Saturday, September 20, 2008

Jasny at AFA: Gladys

New York is the last frontier. Like Matthew Broderick’s character in Election, it is here that people come when they need a fresh start. For Czech filmmaker Vojtech Jasny, New York became his first real home after he found it prudent to relocate following the 1968 Soviet invasion of his homeland. Once in New York, Gladys St. John Colegrove, an elderly neighbor with reported psychic abilities would become part of his adopted family. She would also be the title subject of Gladys, a documentary assembled from footage Jasny shot on Hi-8 over the course of several years, which screens at AFA as part of their Jasny tribute.

Twice widowed, Ms. Gladys explains to Jasny that she has been in constant contact with her husbands from beyond the veil. It is clear that she misses them very much, particularly number one, St. John. Most of this contact seems to come through automatic writing, some of which was collected in a published book (Listening Across the Border, Vantage 1981, as Gladys St. John).

We see several birthday celebrations including the big 100 and after, so it is understandable that she is somewhat physically infirm. However, Jasny and his friends are able to coax her out of her apartment for the first time in twelve years for a walk in the park. It might sound trite, but she looks pretty good, all things considered. Despite her general frailty, she sounds feisty and opinionated when interviewed by Jasny’s friends and students. Her answers are not always politically correct either, sounding downright Lou Dobbsian on the subject of immigration.

While Gladys is very definitely about its central character, Jasny’s love for New York suffuses the film. During his introductory narration, Jasny states: “Here I soon lost my home-sickness that I couldn’t lose in Europe. New York became my passion.” Though seen obliquely, audiences get a sense that Jasny and his friends are smart, decent people, who genuinely care about their elderly neighbor.

Gladys nicely fleshes out AFA’s Jasny retrospective, giving a sense of his life in America. However, of the films playing in the series, it is probably the slightest. His classic narrative films, like All My Good Countrymen and Cassandra Cat in particular, should appeal to a wider audience. Still, Gladys is a pleasant look at the improvised families that make New York the capital of new beginnings. It plays at AFA this coming Sunday and Wednesday.