All the Vermeers in New York (1992): Jon Jost Most Accessible Movie

In 1992, All the Vermeers in New York, Jon Jost’s most accessible work to date, deservedly winning the L.A. Film Critics Association Award for Best Experimental Film.

Unmistakably urban, “All the Vermeers in New York” imports the lyrical camera of Jost’s essays and the violence inherent in his Westerns. Enjoying a bigger budget ($250,000), the film was made with support from PBS’s American Playhouse and was shown on public stations around the country. For a while, it felt as if Jost would finally break out of his “ghetto,” but that didn’t happen.

A wistful, elegant meditation on art and finance in New York, All the Vermeers is a poignant fable about the instabilities of the 1980s and the discrepancy between art and spiritual decay. Capturing the dissolution of an era, the movie blends dreams and reality until they merge and glow with equal beauty. Jost’s city dwellers seek solace, but Jost casts an ironic eye over their attempt to find refuge in art. Like all of his films, All the Vermeers explores the boundaries between narrative and experimental cinema. In telling a story of stockbrokers and actresses, painters and gallery owners, he presents a world that’s both beautiful and decadent, calm on the surface but riddled with anxiety. Jost depicts the desire for visual beauty only to subvert it, showing how futile it is to try to escape the pain of the mundane in the transcendent beauty of art.

At the Metropolitan Museum, Mark (Stephen Lack), a middle-aged man, stares at a young woman posed in front of Jan Vermeer’s “Portrait of a Young Woman.” The young woman, who looks like the subject of the painting, is Anna (Emanuelle Chaulet), an aspiring French actress who seeks insight for a Chekhov play she’s studying. Mark is so taken by her resemblance to Vermeer’s Portrait that he gives her a note with his phone number. Their first meeting in a coffee shop is strained, as Anna brings her roommate Felicity, pretending she needs a translator. But later, they start seeing each other and become lovers. When Mark offers to help with her rent, Anna asks for $3,000–a metaphor for the greedy, transaction-like 1980s. “$3,000 to share that hole in the wall” Mark says, but he gives her the money anyway.

The deceptively simple story conceals deeper, more intriguing themes. It’s a meditation on the inner and outer worlds of two mismatched characters who represent the cultural bankruptcy of America’s upper-middle class. Jost is not interested in plot; he wants to immerse the audience in the world of his self-absorbed characters, to make the their lives meaningful, as he has done with the lives of the lower-class in his previous movies.

A stressed-out Wall Street stockbroker with a passion for art, Mark frequents the Metropolitan to assuage his alienation. In the world of commerce, Mark uses the telephone as a weapon to achieve wealth and power, spending enormous time communicating in what Wall Street calls the cycle of “smile and dial, phone and groan.” Mark seeks respite from stress by immersing himself in the serenity of Vermeer’s art. The spirituality of the portrait is an antidote to his life: The calm retreat of Vermeer’s gallery stands in direct opposition to the crassness and frenzy of his work.

The characters are deliberately archetypal, but the ironies are overt and the politics disturbing. Felicity (Grace Phillips), Anna’s wealthy roommate who works at the Gracie Mansion Gallery, represents the Downtown bourgeois with solid trust funds and vaporous careers. She argues with her wealthy father about whether his investment in her is socially responsible. There’s moral outrage when her father (played by ex-Judge Roger Ruffin) patronizingly dismisses her social concerns. In a comic interlude, a painter (Gordon Weiss) demands a huge advance from actual gallery owner Gracie Mansion, then knifes out a frame and walks off with one of his paintings.

A visual strategy of long tracking shots and disorienting cutting creates an intense mood. The finest scenes are soaked in absurd, tragic-comic desperation beneath the carefully composed surfaces. Jost invests the gallery and Anna’s apartment with a look that suggests affluence and sterility, grandeur and decay. All the Vermeers becomes increasingly mysterious in its exploration of the intricate relation between art and commerce, fiction and reality. The “artists”–painter, actress, opera-singer–are selfish and greedy, and they are treated by Mark and the powered people as children. But Mark is also a child who wants to flee into art and hide in it from his disgusting world.

Mark’s relationship with Anna combines aesthetic pleasure with emotional longing. Jost shows the deceptiveness of love, its tendency to misinterpret emptiness for mystery, silence for depth. To Mark, Anna’s beauty signifies something transcendent, but in reality, she’s a confused and callous woman. The film also provides a meditation on the organization and meaning of space. Mark, a voyeur, stares at Anna, his object of desire. Anna, in turn, stares at Vermeer are painting. Then the painting stares back at her and back at the audience. The film’s subjects become the objects, viewed by the woman in Vermeer’s painting.

The film opens with an East Village scene, where Gracie Mansion is doing business with an artist demanding a cash advance to feed his junk habit and a collector anxious to fill out her collection. Every interaction is a transaction measured by money. Jost contrasts the cash-fueled frenzy of the art world with the tranquility of Vermeer’s room. The camera condemns the contemporary scene, while glorifying the environment of the Dutch masterpieces.

Jost’s romantic vision of the museum is expressed in Mark’s idealization of the place. The richly paneled Metropolitan, with its imposing portico, smooth floors and muted galleries, is contrasted with the harsh angles and white-walls of East Village galleries.

The particular environments that define the characters are far more revealing than the dialogue. In a long tracking shot, the camera records bookshelves, where two books stand out: Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities and James Gleick’s Chaos: Making a New Science, ubiquitous presences in 1980s upper-middle class homes. The books link the narrative to the broader context of 1980s art markets: Nothing fuels art consumption like cash.

There’s another significant context: The Dutch Empire collapsed in Vermeer’s day as a result of speculation in the tulip market. These historical parallels–and the 1987 crash of the Stock Exchange–make Jost’s critique of the present more poignant. All the Vermeers underlines the tension between the greed of the 1980s financial markets and art’s eternal, spiritual qualities.

The story proceeds to a strong conclusion, which crystallizes the emptiness of the central relationship. After a bad day in his office, Mark retreats to the Met where he suffers a brain hemorrhage and ultimately dies. His last act is to call Anna and declare love to her answering machine. Anna, about to return to France, goes back to the museum where she finds Mark’s body. She runs back to “their” Vermeer portrait, and the final shot dissolves her into the painting, uniting her and the woman in the portrait.

Commercial Appeal

The film was released by Strand on May 1, 1992, and grossed $142,000 at the box-office.