Ken Jacobs Retrospective Introduction

Date: 13 October 2000 | Season: Ken Jacobs Nervous System, Leeds Film Festival 2000

Touring Film Retrospecive Introductory Essay

Ken Jacobs has been a leading innovator of avant-garde film for the past 40 years. After making his first films in the mid-1950s, Jacobs soon found himself at the forefront of the experimental film movement, which exploded in New York and across the world throughout the next decade, liberating cinema from its previous conventions. His films were developed out of despair and desperation, as an attempt to make an urban guerrilla cinema in reaction to his disappointment with the “wall to wall colour stupidity” of 1950s America. “I was interested in immediacy, a sense of ease, and an art where suffering was acknowledged but not trivialised with dramatics”.

Jacobs grew up in Brooklyn, and later spent time working in the Coast Guard in Alaska. On his return to New York, he shot Orchard Street (1956), a documentary about the Lower East Side. He studied painting under Hans Hofmann, then embarked on a series of films with Jack Smith as his leading actor, working together on a 3 hour epic titled Star Spangled To Death (1957-60). This film, which is concerned with the aesthetic of failure and collapse of order, incorporates new material with found footage.

Using the pseudonym K.M. Rosenthal (“to protect my obscurity”), he completed the influential Little Stabs At Happiness (1958-60), a series of whimsical 100-foot rolls presented as they came out of the camera. In summer 1961, Jacobs and Smith spent time in Provincetown performing The Human Wreckage Review, which preceded many of the artists’ happenings of later that decade and was prematurely closed down by the police.

“Overwhelmed, hopeless, it was a good time for irreverence. And, for an art film in the vernacular, like an amusing letter, me to you. Sketchy, airy, anti-precious, without a lot of geniusing at the audience. Not anti-art, which the critics of the period, assumed. To my bafflement.”

The Whirled (1956-61), the earliest film presented in this retrospective, features Smith in series of vignettes from the period which also yielded Little Stabs At Happiness and Blonde Cobra (1959-63), two films considered revolutionary for the way they display an entire new cinematic sensibility. Blonde Cobra was particularly radical, containing long scenes of black leader and a soundtrack that incorporates live radio, making no two projections the same. Amused with the ‘Baudelairean Cinema’ label that was bestowed upon these films by Jonas Mekas, Jacobs embarked upon a loose trilogy of longer works – Baud’lairian Capers (1963-64), The Winter Footage (1964) and The Sky Socialist (1964-65), filming with friends and new wife Florence. Three shorter films shot in their loft, Window (1964), Airshaft (1967) and Soft Rain (1968) showed Jacobs’ accomplished talent for investigating space, a refined approach rooted in his schooling by abstract expressionist Hans Hofmann. With these unique and precisely composed films, he anticipated the Structural movement, which subsequently became the dominant style of the avant-garde throughout the 1970s, being particularly prevalent among the new English filmmakers.

“The zoom lens rips, pulling depth planes apart and slapping them together, contracting and expanding in concurrence with handheld camera movements to impart a terrific apparent-motion to the complex of the object-forms pictured on screen, its horizontal-vertical axis steadied by the audience’s sense of gravity.” (from notes on Window)

Nissan Ariana Window (1969) is a more personal work, in which Jacobs turned his camera on home life to document his impressions on Flo’s pregnancy, their new daughter, and a new litter of kittens born to the family cat.

Jacobs most celebrated film is Tom, Tom The Piper’s Son (1969-71), a 2 hour tour-de-force constructed by re-photographing and dissecting a 10 minute short made by Billy Bitzer in 1905. After presenting the complete original, Jacobs pursues a deep analysis into its visual elements: slowing down, freezing action and examining small, abstracted areas of the frame.

“I wanted to ‘bring to the surface’ that multi-rhythmic collision-contesting of dark and light two-dimensional force-areas struggling edge to edge for identity of shape … to get into the amoebic grain pattern itself – a chemical dispersion pattern unique to each frame, each cold still … stirred to life by a successive 16-24fps pattering on our retinas, the teeming energies elicited (the grains! the grains!) then collaborating, unknowingly and ironically, to form the always-poignant-because-always-past illusion.”

In the same year, Jacobs began to investigate the Pulfrich pendulum effect, by which moving images are given a strong 3D depth. Seen through an ‘Eye Opener’ filter, a normally projected tracking shot of a snowbound suburban housing estate in Globe (previously titled Excerpt From The Russian Revolution, 1969) becomes an immense vista of shifting planes. (“The found sound is X-ratable but necessary to the film’s perfect balance (Globe is symmetrical) of divine and profane.”) The later film Opening The Nineteenth Century: 1896 (1990) re-presents vintage Lumiere footage with a similar strong visual effect.

The innovations of these works, together with experiences directing live action shadow plays, led to the Nervous System, a live projection technique integrating 2 analytic projectors to derive 3D and a variety of other optical effects from standard 2D footage. Each projector contains identical strips of film, usually shown 1 or 2 frames out of sync with each other. Since 1975, Jacobs has developed numerous works that often use ancient archival footage to produce uncanny illusions of depth and movement. On screen, an image can be given the appearance of constant movement without ever seeming to go anywhere. Expanding on Muybridge and Marey, Jacobs unlocks unknown possibilities hidden deep within cinema, usually lost in the unretarded flurry of frames.

In parallel to the development of the Nervous System, Jacobs continued to investigate other ways of recycling images, calling for “a Museum of Found Footage, a shit-museum of telling discards accessible to all talented viewers/auditors. A wilderness haven salvaged from Entertainment”. His Urban Peasants (1975) marries pre-war and war time home movie footage shot by his wife’s Aunt Stella with a recording of How To Speak Yiddish. In 1978, Jacobs and his students sequentially re-edited The Doctor’s Dream, a bland 1950s television drama, to expose an unexpected sexual subtext lurking between gaps in the narrative. Perfect Film (1986) presents rushes from TV news footage following the assassination of Malcolm X. The film’s structure sits comfortably alongside his other work, though surprisingly the filmmaker claims to have found the reel in a rubbish bin and considered it ‘perfect’ in its untouched state.

“I wish more stuff was available in its raw state, as primary source material for anyone to consider, and to leave for others in just that way, the evidence uncontaminated by compulsive proprietary misapplied artistry, ‘editing’, the purposeful ‘pointing things out’ that cuts a road straight through the cine-jungle; we barrel through thinking we’re going somewhere and miss it all.”

Jacobs’ version of [Buster] Keaton’s Cops, (1991) is offered via a radical intervention of the original frame. His latest films Disorient Express and Georgetown Loop (both 1996) use wide-screen 35mm (by mirror printing standard 16mm) to create abstracted Rorschach images of archival train journeys.

(Mark Webber, 2000)

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