A few years ago Jonathan gave one of his filmmaking classes the theme: On being human. The human, for Jonathan, is hardly exclusive. It embraces the animal in (and outside of) us. It includes the finite brilliance and inexorable passing of the earth's seasons, and the contingencies and turmoil of varied cultural and natural landscapes. As an artist and person, he is fascinated with childhood and old age and the perspectives and discoveries of each. In his films, he sometimes comments on the political or psychological follies of humanity through sound or animation, but more often explores emotional spaces through both domestic and far-flung gestures and topographies.
If Jonathan's films have an age, it is childhood. They embody his own child-like wonder at the world and the magic of celluloid – its rhythmic movements, its intellectual couplings, its paradoxical arresting and releasing of time. And one recurring focus of his cinematic attention is the childhood-becoming of his son Henry and friends. This becoming-a-child in the world is full of curiosity, but also laden with “a certain worry” (to quote the title of one of his miniatures) —the worries of the child but also of the loving father/artist who watches and revisits the time-being of his son from three and a half decades hence.
If Jonathan's films have a season, it is winter. It may be a winter just about to push away fall, or a winter of crisp sounds and hard white textures, or even a waning winter with the promise of spring emerging through superimpositions from under icy surfaces. His camera repeatedly converges with bodies skating, with the elevated elation of ski jumpers, with landscapes swaddled in snow and ice. But winter can also be hard, it freezes and halts and rages against the flows of emotion, it brings with it the cracks and crack-ups of later life as intimated in one of his last films.
Above all, Jonathan's films are encounters with life in its constant passing. In his travelogues, these are encounters with other places of dwelling that he knows he cannot grasp, only allude to. Here he finds or elicits gestures and glances that simultaneously reveal and conceal, but that are evidence of the exchange that is so crucial to his idea of what being human is all about. Indeed, the encounter of gazes, sometimes awkward, sometimes captivating, always tender on his part, is vital in all his work. Several of his films are not only meetings in the film's diegesis, but missives after the fact, dedicated as gifts to his son, his wife, and to his late-life partner. And whatever their ostensible content, they are all explorations of human being and becoming — a being-with-others that must reconcile itself to its own transience, and a becoming that manifests, in part, as a process of appearance and disappearance.
Combining his radical spontaneity of gesture with his attention to cinematic form and montage, Jonathan's films actualize the passing of time through a devotion to the present, to presence. But this lyrical presence is simultaneously and constantly aware of the inexorable passage of time and the anxiety that inevitable mortality provokes. Jonathan's whimsy and infectious sense of wonder —both in his films and his life— mingle with bouts of anguish. It is "hard to land" as he says —as some things will disappear. And we must act "as if clinging could save us" to cite one his favorite poets, Galway Kinnell.
I, too, cling to my memories of his gentle and wry being, and to his films as gifts that embody, like him, appearances and disappearances.
(Irina Leimbacher is a film scholar and occasional curator who taught with Jonathan Schwartz at Keene State College for the last nine years)
Jonathan Schwartz (1973-2018) was a filmmaker, teacher, and source of inspiration for all his friends and students. Jonathan incorporated found and collected materials in many of his films, and simultaneously developed his unique 16mm vision through intimate exchanges with his subjects, handheld gestures, in-camera superimpositions, and a profound attention to the transient qualities of the world around us. Whether in his short collage films or works shot in his home, on his many walks, or during cinematic journeys to Israel, India, Turkey, or Iceland, his work simultaneously embodies a devotion to the ephemerality of external worlds and a gestural responsiveness to evanescent internal states. Often incorporating aurally textured poetic readings, and other times eschewing all words, Jonathan's films both lacerate and console as we confront his unique cinematic expression of sorrow, disquiet, and exultation.
Program 1: On being human
This program of eight films by Jonathan Schwartz offers an overview of his cinematic work. It includes an early cut-out collage film as well intimate glimpses of family and landscape and philosophical journeys, both interior and exterior. In his cinematic gestures that capture the sublime, the absurd and the abject in life’s cycles, he evokes the elation and sorrow of being human.
Program 2: Nothing is over
The second program of films by Jonathan Schwartz and some of his friends further explores shapes of time and transformation. Whether conjuring childhood, nature, or our own mortality, Schwartz and others evoke wonder and disquiet as they suggest the ephemerality of embodied being but also the thick layers of its fragile temporality. A flower, a moment of childhood, an image, a world — all will perish. Until another emerges in film’s paradoxical re-incarnation. Films by Schwartz and Ute Aurand, Vanessa Renwick, Rebecca Meyers, Janie Geiser.
Program 3: Mysteries inside facts
The third program of films by Jonathan Schwartz focuses on the journeying gaze. Many of Schwartz’s works were gestures of peripatetic exploration and a pursuit of the spark of connection across difference. In films shot in India, Turkey and Israel, Schwartz attends to the details and contradictions of daily life and often provokes tender nonverbal exchanges with the insistent curiosity of his bolex. Films by Schwartz and also other forms of journeying by Jodie Mack, Ben Rivers, Ben Russell.