Ken Jacobs in 3D at Anthology Film Archives (May 13-19)

by on May 12, 2011Posted in: Essay


THE NEXT SIX days at Anthology Film Archive are your chance to catch up with history before it’s past: behold “Ken Jacobs in 3 Dimensions” (!!!), the first comprehensive retrospective of the canonical avant-gardist’s continuing adventures into the unfathomable depths and inexhaustible surfaces of cinematic consciousness.


If you are even slightly more involved with movies than an occasional trip to the multiplex, chances are Ken Jacobs has had a hand in inventing, rediscovering, championing, inspiring, or revolutionizing something you’ve done in the dark. Brooklyn-born Jacobs emerged in the Sixties as a key figure of the American avant-garde–and 54 years after his first film, he seems more and more one of its key figures. Initially partnered with Jack Smith in ludic underground subversions, Jacobs would close out the decade as one of the medium’s chief conceptual stewards alongside Stan Brakhage, Michael Snow, and Andy Warhol. He was as potent a programmer and preacher as friend Jonas Mekas– it was Jacobs’s utopian film school, Millennium Film Workshop which first made use of the halls and holding cells of a certain courthouse on 2nd and 2nd that’s since become…the venue recommended here. Ken Jacobs’s half-century career has contained a dozen remarkably distinct legacies—underground provocateur, cine-activist, aesthetic path-breaker, film archeologist, political polemicist, technical innovator, and one of America’s first and most influential film professors– all impossibly subsumed within one life’s work.

Footage of a young Ken Jacobs (left) and Jerry Sims in Jacobs’s Star Spangled to Death (2004)
A RECKONING OF what Jacobs has given to and taken from the bastard art of 3D, however, might hint at the truly common and unifying tendencies of his staggering body of filmmaking (3D or otherwise): experiences nearly irreconcilable to language, ideas too numerous and entwined to be encapsulated, and a furious and protean artistic output always (and now more than ever) outpacing retrospect.

Every discussion of Jacobs’s extra-dimensional investigations (not least of all his own) inevitably starts with his tutelage under abstract expressionist Hans Hoffman. Then studying as a painter, Jacobs took to heart (and eventually new height) Hoffman’s insistence on “reworking” the canvas, forging internal tensions and shifting intensities–“push and pull” between planes of composition to cull and confound dynamism and depth from a flat surface. Paramount to Jacobs’s future work, Hoffman’s theories were rooted in the notion that the experience of a static composition should necessitate time–that a painting was to be vivified in the viewer, its components dashing and twisting, reorienting relations and coordinates as they were beheld, releasing a flux of latent complexities with every pivot of the eyeball, tilt of the head, step to the side.

This is the capacity of the human eye that Jacobs’s films have always been born from, empowered, demanded, and transformed: an eye that continually reactivates the visible by its very attempt to stabilize it. For every Jacobs’s audience, watching, looking, seeing all become embarkations—the eye and brain are never the last horizon awaiting an image, but where the potentialities of an image begin; the act of creation itself.

Though this account might make 3D seem a natural destination for Jacobs’s filmmaking, he held and maintains a congenital ambivalence to the inbuilt illusionism of cinema and more so the long-derided parlor trick of 3D. (Even now he continues to proclaim inferiority, even guilt about his belief in painting’s more sophisticated ability to mingle and manipulate the interzones of spatial configuration – a lingering doubt that only seems to have pushed his work further and further). It would be a gross distortion to say simply that Jacobs has taken on the immaterial depth of flatness in the same way that Hoffman’s fellow Modernists took on the material flatness of depth. But something like that certainly happened early on along the way to creating the chasmal channels of light and time he would discover and set loose with 3D.

A SYNOPTIC CAREER hopscotch toward 3D would begin with the shadow play performances Jacobs orchestrated in his earliest active years in New York, and to Sixties camera-sculpted space-play like Window, The Sky Socialist, and Soft Rain (of which the first two have been incorporated into Anthology’s series). In the late sxites, Jacobs’s came across and became obsessed with a 10-minute Mutoscope and Biograph photoplay from 1905 – a single reel of decayed film, depicting the nursery rhyme “Tom, Tom, The Piper’s Son” with the utmost theatrical frenzy. By re-photographing the film as it underwent repeated projections, Jacobs reworked its goings-on into a two-hour landmark, debuting in 1969. The impact of Tom, Tom The Piper’s Son was perfectly surmised by the scholarly critic Annette Michaelson as “a privileged moment in film history.”

A nexus of revelation in cine-thought if ever there was one, Jacobs’s initial 1969 re-photographed plumbing of Tom, Tom combined immersions, caresses, and confusions of the original’s compositions and actions by Jacobs’s camera, along with continuous variations in the speed, direction, and sequence of the projection as Jacobs filmed. Tom, Tom’s attentive curiosity to the potential infinities that a single, ten-minute stretch of film never knew it could contain, along with its reverent resurrection and liberation of the movements and moments of a gaggle of players long gone from the world–Jacobs’s student at Binghamton, J. Hoberman would later call them “film imprisoned souls”—, the film’s transformation of grain patterns and material decay into sumptuous whirlpools of light and dark, and its assertion that the reel’s frozen ten minutes of time could be enticed to offer up two hours of moving images unseen—or, perhaps, an eternity of them; all these discoveries would become elemental to Jacobs’s involvement with 3D.

Window (1969)

The 1905 film which served as the source material and namesake for Jacobs’s seminal work would become Pandora’s Box for Ken, a trove re-opened and re-directed in multiple works throughout his career, including 2008’s playful anaglyph intervention and series entry, Anaglyph Tom (aka, Tom with Puffy Cheeks).

Tom, Tom, The Piper’s Son, however, is most directly linked to all of Jacobs’s 3D in two ways. The first being that the film fundamentally consists in the generative power of vision, the concept, seeded with Hoffman, of spectatorship as an active process of creation. The second is that Jacobs’s obsessive poring over the found one-reeler, and the variable manipulations of Tom, Tom’s progression of frames was made possible by an analytical projector Jacobs’s had obtained, which allowed for him to freely accelerate, decelerate, reverse or freeze the rolling of the reel.

These analytical projectors, which became readily available to him and figured mightily in his style of pedagogy at SUNY Binghamton (where, along with Larry Gottheim and Nicholas Ray, he established the first film program in the state’s university system) were the first ingredients of Jacobs’s “Nervous System” – a two headed cine-monster to be unchained in live projector performances for the next three decades.

THE NERVOUS SYSTEM is based upon alternating two adjacent projectors loaded with identical films, and pointed at the screen in overlapping or slightly misaligned perspectives. Each reel is offset from the other usually by a single frame (or no more than a few) so that the images reveal the progression of some fractional second. Alternating at various speeds, the tandem projections conjure surging rhythms of motion and light from the subtle variations between images. The addition of rotating propellers placed before each beam, controlled as external shudders, produced a deep, steady, sometimes languorous, sometimes turbulent flicker effect.

Anaglyph Tom (aka Tom with Puffy Cheeks), still from a color 3-D video


Jacobs: “The Nervous System consists, very basically, of two identical prints on two projectors capable of single frame advance. The twin prints plod through the projectors, frame…by frame… in various degrees of synchronization. Difference makes for movement, and uncanny three-dimensional space via a shuttling mask or spinning propeller up front, between the projectors, alternating the cast images.”

Within (or upon) this pulsing plane, Jacobs’s was able to coordinate cinematic experiences of unprecedented depth and volume on screen. Throughout the 80’s and 90’s, Jacobs’s Nervous System performances (and eventually those of the similarly amazing but functionally and effectively distinct Nervous Magic Lantern, which employs not celluloid, but overlapping transparent materials and objects to summon seething, beatific abstractions) became the stuff of legend. The most seasoned critics and artists of avant-garde film would talk of visions, tremors, deliriums; epiphany and ecstasy awoken during Jacobs’s torrential projections—new old-fashioned stupors and reveries, but not of lulling hypnosis so much as ever more startling, terrifying and reverberating expeditions into consciousness itself. Experimental sage Phil Solomon (a former Jacobs’s student and Brakhage collaborator), himself known for creating some of the most intricate, volatile, and impossible to explain images in avant-garde film, wrote after a Nervous System performance: “My eyes feel swollen and sated, buzzed and dazzled, and I am still quaking from the overwhelming, lunatic beauty, long after the lights come up. Will I ever be able to watch a “normal” film again?” It may sound silly but see for yourself in the Nervous Magic Lantern performances Jacobs will hold the first three nights of the series.

Jacobs calls his Nervous System’s depth effects “eternalisms”. These whorls of barely perceivable shifts in the perspective or procession of images are at once careening and supernaturally graceful. They make you feel as if you are turning your head toward a passing car you can never quite catch up with, but are somehow always ahead of. Images seem to hover around you until your brain doesn’t believe your ass’s signal that you’re still sitting straight ahead in a chair bolted to the floor. And then, they swallow you whole.

Figure and ground undulate, heave, envelope one another. Planes seem to leap or lurch apart, yet billow and simmer indivisible as the tide. Boundaries buckle and fuse. Phantoms sights are not uncommon (Jacobs calls this product of unbroken and attendant viewing “Rorschaching”). Comparisons to the writhing swells of an LSD stare have been obvious, if cautiously invoked— almost too vulgar for such an oceanic perceptual event as the Nervous System performance.

These performances have launched a thousand adjectives, and still none seem adequate. (Mark McElhatten’s appropriately cosmic and aggressively ingenious 2004 Nervous System essay “Time After Time” remains the most beautiful, and aesthetically and philosophically attuned, tribute to date).

Let There Be Whistle Blowers (2010)

AS AMMO, the Nervous System has largely reconvened the tenuous artifactual realities, historical background radiation, and “film imprisoned souls” of obscure found footage shrapnel. The glass-dark past is made to leap into presence, shunning history by emerging wildly alive, and debunking Time as it regenerates, expands, and enfolds itself in fitfully frozen presentness. Human forms remain held somewhere between the slightest turn of the head, though vaulted into storms of unceasing motion. The sliver of distance between two moments becomes a bottomless well of space-time. With an intentional nod to Bergson, Jacobs has characterized his eternalisms as “Motion without movement.”

Doing the work of binocular vision, Eternalism is the only form of apparent depth that can be perceived using only one eye. When he began performing with the double projector system, Jacobs would burnish demystifying program notes (excerpted above) about the process, foregrounding the apparatus as a gesture to deflate sorcery or illusionism and forestall a “but how” guessing game. But beyond the requisite explication, writing about the Nervous System has all but intentionally skirted the matter of what Jacobs is actually doing to make these images (literally) happen. Granted the circuit between eye and brain has never been tidily resolved by science or art. Intermittent projection’s affect of apparent motion is largely still mystery. Even the “persistence of vision” has been debunked and reinstated too many times to now be credibly used as a brush off in the first chapter of film studies textbooks.

Whatever wavelength Jacobs stumbled onto, as his performances and processes have became more complex and astounding he has become guarded and reticent about exactly what he’s up, and comparisons to Oz and Dr. Frankenstein have proliferated accordingly. He holds the patent for the particular methods and patterning required to create eternalisms, though invention is not the right word. This world of vision is already in us, and Jacobs found the way to unlock it, unleash it. To baffle the brain into seeing what it has trained itself not to- “the breathing world.”

Quite the opposite of a perfected illusion of real depth, the animate intensity of eternalisms can seem more immediate and wondrous than anything your eyes are capable of seeing when the house lights come up. Which is precisely the point. As many have pointed out (not least of which Jacobs), this is how the world might truly appear, if only we were committed to see. In eternalism, stasis and kinesis are revealed to be neither distinct nor oppositional. Rather, they are secret collaborators, conspiring to maintain the seeming deadlock wherein the surging continuum of the visible appears fixed, so that Time takes on the guise of an arrow, a deception famous above all others. “The space I mean to contract is between now and then,” Jacobs wrote, “that other present that dropped its shadow on film.”

THE ANTHOLOGY PROGRAM contains work which employs Anaglyph 3D (Red-and-Cyan colored stereoscopy), Pulfrich 3D (achieved by holding a polarized lens over one eye), as well some of Jacobs’s eternalism pieces. Bestowing the two former methods upon footage as disparate as a Lumiere reworking in The Guests and the exit from NYFF’s premiere of The Social Network in America at War, The Home Front: Film Opening, makes for characteristically angry and awestruck Jacobs’s fare. For Jacobs, Dispatching Anaglyph seems more dependent on subject matter, and is a different animal than eternalism. Applying the now primitive process to magnified, hundred-year-old footage doesn’t impregnate the image with depth or internal motion, so much as lay a glaze of the snake oil of the Real over delicate murmurs of bygone sight.

What has not been remarked upon enough is that, beyond the development of eternalisms using two analytical projectors, Jacobs has since translated the ability into a digital process, which has both augmented his pool of “unsuspecting” source material to “plunge a hundred years” into the present, as well as enhanced the intricacy of the films.

‘a loft’ (2010)

Sadly, his first such piece, eternalized entirely in digital—1999’s Flo Rounds a Corner, which in twelve short years has secured canonical status—is not included here. Same goes for 2009’s breathtaking The Day Was A Scorcher (both reworkings of his own home movies and vacation photographs).

But working in digital has made more multifarious manipulations possible in the raw materials of prior performances. Jacobs for a time churned out of pieces forged from plates of salvaged, scratched-up stereoscopic photographs from the turn of last century. A boon for the method, the eternalisms built upon these archaic depth designs instate particularly cavernous chambers of motion. Most of these stunners like Capitalism: Slavery and Nymph show Wednesday the 18th, but the stereoscopic kicker is 2005’s Scenic Route, which melds snapshots of travel exotica into a far, far better trip.

Other eternalistic transubstantiations have developed from infamous Nervous System performances. Ontic Antics Starring Laurel and Hardy, Bye Molly, and Let There Be Whistle Blowers are both guaranteed to leave your eyes feeling like they’ve been in atrophy your whole life, with the latter taking its rightful place among the greatest marriages of motion picture and locomotion.

Opening night’s ‘a loft’ and Green Wave, both premiering in just the last year, reveal the distance Jacobs has already gone with the possibilities of applying his 3D to digital (even if he does sometimes seem as trigger happy as a tween with the Photoshop filters he’s just now discovering).

If there are any pieces to be named that might bring this trip back home, Pushcarts Of Eternity Street and Pushcarts Leave Eternity Street will suffice. A moment from a 1903 New York City street document, split like an atom. It is a pure instance of Jacobs’s demonstration that time, space, and vision, when relentlessly redeployed, cleave any distinction between themselves, render history present and determine to make present history: a retrospective for a retrospective.

Last month at MoMA, Jacobs screened unedited materials for a new piece called Seeking The Monkey King. It was like nothing I’ve ever seen before (not from him, not on a screen, not anything). He may sleep when he’s dead, but as he’s shown us time and time again, we shouldn’t be expected to allow that. Begin preparations for the next retrospective.

Jesse P. Finnegan is a freelance writer living in New York.

Ken Jacobs in 3D is playing at Anthology Film Archives May 13-19.

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