November 1, 1998


October: Ten Days That Shake the World

(Ken Jacobs Retrospective in Boulder, Colorado)

by Steve Anderson

The following was originally posted on the Frameworks Experimental Film Discussion List on October 26, 1998. Steve Anderson is a filmmaker and Ph.D. candidate in Film, Literature and Culture at USC.

In spite of the length of this post, it is not meant to be a comprehensive account of the retrospective. It is, rather, more of an extended thank-you to Phil Solomon and Ken and Flo Jacobs for their heroic efforts in making this event happen.

The title that Phil Solomon gave to the Ken Jacobs retrospective, "October: Ten Days That Shake the World," is an overstatement, but not by much. Beginning in the late 1950s and continuing into the present, Ken Jacobs, working closely with his wife, Flo, has consistently shaken audiences' conceptions of what cinema is and what it has the potential to become. In his work, we witness not only the birth of cinema (via Muybridge and Lumiere) but a redefinition of perceptions of time, depth and space. From his early collaborations with Jack Smith (Little Stabs at Happiness, Star Spangled to Death, etc.) to his elaborations on structural filmmaking (Tom, Tom the Piper's Son, The Doctor's Dream, Disorient Express, Georgetown Loop) to his unique Nervous System projection performances, Jacobs has created a wildly disparate body of work which is nonetheless unified by a powerful sensitivity to the medium of film, history, and the possibilities for experimentation with each. Ten Days That Shake the World has provided a rare opportunity to experience Jacobs' work as it has evolved and reasserted its relevance over more than four decades.

The centerpiece of his recent work, the Nervous System, utilizes two projectors loaded with identical strips of film and an auxiliary shutter mechanism which creates a flicker effect reminiscent of early cinema. Jacobs controls the frame-by-frame advancement of each filmstrip while manipulating a range of parameters on one projector including image size, focus, and movement on all possible axes. The "trick" which is played on the viewer's perceptions and expectations defies conventional intellectual or emotional response. The effects of the Nervous System range from a powerful sense of three dimensionality to a hypnotic state of semi-consciousness which allows viewers to create their own meanings and narratives.

Much of Jacobs' work operates in and through the tension between concrete and abstract imagery. Certain works are deliberately Rorschackian, such as his Bi-Temporal Vision: The Sea (day #2), a 75-minute performance drawn from some 15 seconds of abstract footage (originally photographed by Phil Solomon) of reflections on water. Similarly, his two 35mm films, Disorient Express and the Georgetown Loop (day #6), move through mountainous landscapes in deeply eroticized mirror images. In Ken's presence, even the non-Nervous System films become performances, as on day #1 when he added a spontaneous, benshi-style narration to his classic, Tom, Tom the Piper's Son. The retrospective also included some rare moments, such as a kinescope of Ken's appearance (along with Carolee Schneeman) on a 1950s game show called "Play Your Hunch" in which network censors interrupted the broadcast rather than allow him to utter the complete name of his film, Star Spangled to Death. In his last and perhaps most demanding Nervous System performance of the retrospective, Jacobs presented Two Wrenching Departures, his tribute to Jack Smith and Bob Fleishner, who died within a few days of each other in 1989. Two Wrenching Departures draws footage from Ken's unfinished epic, Star Spangled to Death (which concludes the retrospective tonight). Jacobs' portrait of his old friends remains a loving homage which is nonetheless laced with all the contradictions, idiosyncracies and pathos of their volatile friendship. At nearly two hours, one gets the feeling that the Nervous System is serving a therapeutic function for Jacobs as he takes us methodically through a series of playful, meditative and often quite moving moments.

Other notable moments included an unscheduled performance on day #7 of The Whole Shebang, Jacobs' grimly portentious view of the Reagan years and Cold War millenialism. This piece adds a dimension of overt socio-political commentary which is missing from many of the other Nervous System works, while exploiting the possibilities for abstraction in images of cars criven by lunatics through buildings which are engulfed in flames. The second half of the performance delivers poignantly symbolic and chilling images of a man standing on the ledge of a tall building tossing a baby into the air. These horrifying images become even more unbearable as the Nervous System stretches them out to ten times their original length, opening them up to a depth of contemplation and revulsion which would be impossible in regular cinematic time. On day #2, Jacobs
presented his most recent Nervous System work which premiered recently at the New York Film Festival, Ontic Antics Starring Laurel and Hardy. Jacobs' elaboration of Laurel and Hardy's physical humor ranges from images of freneti sexuality (a menage a trois with a large bass fiddle) to extreme violence (a near restaging of the Rodney King video), all the while maintaining an appreciation and respect for the original material.
On day #8, Jacobs presented a double feature, beginning with The Impossible: Southwark Fair which returns to the original Billy Bitzer footage of Tom, Tom the Piper's Son and, using polarized glasses, renders the scene in a ghostly, chaotic, but absolutely convincing 3-D. Jacobs then moved on to a Nervous System performance of From Muybridge to Brooklyn Bridge, which reworks an extraordinarily simple sequence of trains passing each other near the Brooklyn Bridge. In Jacobs' hands, however, these simple movements are subjected to a warping of both space and time. At one point, a train rounding a bend appears to be exploding off the tracks, while an apparitional conductor pulses alarmingly into the room.

In an attempt to capture something of the experience of the Nervous System, below is a description of the screening from day #5, Loco Motion. This piece followed a lecture on Hans Hoffman, whose rendering of depth in two-dimensional spaces had a profound effect on Ken's filmwork.

Loco Motion begins innocently enough with a camera apparently mounted on the back of a train, pulling slowly away from a tunnel. As our eyes settle into the rhythm of the Nervous System's flicker, another train appears out of nowhere and passes on the right, its passengers gleefully waving handkerchiefs at the camera. The Nervous System's rendering of space is so disorienting that what appeared to be motion away from the
tunnel instead turns out to be motion toward the tunnel. As the performance progresses, it becomes apparent that Jacobs is simply fucking with us, moving us backward and forward through space and time. Our only point of reference, the tunnel, appears to be simultaneously advancing and receeding. Then, in a sudden burst of speed which causes the audience to jerk back in their seats, we enter the tunnel. Light changes to dark and
a pulsating synthesizer score rises all around. The sound is loud and enveloping, emanating from all corners of the room. The rhythm of the audio pulses are perfectly matched to the Nervous System's incessant flicker. The "light" at the end of the tunnel becomes a huge, dark mushroom cloud, pulsing ominously toward us. Together with the
surrounding sounds, the tunnel becomes a totally articulated, almost architectural, space as we are swept further into the negative darkness. The synthesizer fades down gradually just as we reach the end of the tunnel but the show isn't over yet. The train continues its impossible journey as time and motion again fluctuate back and forth. The straight
track appears to bend, causing the audience to lean into the anticipated centrifugal force which never comes. The experience has become physical as well as mental - the man behind the projectors is fucking with our bodies as well as our minds. Slowly, quickly, impossibly, we approach a train station. The synthesizer begins again with an electronic train whistle. The sound seems to be a warning to the human figures which dart out of the way of the train and back into danger as if in a dream, running away from something without ever going anywhere. We also appear to be on a collision course with another train and I have to remind myself, as the Lumieres' audiences must have over a hundred years ago, that the oncoming train poses no real danger - it's only a movie. Jacobs rides the suspense of this moment for all it's worth before jerking us onto another track and
allowing the train to pass by harmlessly. We change tracks a couple more times or maybe it's just more spatial manipulation. Our speed continues to fluctuate between whiplash-inducing acceleration and full reverse. We pass another train with people frozen like mannequins, waving to us without moving a muscle, yet we move past them in what can only be a series of advancing frames. The droning pulse of the synthesizer becomes a full orchestra winding down and the train coasts gently to a halt.

It is difficult to write about works which are so thoroughly dependent upon the experience of seeing the film with one's own eyes. But, in spite of the difficulty of rendering such work in words, it is imperative that we try. Jacobs' career has been criminally neglected by historians and critics of the avant-garde. The fact that Ken himself must be present to operate the Nervous System means limited access to audiences (especially outside New York) and the impossibility of using ordinary channels of distribution (though he is working on a digital simulation of the Nervous System effect which would open up new venues of creation and allow approximations of his previous works to be preserved for posterity). Events such as Ten Days That Shake the World provide a rare opportunity to experience a concentration of this amazing work and, perhaps most importantly, to feel its cumulative effects over a period of days. The
Boulder community and those who drove from miles around owe a great debt to Phil Solomon and Ken and Flo for this event.


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