In 1994, a 22-minute film appeared that at once announced a new, prodigious filmmaking talent and helped bring renewed attention to serious short-form filmmaking in the United States. The film was The Smell of Burning Ants, and the new talent was the San Francisco-based filmmaker Jay Rosenblatt, who has since then created a series of remarkable short films using found footage and impeccable sound design.

The Smell of Burning Ants

The Smell of Burning Ants explores the socialisation of boys, showing how the quotidian rituals of violence that characterise growing up male lead to repressed fear and anger, which can only be expressed in further violence. Using images drawn from a dizzying array of black-and-white films from the past, this visual essay follows the story of a single boy to communicate its mythic message. Rosenblatt slows the footage down as if to study it more carefully; he repeats key moments, and he re-frames images, giving the film a compositional elegance that underscores the gravity of the subject matter. The footage is accompanied by a voiceover that further grounds the visuals, uniting them to express what is ultimately a familiar but nevertheless heart-wrenching story of the making – or breaking – of boys.

Rosenblatt studied filmmaking at San Francisco State University, and eventually realised that he preferred the more intimate and solitary process of working with an optical printer and existing footage to collaborating with a film crew to capture new material. However, it wasn’t until Rosenblatt literally found some footage that his style took shape. “I was going to work one day and saw these 16mm film cans being thrown out”, he explained in an interview with me in 2000. “I had no idea what they were, but I couldn’t let film go to waste, so I put them in the trunk of my car.” A year later, the filmmaker was mulling over ideas for his next film when he decided to look at the abandoned footage. “It turned out that they were training films for doctors in bedside manner, from the early ’60s, and they were very campy, very corny. It was a bit of a gold mine.” Rosenblatt realised that he could play with the footage to create a new narrative, and this produced his first found footage film, Short of Breath (1990).

The Smell of Burning Ants grew out of a particular found footage clip showing two boys fighting, and a third boy sticking his fist into the melee. “The image triggered this fifth-grade memory of being part of a mob that beat up this kid”, Rosenblatt said, “and from there I started thinking about male socialization and how cruel boys can be”.

The Smell of Burning Ants

Although inspired by collage artists such as John Heartfield, whose satirical photomontages of Hitler in the 1930s lifted images from their original contexts and offered them back with biting political commentary, Rosenblatt belongs to a tradition that dates back to Russian filmmaker Esfir Shub, who, in the 1920s, retold the story of the Russian Revolution through found footage. Similarly, Bruce Conner’s 1958 landmark found footage film, A Movie, appropriates sounds and images from Hollywood and documentary films to critique an ugly corporate culture.

However, where A Movie is raucous and bombastic, Rosenblatt’s technique aims for subtlety and nuance. Rosenblatt works carefully to tell a particular story about a single boy through images of dozens of boys; their very interchangeability within the disparate film sequences suggests a more generalised historical fact about boyhood, taking us nimbly from the personal to the political.

Rosenblatt’s subsequent work includes the powerful Human Remains (1998), which unites images of Hitler, Mussolini, Mao, Stalin and Franco with a first-person voiceover in which a narrator recounts innumerable details of intimate personal experience. The conjunction of these mythical figures with anecdotes about personal hygiene and dietary preferences is striking, and prompts a profound interrogation of the image, and of history itself.

The Smell of Burning Ants

In both of these films, Rosenblatt demonstrates the power of recontextualisation; images are almost entirely mutable and only find meaning through context. Combining the evocative power of an image and bending it to contribute to a larger narrative, Rosenblatt offers us both a powerful reflection on contemporary image culture and our own potential role in creating meaning.

The Smell of Burning Ants has earned numerous awards, including the Grand Prize at the Hamburg Film Festival, the Best of Festival award at the Ann Arbor Film Festival, and the Best Documentary award at the Tampere Short Film Festival. The film also helped focus attention on short filmmaking in the United States. While avant-garde filmmakers had been making significant short film works throughout the century, a confluence of factors – increased funding opportunities, supportive venues, and opportunities for distribution – contributed to the emergence of many extraordinary short films in the early to mid-1990s; Rosenblatt’s film was among them, and helped demonstrate the power of the short-form essay film to audiences beyond those attentive to the avant-garde. In addition, filmmakers around the world began to more widely use found footage as computers became the primary filmmaking tool at the turn of the century. What Rosenblatt achieved with painstaking care on an optical printer is now performed with relative ease using software, and image sequences are routinely appropriated and recombined. However, few filmmakers can boast Rosenblatt’s visual acuity, attention to detail, and commitment to both the visual essay as a form and the extraordinary potential of the union between sound and image, a facet he has explored with increasing impact throughout his subsequent career. After nearly 20 years, The Smell of Burning Ants remains a landmark film.

The Smell of Burning Ants (1994 USA 21 mins)

Prod Co: Locomotion Films Filmmaker: Jay Rosenblatt Mus: Erik Ian Walker Voice: Richard J. Silberg