Ken Jacobs Retrospective: 3

Date: 14 October 2000 | Season: Ken Jacobs Nervous System, Leeds Film Festival 2000

Leeds International Film Festival
Saturday 14 October 2000, at 3pm

In order to experience the added depth of the Pulfrich 3D effect, the viewer should use the “Eye Opener” filter during OPENING THE NINETEENTH CENTURY: 1896. “Passing through the tunnel mid-film, a red flash will signal you to switch your single Pulfrich filter before your right you to before your left (keep both eyes open). Centre seating is best: depth deepens viewing further from the screen. Handle filter by edges to preserve clarity. Either side of filter may face screen. Filter can be held at any angle, there’s no “up” or “down” side. Also, two filters before an eye does not work better than one, and a filter in front of each only negates the effects.”

Ken Jacobs, USA, 1956-61, 16mm, b/w & colour, sound & silent, 15 min

Nasty overstuffed clogged and airless American fifties. The few good Hollywood films after the Left-dumping, The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T, The Sweet Smell of Success, etc., are skyscrapers on the Mojave. Overwhelmed, hopeless, it was a good time for irreverence. In particular, for art film in the vernacular, like an amusing letter, me to you. Sketchy, airy, anti-precious, without a lot of geniusing at the audience. Slices of imaginative life, not choosing to hide a N.Y. specific economic reality but I can dream, can’t I? Not anti-art, which my superiors, the critics of the period, assumed. To my bafflement. I had decided, with the examples of jazz improvisation and of action painting which would build on one impulsive stroke, and let things hang out indications of wrong turns towards the emerging clarity – not to edit and doll up the 100-foot camera rolls. But to let the film materials show, the Kodak perforations and start and end roll light flares; to feature the clicks and scratchings of the 78 r.p.m. records I pirated for accompaniment. Camera sequence as determined impulse upon impulse by the cinematographer seemed sensible to me, and to be respected. The off moments, vagaries, ’tis-human-toerrs, such beatings about the bush also delineated the bush; there was the example of Cezanne’s outlines, groping for the contour. Follow the impulses, I thought, and let appearances fall as they may. That’d be perfect enough.
(Ken Jacobs, statement in “Films That Tell Time: A Ken Jacobs Retrospective”, American Museum of the Moving Image, 1989)

Ken Jacobs, USA, 1978, 16mm, b/w, sound, 27 min

Original found material, a bland fifties TV movie. What’s important to know is that, in re-cutting it, nothing was done to make a point or be funny. It was cut blind. That is, according to scheme. Unexpectedly, something was learned about how hot secret messages are smuggled through (social) customs.
Sequential progression along conventional lines has the magic effect of disguising from the observer the real matter at hand. At the same time, it’s what the observer is really drawn to. It’s veiled, which allows the observer to have a powerful response to it and at the same time not feel guilty due to the taboo strictures of society.
(Ken Jacobs, statement in “Films That Tell Time: A Ken Jacobs Retrospective”, American Museum of the Moving Image, 1989)

“… A quite different encounter with chance is registered in The Doctors Dream (78). Here an utterly vapid, sententious TV short from the Fifties about a country physician on an urgent house call to a sick child is reedited according to a simple formula. The opening shot of Jacobs’ revision is the exact median point in the narrative sequence and successive shots proceed toward either end, with the first and last shots placed next to each other at the finale. Even though a spectator may not grasp the precise ordering principle, it is clear that as Dream unfolds the gaps in narrative logic between adjacent shots become increasingly attenuated and bizarre. With time wrenched out of joint, conventional markers of cause and effect get waylaid, producing weirdly expressive conjunc­tions. The sick girl’s brother watches as she has blood drawn, then in the next shot stands weeping and praying for her deliverance; did the medical procedure cause her demise ? Slightly later, the girl jack-knifes through a series of shots: first gravely ill, then blithely dusting furniture, then once more on death’s door. Her unsettling dance of swoons and revivals hints at something more unearthly than the “Higher Power” invoked by the pious doe as her true salvation.
“Once again syntax is made strange as, for instance, clusters of medium shots of roughly the same subject bond in a fashion never permitted by standard editing practices. In this Kuleshov experiment in reverse, poetic themes and unsavoury character motives seem to leap from the restirred detritus: an emphasis on time and / as vision prompted by repeated close-ups of the doctor’s pocket watch and his fiddling over a microscope; the father looking daggers at the benevolent man of science, perhaps for good reason since his bedside manner takes on a treacly erotic dimension. As in many otherwise dissimilar Jacobs projects, one can in Dream sense with a veiled clarity the narrative gears at work, the interchangeable factory parts of master-shot and shot-countershot as they churned out an easily digestible product. On this occasion, however, what remains is less a cruel unmasking than a redemption – bad acting saved by dreamlike disjunctions, stupid lines recuperated by sinister associations.”
(Paul Arthur, excerpted from “Creating Spectacle From Dross: The Chimeric Cinema of Ken Jacobs”, first published in American Cinematographer magazine, 1987)

Ken Jacobs, USA, 1991, 16mm, b/w, silent, 23 min

Original film by Edward F. Cline and Buster Keaton, 1922.
New arrangement by Ken Jacobs, assisted by Florence Jacobs, 1991.

Some films are a joy to look at repeatedly, and also separately in their various parts. Here we see the bottom fifth of COPS. Our intention was to interfere with narrative coherence, to deny narrative dominance; to release the mind for a while from story and the structuring of incident, compelling as it is in Keaton’s masterly development. Our wide-screen re-filming limits seeing to the periphery of story, moves us from the easy reading of an illustrated text on to active seeing: what to make of this! Reduced information means we now must struggle to identify objects and places and, in particular, spaces. A broad tonal area remains flat, clings to the screen, until impacted upon by a recognisable something: Keaton smashes into it, say, and so it’s a wall, or a foot steps on it or a wheel rolls across it and it’s a road ! Shapes come into their own, odd and suggestive entities hinting at their own subconscious sub-narratives. We become conscious of a painterly screen alive with many shapes in many tones, playing back and forth between the 2D screen-plane and representation of a 3D movie-world, at the same time that we notice objects and activities (Keaton sets his comedy amidst actual street traffic) normally kept from mind by the moviestar-centred moviestory.
(Ken Jacobs, 2000)

Ken Jacobs, USA, 1985, 16mm, b/w, sound, 22 min

TV newscast discard, out-takes of history reprinted as found in a Canal Street bin, with the exception of boosting volume second half.
A lot of film is perfect left alone, perfectly revealing in its un- or semi- conscious form. 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 and narrow through the cine-jungle; we barrel through thinking we’re going somewhere and miss it all. Better to just be pointed to the territory, to put in time exploring, roughing it, on our own. For the straight scoop we need the whole scoop, no less than the clues entire and without rearrangement.
O, for a Museum of Found Footage, or cable channel, library, a shit-museum of telling discards accessible to all talented viewers/auditors. A wilderness haven salvaged from Entertainment.
(Ken Jacobs, statement in “Films That Tell Time: A Ken Jacobs Retrospective”, American Museum of the Moving Image, 1989)

“For Jacobs, “found” footage has less to do with appropriation than with appreciation. The bluntly titled Perfect Film is a 22-minute roll Jacobs discovered in a Canal Street junk bin and which he exhibits unaltered – an apparently random series of interviews and relevant exteriors taken by a TV news crew in the aftermath of Malcolm X’s assassination. Perfect Film opens with a white reporter interviewing a black eyewitness (himself a reporter), and everything in this unmediated slice of celluloid takes on equal weight – the witness’ faraway look, the way his experience becomes narrative, the camera-attracted mob (a Weegee crowd unfolding in time), the choice of camera angle, the interlocutor’s tone. Meanwhile other voices are heard. A white police inspector attempts to direct his presentation. A silent montage of streets, crowds, and cops sets off the re­curring interviews. Even the dead Malcolm appears in a 30-second clip to say that Elijah Muhammad has given the order that he is to be killed.
“More than a time capsule, Perfect Film is a study of how news is made, literally. These outtakes have their own integrity. There’s a structure here, even a revela­tory drama. What’s “perfect” is the demonstration that an anonymous work print found in the garbage can be as multi-layered and resonant, revealing and mysterious as a conscious work of art.
“I learned this – and a great deal more – from Jacobs, with whom I studied for several years at the height of the 60s. The era suited his outsized temperament as a teacher, Jacobs would never be mistaken for Mr. Chips. (Displeased with an article I wrote in the Voice, he once sent me a letter enumerating his accomplishments and adding, “I wish I could take them all away from you.”)”
(Jim Hoberman, excerpt from “Jacob’s Ladder”, Village Voice, 1989)

Ken Jacobs, USA, 1990, 16mm, colour, sound, 9 min

Shafting the screen: the projector beam maintains its angle as it meets the screen and keeps on going, introducing volume as well as light, just as in Paris, Cairo and Venice of a century ago happen to pass.
(Ken Jacobs, statement in London Film-Makers’ Co-Op Catalogue, 1993)

Scott MacDonald: Am I right that in Opening the Nineteenth Century: 1896 we see exactly the same footage forward and right-side up, then backward and upside down?
Ken Jacobs: Yes. The imagery is a collection of what were supposedly the first travelling shots by the Lumière company. The material switches directions, and you switch your filter from one eye to the other, halfway through. In the original sequence there were movements to the right and to the left, but the 3D effect only works when the filter is in front of the eye that corresponds to the direction of the movement, that is, so that when the filter is over the right eye, the foreground figures move in that direction. Some images are turned upside down to maintain the direction. The second pass is the same images in the same order, but the whole film is turned upside down and inside out: it ends with what was the first shot of the film, and whatever was upside down the first time is now right-side up and vice versa. The film is entirely symmetrical. Recently we’ve been toying around with train whistles. Right now there’s a train whistle at the very beginning, and another one halfway through, which is a signal to the audience to switch the filter to the other eye.
(Scott MacDonald interviews Ken Jacobs in “A Critical Cinema 3”, University of California Press, 1988)

Also Screening:

Friday 9 October 2000, at 6:45pm, Glasgow Film Theatre
Thursday 7 December 2000, at 9pm, London Lux Centre
Monday 11 December 2000, at 6:10pm, Manchester Cornerhouse
Thursday 14 December 2000, at 7:30pm, Hull Screen

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