Plastic Man: The Artful Life of Jerry Ross Barrish is a highly entertaining portrait of Jerry Ross Barrish—bail bondsman, political activist, mentor, sculptor, and filmmaker.
Gerald Peary wrote in The Arts Fuse:
“A sweet, funny, hearfelt appreciation of an American original much deserving of a film homage. Right brain left brain, San Francisco artist and retired bail bondsman Jerry Barrish demonstrates every type of know-how in his rich, radical, contradictory, creative”
The movie opens at the Roxie in San Francisco and the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center, San Rafael and will be accompanied by a retrospective of Jerry Ross Barrish’s own movies as a writer/director. Screening schedule links are at the end of this interview.
An exhibit of Barrish’s plastic sculptures can be seen at Studio Gallery through August 31.
EDF: You are known in the Bay Area as many different people all named Jerry Barrish. Tell us about that.
Jerry Ross Barrish: I had the good fortune to have been born and raised in the amazing city of San Francisco. After being discharged from the Army at age 22, I opened Barrish Bail Bonds in 1961, at the dawn of the Sixties, with my office in the heart of Viet Nam and civil rights protests. And I was willing to post bail for those who were arrested when nobody else would touch the controversy. Ten years later I enrolled at the San Francisco Art Institute on the GI bill. I got my BFA & MFA in film, and over the next 15 years made three feature films. In 1989, I returned to sculpting, but this time working with plastic found objects.
EDF: Was there something in your growing up that led you to go into the bail bonds business? And how did you find yourself specializing in posting bail for radical protesters in the Sixties?
JRB: There was nothing in my background that led me to the bail bond business – in fact, I didn’t know what bail bondsman was until I became one!
My progressive politics were always in tune with the leftist lawyers that were defending the protesters.
EDF: Where did your interest in art come from? You started collecting art during that period, correct? What kind of work most interested you?
JRB:I got interested in art on a school field trip to the de Young Museum when I was about 8 years old. I grew up in an artistic void and that trip to the museum was a revelation to me. When I first started collecting art I bought very safe art. At that point I had yet to be exposed to any very cutting edge art. My very first purchase was a beautiful oil painting of a bugle in a Carmel gallery. That should explain everything.
EDF: When did you decide that you too could become an artist? Did you study art formally?
JRB: I saw so much bad art while I was collecting it that I thought I should give it a try. I started in a friend’s studio and after about a year and a half, I went onto the San Francisco Art Institute where I received both BFA & MFA on the GI bill.
EDF: Have you ever had a period of artistic block? What happened that got you to collecting discarded plastic from beaches and other places, often called the “Beachcomber Artist,” and finding a creative reuse for it?
JRB: I am very fortunate that in my entire artistic life, I don’t remember ever having an artistic block. I have had what I call “spent periods” after I finish a series of work or a big piece. It is intense work, I always have to back off and recharge for a few days.
In 1989, after I finished my film Shuttlecock, and was in my ‘spent’ I saw all this plastic debris on the beach and decided to make a political statement by making a Christmas tree out of the stuff I picked up. That was the genesis of this entire journey.
EDF: That you recycle things others would toss out reminds me of Clayton Bailey who is based in Crockett, California. He works largely with discarded metal household appliances and utensils resulting in a world of amusing creatures. Yet your work is totally unique, both whimsical and making a statement. How do you approach each project?
JRB: I have two ways that I work. One is that some object that I find triggers the idea. It’s like finding a vertebrae of a dinosaur and then building the whole dinosaur from that single piece. The other way is that I get inspired by observation, books, or movies or just an idea, and create the piece from my stock of materials.
EDF: You studied both art and film. How did you decide to take the more costly leap into filmmaking?
JRB: I am a pretty social person. Filmmaking is very social and collaborative. Sculpting is much more solitary. I’m trying to do the same thing in both mediums. I am just trying to tell a story.
EDF: And now the award-winning filmmaker William Farley as director and veteran film festival programmer Janis Plotkin have made this wonderful movie about your life. What was it like to be on the other side of the camera?
JRB: It was very hard because I had no idea that the film was going to end up being so personal. I was hoping that it would be about the bail bond business and my sculpture, so it could function to introduce my work to a larger audience As a filmmaker I know how difficult it is to work with someone who is not very cooperative. I didn’t want to be a diva, so I went along with it. It was difficult for me to watch the film the first few times. I just saw a fat old man, and it motivated me to lose 20 pounds.
EDF: Your films are better known in Europe than here but we will have a chance to see them this week in San Francisco and San Rafael. Hopefully that will generate interest across the country. Dan’s Motel (1981) is a trilogy of mood pieces, with prologue, that situates the viewer at a lonely motel by the sea. The motel acts as a last refuge for disintegrating lives. How did it come about?
JRB: Dan’s Motel was my first feature film. I wrote, shot, directed, and edited the whole film myself. It started out as a 27 minute short at the cost of $5000. I took it to Edinburgh in 1978. My intent was to show the world that I could tell a story and hopefully get an opportunity to direct a feature film.
I did receive some high praise, but took to heart the harsh words of one critic. He didn’t care if Dan’s Motel was a masterpiece because he wouldn’t waste time or energy on a short film that no one would ever see.
I came back home and decided to write two more stories. I shot them over the next two years, each on a long three-day weekend, using friends and acquaintances as cast and crew. After editing everything, I was still a little bit short, but by adding a prologue, I finally had an 80 minute feature-length film.
Dan’s Motel was quite popular—even considered a ‘cult film’ in some circles. It had a great run at film festivals around the world and played on European television after it was a surprise hit at the New York New Directors/New Films in 1982.
The dedication of Dan’s Motel is to my dear friend Richard Fiscus. He was my professor at San Francisco Art Institute and allowed me to write a film script to satisfy a required English assignment in 1972. His encouragement and support gave me the first impetus to try what I’ve done for the past thirty years.
EDF: Recent Sorrows (1984) is a bizarre tale of two men whose respective love affairs have recently ended: a strange encounter between the two in a cafe leads to a mysterious murder. What was the inspiration for the story?
JRB: I met George Berg, who stars in both Dan’s Motel and Recent Sorrows, in the early 1970’s while he was working for the post office as a mailman. His frequent delivery of film magazines to my bail bonds office led to the discovery that George was also a filmmaker. We became good friends and our mutual interests led to several collaborations where we worked on each other’s films.
After Dan’s Motel, George, who had been married and had a son, came out of the closet and explained to me that he was gay. In San Francisco, this is not so unusual, but listening to him talk about his personal love life, I realized that his problems in relationships with men were so similar to those of my straight friends with women. I wanted to make a movie to show that there was no difference. That was the germination for the story.
Recent Sorrows had the typical fate of a lot of second films or second novels—people want more of the same. Everyone expected another quirky film like Dan’s Motel. Twenty years ago, people were not ready for the subject matter. It took courage like Heinz Badewitz at Hof Film Festival in Bavaria to show the film.
Not only did Recent Sorrows lack broad audience appeal, but its lack of success and acclaim brought me a lot of personal sadness. For a long time I thought I had made a great strategic mistake in my storytelling. But not too long ago, after not viewing the film for almost a decade, I watched it again at a retrospective screening. It was a very positive experience to realize that the film plays true to my original vision.
EDF: And what about Shuttlecock?
JRB: Shuttlecock (1989) is a serious romantic comedy about four beachfront neighbors who are better at art than the game of life. A shy painter, a dyslexic comic, a young ecdysiast, and a German chanteuse all search for the meaning of life while learning the meaning of love.
In 1986 I had the good fortune to receive a DAAD grant to live in Berlin for nine months. While I was there I wrote a screenplay called Shuttlecock about an American and his neighbors in a Berlin apartment house. I was unable to raise funds to make the film in Berlin, but rewrote it at home to take place in California. In the second version, the main character became Mona the art teacher. I am always pleased when women tell me they can’t believe the story was written by a man.
Shuttlecock premiered at Berlin International Film Festival in 1989. But distributors seemed baffled about how to market a film about psychotherapy. They didn’t think anyone would be interested. But the film did get some exposure, especially in Europe, and a couple years later I read somewhere that there were at least 20 films coming out of Hollywood dealing with therapy.
EDF: Your process has been ever evolving in all your careers and it we hope that you return to making movies. How would you characterize yourself in the world of cinema?
JRB: I guess I am an auteur filmmaker as I write the scripts, direct the films, edit them and sometimes even operate the camera. I also wrote the lyrics for most of the songs. The resulting films capture the environment where I live. I have made these films with almost no budget, and basically shot the films in places where people would allow me access. I used whatever I could. I guess the result is regional filmmaking, but this was accidental rather than intentional, a result of economics. I actually feel my films could be set almost anywhere.
My films have their own pacing. I have tried to give the audience time to absorb the dialogue. Today, American society and film are filled with action cuts that seem more important than visuals, and sound bites have precluded intelligent dialogue. I still prefer films that have something to say. I try and write about the human condition. All my characters are flawed. My intent is to make an honest and truthful observation of life.
EDF: Thank you Jerry and we look forward to a lot of new art from you in many forms.
*From dialogue by Buck Henry in The Graduate (1967).
Jerry Ross Barrish’s web site.
Plastic Man: The Artful Life of Jerry Ross Barrish film web site and trailer.
At the Roxie:
- Plastic Man
- A Retrospective of Films: Features and Shorts
- Jerry Ross Barrish will appear in Conversation with chef, Roxie co-founder and EatDrinkFilms food writer Peter Moore after Dan’s Motel on Sunday, August 23 at 4:45 at the Roxie.
At Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center:
Read Dennis Harvey’s review of Plastic Man in EatDrinkFilms.