By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
By most measures, the films of Azazel Jacobs are on the offbeat end of the cinema spectrum. From his award-winning short Kirk and Kerry and the melancholic cult feature The GoodTimesKid to his latest, Momma’s Man, Jacobs’ movies focus on dysfunctional people in a style that is as minimalist and mannered as it is sympathetic and sensitive. But compared to the work of his father, experimental-film maven Ken Jacobs, responsible for such American avant-garde landmarks as Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son and Star Spangled to Death, the 35-year-old Jacobs admits: “I’m the traditional one.”
Azazel, who now lives in Los Angeles and cast Ken and Flo Jacobs as the parents in Momma’s Man, spent years “trying to find what I was, in contrast to my father,” he says, sitting next to said patriarch in the Yuen Yuen Restaurant, a Chinatown hole-in-the-wall they’ve frequented for years.
In the early ’90s, Azazel attended SUNY Purchase, where he began watching what he calls “story films.” “It was the first time I was seeing Godard or Stranger Than Paradise. It wasn’t as extreme as what my father was doing, and I really loved it; it was like, There’s another world out there.”
The older Jacobs didn’t expose his son to much contemporary narrative cinema: “It wasn’t really my focus,” Ken says. Azazel even studied one summer with experimental guru Stan Brakhage. “I really valued what my father and mother were doing from as far back as I can remember,” says Azazel, who fondly recalls learning how to thread a film projector and attending screenings and discussions at the Collective for Living Cinema. Except once, when Ken and Flo left him and his sister to see the work of George and Mike Kuchar.
“We thought the kids would enjoy it,” Ken says.
“It was more hardcore gay stuff. I was like 6,” Azazel remembers. “We just saw dudes soaping each other in the shower. It was like ... what?”
“You were both really angry with us,” Ken says.
“So, the fact that I saw this stuff way before seeing narrative films,” Azazel says, “made them not seem strange.”
The son’s film education expanded during a summer working at the Cinématographe, a long-defunct revival house on Vandam Street, where he sold tickets, popped popcorn and projected films. Particularly instructive was a John Cassavetes retro, from which he learned one could make narrative films that acknowledge the actors’ presence or the film’s artificiality but that were still “completely alive.”
This tension between cinematic reality and illusion runs through both Jacobs’ work, they say. But Momma’s Man is more conventionally scripted and less film-conscious than Azazel’s previous efforts — at least, on the surface. There’s one repeated sequence, however, that stretches the limits of realism: The protagonist, Mikey (an aptly baby-faced Matt Boren) is so psychologically paralyzed that he’s unable to take a step outside his parents’ apartment — his foot simply hovers over the staircase. But for Azazel, the moment’s quirk is intentional: “I’m saying, ‘This is a movie,’ and maybe this is more honest because it’s saying this is a movie.”
Azazel’s decision to cast his own father, who in the film tinkers with his projectors in his and Flo’s actual apartment, also indicates a sense of self-reflexive play. Azazel likens his father’s presence to his previous films’ “particular odes” — The GoodTimesKid pays homage to Jim Jarmusch and Aki Kaurismäki, for example. “With Momma’s Man, I have a living, walking, talking example to focus on,” he says.
The film also includes an excerpt from Jacobs’ 1990 “Nervous Magic Lantern” projection Chronometer and a tender autobiographical segment from his 1976 home movie, Spaghetti Aza. “I was using his work as pillars fundamental to the story,” he says. “It was a way for me to be connected — I wanted that world to be part of my world.” (Despite such cross-pollination, Ken — whose latest Tom, Tom reworking, Return to the Scene of the Crime, will appear at MoMA this fall — maintains there’s a key difference in their work: “I take liberties I don’t think you’re in a position to,” he tells his son. “Like, I can dismiss concerns about holding attention. I don’t have to entertain you. You have to find your own way.”
“Even though our approach is different,” Azazel acknowledges, “what I really get from his work is that I’m not so interested in the center of the frame. Hopefully, wherever you look, it’s part of what’s necessary.”
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