mother and Father flank Jason. (Bibi Walton and Jerry Carlton are excellent as the parents.) There is much silence and pain as Jason dissolves into sadness; what talk is there is inaudible. It is impossible for Jason to unburden himself. Each one is helpless. In the middle, Jason disappears entirely, leaving behind a black square—this, a projection of how he feels, and the loss to them of their son that his parents dread. When he reappears, his face now fills a square larger than the ones occupied by his parents, ironically indicating the attempts by his parents to hold onto him, but finding this impossible, and his own attempt to hold onto himself. The parents’ faces disappear into the darkness; when they reappear, Jason is out-of-frame, and their squares are adjacent. “Please don’t go,” we manage to hear the mother say. We hear the door close behind Jason. Now only the mother is visible; adjacent to her is darkness—a visual projection of the loss of her son. We next see Jason underneath the bridge some morning. We know that time has passed from the presence of his companion. Amidst normal sound, his hearing goes into silence and comes back out. His haunted face visually frays. The girl with him makes no demands because she isn’t connected to his past. In his own way, Jason also may be wandering between the winds.