personal report from James River

From: Richard Herskowitz (email suppressed)
Date: Mon Apr 07 2008 - 06:48:45 PDT

I returned yesterday from the some uncanny experiences at the James River Film Festival, and felt like this was the place to share them. James River is a wonderful annual event in Richmond that always features experimental film (John Porter was a guest last year, and Mekas, Brakhage, Martha Colburn, Scott MacDonald and many others preceded him). The festival struck gold this year, because Ken Jacobs came with the world premiere of RETURN TO THE SCENE OF THE CRIME. It's a 93-minute return to the scene of Tom Tom the Piper's Son's pig abduction. After being subjected to 16mm rephotography in 1969 and Ken's dual-projector Nervous System in THE IMPOSSIBLE and other performances, Billy Bitzer's Tom and that tableau of wild performers around him are investigated by Final Cut Pro. Jacobs managed to digitize, frame by frame, a new 35mm of the 1905 paper print, and there's a dazzling moment when he cuts from the hazy 16mm he used in 1969 to the rich and detailed image that has clearly inspired him to reopen the case.

There was one image flip that activated my knee-jerk distaste for video special effects, but the rest of the time I was amazed and delighted by the details of human expression and interaction that Jacobs was able to highlight, along with all the volumes and the shapes that could be repainted out of their representational moorings. I think Jacobs has brought to Final Cut and After Effects the same level of artistry he brought to the analytic projector, optical printer and Nervous System. There's something new, too, that the new medium inspired, playful use of text to comment on the images and storyline. At one point, Jacobs identifies a figure in the background as "Jack Smith," and damn if it isn't a lookalike, and the people around him suddenly seem like a band of Beats 50 years ahead of schedule. Jacobs doesn't explicitly locate himself, but I'm pretty certain he identifies with the juggler/ trickster figure his text identifies as "God," and who facilitates Tom's dirty deed by dropping his balls.

Just before the cast starts running offscreen after Tom, a title appears that just floored me: "No! Don't leave the frame! There's nothing out there!" (I'm not sure of the exact wording). Then came a "Nervous System" - like 3D flicker expansion of the chase accompanied by the film's first long musical scoring--a glorious Malcolm Goldstein violin piece, and I was in a state of cinematic rapture.

The Trickster God is the last to leave the frame, and at the end of the film, Jacobs' credits state explicitly why he was so glad to be immersed in the 35mm frames of TOM TOM for the past couple of keep his mind off the fascist leanings of the Bush-Cheney regime. He then thanks Amy Goodman of Democracy Now and others fighting against this country's descent. Amazingly, sitting directly behind me in the theater was DeeDee Halleck, a longtime colleague and compatriot of Goodman's on the media left, who was about to give a presentation on activist media. While Jacobs has been a major influence in my life since I was his student 35 years ago, I've known DeeDee for over 25 years, and her political filmmaking and activism has been a big influence as well. Jacobs and Halleck (whom Jacobs had never met, and did not recognize) exchanged comments about his film's frequent references to the Hogarth painting that was the source of the tableau, how Jacobs felt that Hogarth's strong politics justified his film's occasional explicit points, and how moved DeeDee was, because she lived surrounded by several Hogarth reproductions in her home. For me, it felt like a convergence of media communities that have often diverged (most painfully, at the 1992 Flaherty seminar when Ken was attacked for his politics, and I was the moderator!).

I neglected to mention that James River also brought Azazel Jacobs, who showed THE GOOD TIMES KID Saturday and MOMMA'S MAN on Sunday. I like the first film but adore the new one, which ThinkFilm picked up after Sundance for theatrical distribution. As I'm sure you've heard, Ken and Flo Jacobs and their incredible Chambers Street apartment are the co-stars of the film, as they envelop their grown son "Mikey," played by Matt Boren, who returns and cannot leave their nest. The audience applauded long and hard for the film, and I think it's going to connect with a lot of people. However, if you have the kind of history I do with the Jacobs...and there are many programmers, critics, and filmmakers active in the avant-garde community who's an uncanny experience. Flo is wonderful, exuding her madonna-like warmth and beauty and artistic passion. But the film also captures (and I haven't seen any critics mention this) the charged expressiveness of Ken's non-verbal communication. There's a moment when Ken holds up his hand and quiets his son so that he might listen and share Ken's absorption in Malcolm Goldstein's music...and the son just can't. It's hard to explain how deeply this and other gestures and expressions resonated, and made me conscious of the not always comfortable filial tie I felt as his student, and still sometimes feel. While I was Ken's student from 1971-73, SUNY Binghamton's Lecture Hall One felt like living in the Jacobs family home. 4 year old Nisi ran up and down the stairs, then Aza was born and sat on Flo's lap at the back of the room, occasionally nursing. For four semesters, our class met for at least nine hours a week, and we watched and listened to his incredible mind with fascination and (for me, at least) intimidation. Since graduating, I've maintained family ties with Ken and Flo as well as fellow students I keep encountering and sharing memories with in the arts world (including Bill T. Jones and Art Spiegelman). LIke others, I've had some intense and unforgettable encounters with Ken in the intervening years, including moderating that notorious session at the Flaherty, followed the next day by one of the greatest of his performances I've seen, of TWO WRENCHING DEPARTURES.

At Binghamton, Ken often talked about the value and richness of of home movies. He completed and screened his great NISSAN ARIANA WINDOW, featuring baby Nisi. MOMMA'S MAN ends with a reference to this film (Mikey's baby filmed from above and kept occupied within the frame) and also includes clips from Jacobs' other avant-garde home movie, SPAGHETTI AZA. Aza's now made his own dramatized home movie about his extraordinary parents and home, and given a valuable memento to more siblings than he probably realizes he has.

James River's co-director, James Parrish, when he learned of my relationship with his guests, said that he did "personal programming" and that I was the intended audience for this year's festival. I think he thought he was kidding, but the experience felt like he wasn't.

Richard Herskowitz
Artistic Director, Virginia Film Festival
US Mail Address: PO Box 400869
Other Shipping/Street Address: 617 West Main Street
Charlottesville, VA 22904

For info on FrameWorks, contact Pip Chodorov at <email suppressed>.