'The Darkness of Day' cultivates the latent poetry of archival images.

Jay Rosenblatt Talks ‘Darkness’

Max Goldberg March 24, 2011

Narrative films may occasionally conjure the shock of a suicide—last year’s The Father of My Children is a fine example—but it’s the nature of character dramas to keep pace with the living rather than meditate in the shadow of loss. In his most recent lyrical essay-film, The Darkness of Day, local filmmaker Jay Rosenblatt creates such a meditative space, intertwining different stories and perspectives of suicide: near and far, first-person and third, male and female, young and old, anonymous and notable. Rosenblatt cues the multiple narratives to a poetic stream of found-footage, evoking empathy and reflection while remaining clear-eyed about his difficult subject. The resonant structure of The Darkness of Day regards suicide not as a singular event, but rather as a persistent fold of the human condition.

As with Rosenblatt’s earlier films, The Darkness of Day cultivates the latent poetry of archival images, most of them sourced from public domain works sometimes described as “orphan films.” Aside from a few literal representations of suicide, the majority of Rosenblatt’s imagery works metaphorically. Some of the film’s motifs may sound overly symbolic on the page—a stovetop flame being extinguished, a car entering a tunnel, a dripping faucet—but their fragility as found images makes them register as illuminations. The many images of natural destruction are especially powerful in context, and Rosenblatt’s subtle manipulations of frame speed and effective placement of orchestral music further contributes to the sense of an invisible undertow pulling at the image-fragments.

The film’s narration proceeds along two tracks, one spoken by a woman and the other by a man. Hers is the essayistic voice, presenting emblematic (and epigrammatic) findings into the history and variability of suicide. She pauses over the well known cases of Ernest Hemingway and Primo Levi; the last words of the first man to jump from the Golden Gate Bridge; an ancient Egyptian papyrus titled “The Dispute with His Soul of One Who is Tired of Life;” social phenomena like the copycat suicides inspired by a young Japanese girl who threw herself into Oshima’s active volcano in 1933; and the ordinary story of an elderly married couple who chose to end their lives together in their car, practical to their last moments.

This panoramic voiceover looks in on suicide from outside, speaking both for those who have had to cope with such a loss and to those who may yet have to do so: “Chance are we would receive the news and say to ourselves, ‘I should have seen it coming.’ But there is no question of seeing it coming. It is already here.” The man’s voice, by contrast, speaks from primary experience. He reads passages drawn from the diaries of co-writer Jeff Greenwald’s brother Jordan, who ended his own life in 1990. The indrawn excerpts stretch over the course of many years; their lucid description of protracted despair provides the film’s darkest hours. 

In structuring The Darkness of Day around these two poles of narration, each of which could be seen as containing the other, Rosenblatt makes it clear that approaching suicide requires shuttling between the first and third-person. That the finished film might provide occasion for both grief and concern speaks volumes of its delicate balance. After winning several film festival jury awards (notably the Best Short Documentary at the It’s All True International Documentary Film Festival in Brazil), The Darkness of Day is set for its broadcast premiere Wednesday night at 8:00 pm on HBO2.

SF360: Would you speak a little about The Darkness of Day’s genesis and about how long the film took to make?

Jay Rosenblatt: It took close to five years from start to finish, but there was a bit of a hiatus during that time. The genesis is in the film itself: my masseuse killed herself, and it was a great shock. It had always been a subject that interested me. When I had this personal experience, it intensified that interest, and so I decided to write up a grant proposal. Initially, it was going to be a series of short essays dealing with suicide. I thought it was going to involve interviews and other more conventional documentary approaches, but it became clear to me over time that I wanted to make more of a lyrical film. 

SF360: There’s the idea that depression colors your view of the world, so that everything is seen through that filter. Did the theme change how you typically approach found footage?

Rosenblatt: It wasn’t that different. Once I knew I was going to make a film about this, I was looking through all the images I had collected through the years. If there was any kind of metaphorical potential, I would pull those images. For instance, the waterfalls: to me that evokes something because when I’ve been to Niagara Falls there’s this strange impulse that takes over. So even though I don’t say anything about that in the film, that’s what the shot meant to me. And it also suggests a method [of suicide]. Throughout the film there are different methods that are alluded to, either directly or indirectly.

SF360: Do you have context of some of the footage that’s more directly representational?

Rosenblatt: You mean like the image with the woman slitting her wrist or with the tube going down her nose.

SF360: Exactly.

Rosenblatt: Those two images in particular, plus the one of the guy holding the revolver, come from one film called The Cry for Help (1962). I t was done for the Louisiana Association for Mental Health by George Stoney. I contacted him, and he sent me a print. He was a gun for hire on that project, so it was a public domain situation—and he seemed fine with me using images from the film. There’s also the shot from a newsreel of someone on a ledge who ends up jumping, but most of the rest of the imagery is evocative.

SF360: If I’m not mistaken, the woman’s voiceover doesn’t mention depression specifically until she gets to Primo Levi. To what extent you were trying to avoid narrowing suicide to this clinical perspective on suicide as being the product of depression?

Rosenblatt: I definitely did not want to pigeonhole the film. The film is not just about depression—suicide’s not just about depression. I didn’t want to have any moralistic judgments about suicide in the film, and I also wanted each story to highlight a different aspect of suicide. There’s the group mentality with the Japanese girl and the volcano. There’s the old couple’s suicide pact. To me, they’re making a rational decision, and you could perhaps group assisted suicide in with this story. There’s the genetic aspect with Hemingway. With Primo Levi, there’s depression but also a traumatic history. And from the journals we get a sense of a struggle. He’s not just depressed— hopelessness is much more of an issue for him. You get a little more of an intimate view of someone who actually ended up killing himself. There’s also the impulsive suicide, which I think can be preventable with something like a barrier on the Golden Gate Bridge. And then there are ones that are less impulsive, which no matter what you do the person is still going to attempt. There are just so many different kinds.

SF360: The film is clearly about suicide itself, but also the people who are close by….

Rosenblatt: Survivors.

SF360: Right. Did you feel that the research component was more about being a survivor and coming to an understanding of suicide from the outside? Or were you more aiming towards the empathetic feeling of knowing what it’s like to be inside?

Rosenblatt: I would hope both. One of my hopes for the film is that I want people to be more sensitive to suicide—to realize how prevalent it is and that someone close to you could be thinking about it. To me, the whole idea of connection is one way of dealing with suicide. That’s why I frame the film with the group therapy scene. But yes, I’m trying to get inside the mind of someone that feels that desperate and also at the same time trying to be sensitive to people who have been left after a suicide and how difficult this is.

SF360: What’s the experience been like for you showing the film in public, and how are you feeling about it being beyond your control on television?

Rosenblatt: That’s what happens with any film, you know—once it’s out in the world, it takes on a life of its own. My experience has been very positive at festival screenings. I think my intent has come through. Several times, people have told me that they had to make a phone call to a friend after seeing the film. To me, it’s great having that kind of response. I think people have appreciated the non-judgmental aspect of the film. As to how it’s going to be received on TV with hopefully a larger audience and without me there to answer questions, I really have no idea. I do have an end credit which lists information for if you need help. I felt that was just the responsible thing to do. It’s hard for me to know how the film will affect everyone, but my sense is that although it’s about this very heavy subject, the treatment of it mitigates that a little. I don’t think it’s depressing to see the film—there’s some hope and beauty to it.

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