The Filmmaker As Therapist

Jay Rosenblatt and the healing power of cinema.

10/05/2010
Special To The Jewish Week
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 Jay Rosenblatt’s parents would probably have wanted him to be a doctor. After all, that’s what Jewish parents of baby boomers usually wanted for their kids in Sheepshead Bay. And Rosenblatt, born there in 1955, almost accommodated them. He was a mental health therapist for several years, working in hospitals and leading group therapy sessions. He was working towards his master’s degree in counseling when the lightning bolt hit him.

“I was at the University of Oregon working on the degree when I decided to take a Super 8 filmmaking class,” he says. “I had dabbled in it in college, but now I fell in love with it. I was putting more time and energy into that filmmaking class than into all my counseling classes combined.”

Although he completed his counseling degree, Rosenblatt knew he was about to set out on another path. The most recent results of that decision will be on display at the Museum of Modern Art in a program titled “The Darkness of Day: Recent Films by Jay Rosenblatt,” opening on Oct. 13.

Rosenblatt didn’t drop his mental health work immediately. He went to film school in San Francisco, and worked on the psychiatric unit of a local hospital at the same time. After he finished film school, he gradually moved into teaching filmmaking, admitting, “I was burned out in [the mental health] field.”

One could argue that he has never completely left that field. The title film in the new collection is a highly intelligent, frequently moving study of suicide, created from an inventive collage of footage gleaned from educational and other long-forgotten short films from the past, united by smart narration co-written by Rosenblatt. Like the overwhelming majority of his films, it utilizes the found-footage method, and like many of them it deals with issues of individual or collective psychology.

“I think my films, not all of them but most of them, are very psychological in their concerns,” the filmmaker avers. “There’s an element of — I hope this doesn’t sound presumptuous — healing in the motivation for making some of my films. It’s the same motivation I had in wanting to be a therapist. It’s a similar kind of work in a different medium, one that allows me to work in a sort of mass-oriented way. Instead of reaching one person or a handful, I can approach an entire audience. The films function more as a catalyst, though, something that chips away at the wounds that people have.”

His most widely reviewed film, “Phantom Limb,” which is part of the MoMA show, is a splendid example of his working method turned inward, at least in part. When he was 9, Rosenblatt’s brother died of a disease that is not identified in the film. The death was a loss that tore at the family for many years to come. Utilizing a combination of home movies of the two boys and, as is usual for him, a selection of found footage, Rosenblatt crafts a deeply moving and cathartic film about grief and loss, a film at once intensely personal, almost private, and yet universal.

It goes without saying that when they are shown in the auditorium of a major museum, films like these will reach many more people than can be accommodated in even the most overstuffed group therapy session. But with his attachment to the short-film format, Rosenblatt is resigned to never reaching the millions that a box-office monster can devour.

“The short film is something I just fell into,” he says. “It wasn’t a plan. I’ve mainly had ideas that are sustained by the short format. And I love the short format, it has a real specificity. I never want to make a feature film that should have been a short. It doesn’t take less time than making a feature, either. ‘Phantom Limb’ took over three years to make.”

And he has been able to reach massive audiences on numerous occasions. Several of his films have been shown on PBS, the Sundance Channel and IFC. Even at their worst, those televised screenings give Rosenblatt an audience equal to the one that attends a medium-sized hit feature over the entire course of its first run.

“It’s not easy,” he admits. “I make the comparison of the short-story writer as opposed to the novelist. The marketplace is so feature-oriented. But the advent of the Internet and YouTube has created new possibilities. I don’t know how many people would sit and watch a feature film on their computers.”

In the meantime, Rosenblatt found a terrific job that enables him to feed his family and stay close to his main passion. He recently completed his first year as director of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, the first and oldest such event in the world.

“I need a job and it’s a good job and I like the people and it’s film-related,” he says with a laugh. “The job has made me embrace my Jewish background more. I was inundated with films this year, and we had a very strong program. So many of the films, well, if I were running a regular international film festival, I would have happily programmed many of them in it. If I felt I had to compromise on quality and show work that wasn’t great [but was Jewish], I might feel differently. But that wasn’t the case.”

Now that he is an established filmmaker, much garlanded and able to attract grant money for his projects, how do his parents feel? “I think they respected that I chose my own path,” Rosenblatt says. “When they saw me enjoying some success, they were proud. But they probably would still rather have me be a doctor.”

“The Darkness of Day: Recent Films by Jay Rosenblatt,” a program of five films, will play at the Museum of Modern Art (11 W. 53rd St.), Oct. 13-18. Rosenblatt will introduce the screenings on Oct. 13 and 15. For information, call (212) 708-9431 or go to www.moma.org.

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