Jon Jost, Independent Film-maker – Chameleon Today 2022
Jon Jost, independent film-maker. The early films
Terry of ‘Chameleon’ (1978) is a character who seems to have lost touch with normal human feeling, and whose life is devoid of love, happiness, or purpose. But, being more intelligent than Tom, and having a capacity for self-examination, Terry is a more complex character. While Tom was just beginning to find his place in society, Terry is already established in his, he is a dealer in drugs and art (more or less the same thing in Jost’s view), and as such is an exploiter as well as a victim of society’s dehumanising currents.
Terry is chameleon-like in that he adapts his behaviour to suit the person with whom he is dealing, in order to exploit their weak points. We see him first dealing with a printer, and part of the film’s message, that art is a meaningless gloss over a world of corrupt and impoverished human beings, is made in a scene densely packed with meaning.
Terry puts pressure on the printer to make some illegal extra copies of a limited edition, and it is clear from the dialogue that the printer has done such work before. The printer resists, in an effort to salvage his professional integrity, but Terry applies pressure remorselessly.
Then Terry leaves, although he will return to resolve the matter at the end of the film, and we see the printer, alone in his workshop, take out a bottle and set about drowning his problems with alcohol. The printer is a craftsman, only marginally involved in art, but this marginal involvement, is enough for Terry to get his hooks into him.
In the rest of the film we follow Terry through a series of meetings; with a girl on a hilltop, a gallery-owner at her house, and an artist living in the desert. Each person Terry meets is, through their profession and environment, located within a recognisable facet of human society. The printer in his workshop is a craftsman. The girl, outdoors with the sunshine and the animals, is a nature-lover. The gallery-owner, in her luxury home, is a business woman and society figure. The artist, with his sculptures, astronomical telescope, and makeshift home in the desert, is a creative recluse, living among the mysteries of the universe. Terry, however, has no fixed place in society. We never see his home; the only space which is his is the inside of his car, and he flits from one to the other of these people, temporarily borrowing their environment, doing his business, then moving on again.
Terry’s meeting with the girl on the hilltop is the only purely social meeting of the film. It is an illustration of how love is draining away from Terry’s life, and at the same time a de-bunking of ‘romantic young love’ scenes in Hollywood films. The setting is ideal for film-romance; the young couple climb to the top of a hill together, the girl is pretty, a breeze blows her summer dress and her straw hat catches the sunlight. But all they do is stand around like a pair of excited but awkward children, talking over old times when they used to be happy together.
The first time we see him alone, driving his car, he is listening to a tape he has made to remind himself of all the visits and ‘phone calls he has to make during the day. The tape is extremely long, showing how his life is defined by the dozens of deals he is doing with other people, and also, considering the amount of time he has spent making the tape, and the time he is now spending listening to it, that he is extending his business into as much of his life as possible, putting off the awful moment when there is nothing left to do, and he has to face himself.
When Terry does face himself it is not a pleasant experience for him, or for the audience. We are with him in his car again, and, without any tape to listen to, he is thinking about his life. He knows that he has become emotionally cold, and that nothing means anything to him, and is distressed to find himself so. But, in the absence of any meaningful contact with anything or anyone outside himself, he can see no hope of his own salvation. “Am I human at all?” he wonders. “Maybe I’m just a gorilla. One day someone will come up to me and say ‘F – off you gorilla’.” He then begins a chant: ‘F – off you gorilla, f – off you gorilla,’ which goes on and on as if he can’t stop. He seems to be trying to hold on to a sense of self through the sound of his own voice, but unable to get out of the trap of equating his own identity with the way others see him. The image is of a man in whom sadness and loneliness have metamorphosed into self-hatred.
At the end of the film Terry returns to the printer, finds that, in a last ditch effort to save his integrity, he has neither made the prints nor come up with the money, so Terry kills him. For this scene Jost picks up the motifs introduced in the opening scene, and Terry kills the printer symbolically, both with his own printing inks and with the gun he had used as the subject for his prints.
While this is going on a little scene takes place which gives us perspective on the inhumanity and corruption of the art world Terry inhabits. Terry’s partner, a figure we only see at the very beginning and very end of the film, is waiting for Terry in the printer’s office, and starts chatting to another man who is also waiting there.
“Are you an artist?” says Terry’s partner.
“Oh no,” says the man diffidently, “not me.”
“What do you do?”
“I’m a builder,” says the man, apparently ashamed of the fact. “I build houses. It’s not much, but I guess everyone sinks to their own level.”
“That’s not a bad thing, being a builder.”
“I suppose not. People seem to like it.”
The point is that the builder seems to be a sensitive, decent, normal human being, the only one we have seen in the whole film. And in the midst of Terry’s corrupt and deadly art world it seems a breath of fresh air to meet someone who earns his living through honest labour, doing something constructive. He builds houses for people to live in; it seems so simple, and yet, in this context, quite heart-warming. The irony that his man obviously thinks of artists as superior beings, and that he has sunk to being a builder is almost tragic. It makes us feel that a society in which artists are held in higher esteem than builders must have its values upside-down.
The builder gets in Terry’s way when he dashes out after killing the printer, and Terry threatens him with the gun. The scene is reminiscent of the end of ‘Last Chants for a Slow Dance’, with the empty, desperate character threatening the life of the ordinary decent citizen. But this time, thankfully for the builder, and the audience, Terry does not shoot.
“What happened back there with the printer?” asks Terry’s partner as they leave the building. “Don’t worry,” says Terry, speaking the last line of the film, “it had nothing to do with art.”
‘Chameleon’, apart from being a powerful character-study, tells us two things about our society. Firstly that the drug dealer is not an alien being imposing himself on an innocent society, but an integral part of the society we have created for ourselves. And secondly that the value we attach to art like the value drug addicts attach to their drugs, is dangerously misplaced.
The films ‘Angel City’, ‘Last Chants for a Slow Dance’, and ‘Chameleon’ have shown us a society permeated by media; films, newspapers, TV, and the visual arts, which, in the name of capitalism, cause damage to individuals and to society as a whole.
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