Jay Myself

*****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Jay Myself
"Wilkes collects moments in his life the way Jay collects images."

Many years ago, photographer Stephen Wilkes interned with the legendary Jay Maisel. In February 2015, he returned to film his 84-year-old former mentor as he moved out of the six story, 72 room New York City townhouse where he had lived for nearly 50 years. This film is the result.

"A lot of it is about keeping things," Jay explains early on, indicating some floor to ceiling sheets of glass that he intends to do something with at some point in the future. Some viewers will look at the glass and immediately see the possibilities - shooting through it, angling it to catch the light in different way, exploring its subtly textured surface. Others are not wired to see like this, making Jay's gift a mystery. Over the course of this film, an assortment of people, including Jay's daughter Amanda, talk about spending time with him and learning to see the world more like he does. Amanda also provides insight into what it's like to grow up in a house where 72 rooms are full of collected items awaiting their moment to shine.

Nobody who collects as enthusiastically as Jay does can ever hope to make use of everything in a single lifetime. As the move forces him to face this, we see the distress it causes despite his generally playful demeanour and habit of using deadpan wit to conceal his emotions. As active now as he ever was, and as passionate and imaginative as a child, he seems particularly ill-equipped to reckon with mortality. Despite the poignancy this brings to the film, however, the general mood is upbeat. He is simply too interested in the world for it to be otherwise.

There are some cracking lines here. Holding up a smooth, rounded pieces of grey stone, Jay says adoringly "Look at this rock. You couldn't build a rock this good. Although I have a friend who makes rocks." Like the rooms in his house, every scene is full of treasure, some of it collected, some of it observed in the wider world. Jay's influence is visible in Wilkes' camerawork and the former is not averse to giving directions when he thinks the filmmaker might have overlooked something interesting. He's intrigued by the documentary craft, mystified by the amount of footage being recorded. Wilkes collects moments in his life the way Jay collects images.

Drawing it all together are some of Jay's more famous photographs, popping up at intervals and serving as visual reference points, a guide to the maze of colour and light within the house. Even in this busy context they grab the attention. They are filtered thoughts, words, instants of concentration - despite his love of collecting, Jay is a ruthless editor. What Wilkes assembles, piece by painstaking piece, is a portrait of his unconscious.

Jay persistently describes the act of photography as superficial, as meaningless. It's hard to imagine anything more meaningful or fundamental to the act of living than creating order out of chaos, finding moments of sublime beauty in the clutter of the world. It's not clear whether or not Wilkes sees this, but his camera does.

Reviewed on: 07 Aug 2019
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Jay Myself packshot
Jay Maisel moves out of the studio he has used since 1966 and sorts through his archives.

Director: Stephen Wilkes

Writer: Josh Alexander

Year: 2018

Runtime: 76 minutes

Country: US

Festivals:

DOC NYC 2018

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