Last Chants for a Slow Dance (Jon Jost, 1977)
(note: review originally published sometime before 17 November 2008, the exact date has been lost)
The cinematic language found in Jon Jost’s obscure, yet legendary, third feature*, Last Chants for a Slow Dance, is obvious in retrospect; it’s a combination of the avant-garde cinema verité approach of John Cassavettes’ early films (especially Faces) and the love affair with the long, slow shot that we have come to associate with the Eastern Europeans (Tarkovsky and Bela Tarr in particular). It should be no surprise, then, that Last Chants for a Slow Dance landed on the thousand-best lists of both Jonathan Rosenbaum and Steven Jay Schneider, both of whom have Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev, Stalker, and Solaris (Schneider also includes Mirror) and—well, let’s just say Rosenbaum’s list contains seven Cassavettes flicks and Schneider’s four (including, of course, both Faces and Shadows) on their thousand-best lists as well. Jost being a relatively perfect distillation of the two, it was a given, really.
Last Chants for a Slow Dance is a character study of Tom (Tom Blair, who would team up with Jost again for two films in the nineties), an unlikable drifter who wanders through Montana half-heartedly searching for a job and angering just about everyone he comes into contact with, including his long-suffering wife. Tom is not a guy you want to spend ninety minutes with, and there are a lot of things about this movie (both intentional and not, since thirty years out it’s tough to find a print of this that isn’t horribly degraded) that reinforce that impression, and yet it remains an absorbing character study. Jost accomplishes this through the way he reveals Tom’s character to us; every time you think you’ve got him figured out, we get just a little more. Not to say this is a film rife with plot twists or anything along those lines; in fact, the entire movie takes place over five extended scenes, each of which gives us a slightly different aspect of Tom. In general, each scene is structured around a single shot (think of the infamous ten minute single-angle shot in Haneke’s Funny Games or any of those fifteen-minute monstrosities that make up Béla Tarr’s Sátántangó), and around Tom’s interaction with one character. Each alone gives us a picture; together, they give us something else entirely.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about this movie is that, according to the final title card, Jost made it for about $2,000. Even adjusting for inflation, that’s a mighty small sum of money to make a movie. And it goes to show that if you know what you’re doing—and that’s obviously relative, given that this was Jost’s first feature—you don’t need money to tell a compelling story on film. Highly recommended. ****
*ed. note 2014: corrected per Jon Jost’s comment below