Last Chants for a Slow Dance

(Jon Jost, USA, 1977)


Long before American independent cinema made a fetish of serial killers, shattered masculinity, long takes, and songs-as-commentary, long before Paul Schrader‘s Light Sleeper (1991) or the oeuvres of Paul Thomas Anderson or Lodge Kerrigan, there was Last Chants for a Slow Dance, handmade on a ridiculously small amount of money, culminating in an endless shot of a murderer driving down a highway as we hear the haunting country ballad "Fixing to Die".

The images, the cuts, even the song and its performance, come directly from one person: Jon Jost. Last Chants inaugurated what became known as the Tom Blair Trilogy (named after the astonishing lead actor), and together with Sure Fire (1990) and The Bed You Sleep In (1993), this body of work constitutes the least-known milestone of contemporary American cinema.

Last Chants, like its neighbours in the trilogy, is a despairing but ferociously lucid document of social breakdown and contradiction. Its anti-hero wanders through the landscape raving, screwing, killing; Jost weaves an avant-garde structure around his actions which renders them both fascinating and horrifying. The film eschews easy spectacle but still goes to extremes – the slaughter of an animal, for instance, standing in for the killer’s equally indifferent disposal of human life.

This is a work that strategically displaces its violence from the content to the form, à la mid ’60s Godard: its shake-up of the spectator is a rude but necessary gesture of art and political conscience combined.

Loosely inspired by the Gary Gilmore case, the film takes pride of place (alongside Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer [1986] and Bresson’s L’Argent [1983]) among the cinema’s most intelligent explorations of a difficult subject. Its distancing effects – colour filters, words printed on-screen, stretched-out durations – push us not to judge but to understand this deep dish American culture nurtured on aggression, violence, and the hateful exclusion of anyone Other.

The best index of its ambivalent sensitivity to the real world it traverses are its constant songs, simultaneously soulful and ironic tunes ("Hank Williams wrote it long ago", runs one chorus) that take us far deeper than the smarmy musical pastiches in Altman’s Nashville (1975).

MORE Jost: Angel City, All the Vermeers in New York

© Adrian Martin April 2003

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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