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The Bed You Sleep In

(Jon Jost, USA, 1993)


 


It would be wrong to claim that Jon Jost's extraordinary The Bed You Sleep In is an underrated film within the Australian film scene – it would be truer to say that, so far, it is unrated, virtually unknown beyond a small circle of Cinémathèque members.

Jost is a true maverick of American independent filmmaking, but sadly for Australians he's an unfashionable maverick whose films are beyond the pale of almost all arthouse distributors and exhibitors in this country (and elsewhere, I suspect). And it seems that, especially in the case of this film (which appears to have been under a legal cloud for some time), the condition of cultural ignorance and neglect may be virtually global.

The Bed You Sleep In is the final instalment in what Jost calls the Tom Blair Trilogy, named after the remarkable (and little known) actor who has incarnated several faces of American male psychosis in two previous Jost films, Last Chants for a Slow Dance (1977) and Sure Fire (1990). Taken together, these three films form one of the greatest, most important and powerful bodies of work in all cinema.

The Bed You Sleep In also marked Jost's departure from the US. As a farewell letter, it is surely one of the darkest, most profoundly despairing documents that American culture has ever produced. Not for nothing did Jonathan Rosenbaum title a catalogue note on the film, "The Tunnel at the End of the Light".

The story traces an allegation of sexual abuse within a family that is living in an economically declining Oregon lumber mill town. The film charts a double, auto-destructive tragedy: a family that tears itself apart, mirrored by the signs of a slow but terrible ecological disaster.

Jost tackles what I think is probably the single most difficult topic to dramatise on screen – child abuse, and especially the repressed memory of that abuse. This is an area that can be construed in so many wildly different ways – in terms of whom in the scenario one chooses to believe (the child who comes forth with the charge or the parent who protests innocence), the sorts of motives one imputes to the players (Is the child on a petulant revenge kick? Is the patriarch at last showing his true, rotten colours?), and in the kinds of moral and social lessons that one decides to draw from it (Is the family unit inherently corrupt or inherently civilised? Is feminism warping minds or honing them? Is righteous, ideological paranoia destroying everything that is good or opening our eyes at last to the truth?).

I don't think Jost, finally, is in control of all the implications of narrating a plot (in however open a form) out of these awful, almost unfathomable issues; his film is unsettling in part because of that lack of control. He deliberately leaves everything unresolved and ambiguous, as Otto Preminger might have done in less psycho-gothic times than ours. Where Jost ends up is with the stasis of absolutely wrenching, wretched despair, complete hopelessness and helplessness, especially where the masculine condition is concerned: few images in cinema have shook me more than the climatic shot of Blair the "monster" reaching a hand down into a pool of water and bringing it up to splash his face, as if to wash his soul clean, at the end of so much sadness and devastation ...

But Jost also reaches beyond the turbulence of the dramatic or diegetic illusion to perturb the film form itself. Going far beyond the frozen, burning frame that concluded Monte Hellman's Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), Jost gives us an entire scopic and aural regime that is slowly bending, cracking and coming apart under immense psychic strain. His use of depopulated landscape shots, in particular, generates a true, deep dread that surpasses any of the horrific grace-notes in David Lynch's oeuvre (whose Twin Peaks films and television series offer many points of close comparison with Jost's tale).

The Bed You Sleep In is in very respect a brilliant, corrosive film.

© Adrian Martin November 1995


Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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