American Radical: Ken Jacobs Nervous Magic Lantern
Can there be cinema without film — or video? The answer is a resounding yes if you ask legendary avant-garde filmmaker Ken Jacobs, whose weeklong Los Angeles residency includes the belated local premiere of Jacobs’ “Nervous Magic Lantern” performance, an evening of strange and wondrous moving images conjured live by Jacobs using a single projector, a shutter and myriad filters, but not a single frame of pre-recorded imagery. The effects, however, are distinctly cinematic, as Jacobs plays with shadow, light and the persistence of vision to create abstract and sometimes oddly recognizable forms that dance upon your brain long after the lights have come up. When I first encountered Jacobs and his lantern during a retrospective at the 2004 Rotterdam Film Festival, I saw things on the screen that I haven’t been able to get out of my head to this day.
The Nervous Magic Lantern shows grew out of Jacobs’ earlier “Nervous System” performances, in which he used two variable-speed 16mm film projectors to juxtapose different frames of a single film against each other, creating what Jacobs calls “spatial events. Then around 1990, I experimented with one projector and this propeller that creates a flicker, and I got something I never expected,” Jacobs told me recently by phone from his Lower Manhattan loft — the one immortalized by his filmmaker son Aza in the 2008 comedy Momma’s Man (which also featured Jacobs père in a leading role). “Something happened, and it took me a while to take its measure, I was so startled by it.” So startled, in fact, that after using the new single-projector system in one performance piece, Jacobs abandoned the project for almost a decade before revisiting it. “Then the Nervous System went and the Nervous Magic Lantern has prevailed. For the most part, I don’t use recognizable images. Every so often I do, but it goes back to my painting, to my interest in abstract expressionism, and for me it’s very fulfilling.”
If Nervous Magic Lantern can be considered Jacobs’ pièce de résistance, when the 76-year-old filmmaker does put his hands on old-fashioned celluloid or new-fashioned digital, the results are rarely less than dazzling. Among the more than dozen new and recent projects he will screen in Los Angeles, particularly striking are several short works (including The Day Was a Scorcher and Jonas Mekas in Kodachrome Days) in which Jacobs uses the alternating left- and right-eye perspectives of a series of stereoscopic photographs to create the illusion of motion. In the more elaborate Walkway, Jacobs combines that motion effect with the mosaiclike partitioning of the image (in this case, a wooden boardwalk); then, in the 20-minute documentary Ron Gonzalez, Sculptor, he brings it to bear on a guided tour of the eponymous artist’s studio, freezing and doubling back on specific details of Gonzalez’s nightmarish figurines in much the way the human eye might. When I tell Jacobs that these films remind me of the images created by that iconic childhood toy, a red plastic View-Master, he responds by saying he looks through his every night.
In another new work, the 13-minute What Happened on 23rd Street in 1901, Jacobs creates a primitivistic 3-D effect by distending and relooping various two-frame sections of a one-minute Thomas Edison actualité about the titular New York thoroughfare, complete with a proto–Marilyn Monroe getting her dress turned up by a blast of wind from a subway grate. “Depth blossoms out; at the same time, time seems to stand still,” says Jacobs, who has even obtained a patent on these signature time-space displacements, which he calls “eternalisms.” “It remains time, things remain moving, moving in depth, but they don’t go anywhere.”
It’s wonderfully fitting that, in the year of Hollywood’s much ballyhooed 3-D renaissance, Jacobs has routed the technology back to the very origins of cinema itself. In the feature-length Anaglyph Tom (Tom with Puffy Cheeks), also premiering here this week, Jacobs repurposes another early Edison short — the same one he first stretched like a rubber band into 1969’s Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son — this time stereoscoping the picaresque one-reeler using red-and-blue anaglyph technology, so that Edison’s prepubescent pig thief and crowds of antic villagers now seem to invade the space between the screen and the audience. In addition, Jacobs uses digital effects to bisect, trisect and otherwise slice and dice the orig inal images, repainting his canvas with a restless vigor.
Like much of what interests Jacobs, 3-D technology dates back to the turn of the last century, though the filmmaker admits that his initial reaction to the popular 3-D boom of the 1950s was one of little enthusiasm. “Coming from painting, the surface was most important to me,” Jacobs says. “I studied with a great teacher” — German abstract expressionist painter Hans Hofmann — “who said, ‘You mustn’t break the surface. Whatever you do in space, you mustn’t break the surface.’ And [3-D] was breaking the surface in a big way. Gradually, I chose to sin and got deeper and deeper into it.” Still, Jacobs adds, “My 3-D is not like the movies coming out now or before; I’m not that interested in the verisimilitude of re-creating a world in depth. I’m playing with depth. I’m playing with the eyes. Curious things can happen.”
Indeed, whether in two dimensions or three, Jacobs solicits a curious, active viewer rather than the passive spectator cultivated and catered to by the dominant commercial cinema. “Most people want to go to the movies and relax and eat popcorn and have an experience that lifts them somehow out of their chairs, but passively,” he says. “I’m after those strange people who want something else, who want to actually utilize their senses and see what kind of direct experience is possible for them — not an experience where you identify with so-and-so in a movie, but what kind of experience is available to you, sitting there; your eyes, your brain being put through something. You have to deal with what’s coming at you.”
Periodically in Anaglyph Tom, Jacobs gives Edison a rest to weigh in on the current economic crisis, including an entr’acte that juxtaposes clips from the 1949 film version of The Fountainhead against C-SPAN footage of Alan Greenspan’s mea culpa over the subprime mortgage crisis. It’s an unexpected digression that recalls the political nature of much of Jacobs’ work (his 2004 masterpiece, Star Spangled to Death, was a 46-years-in-the-making, seven-hour found-footage epic about the buying, selling and selling-out of America) while reinforcing his structuring principle that everything old is new again.
Not surprisingly, Jacobs says he feels a strong kinship to the earliest moving image pioneers — not just Edison — but the still photographers Eadweard Muybridge and Étienne Jules de Marey, who, he says, he wishes could see his own work. “Radical — you know what that means?”
“From the center, from the very beginning, out against. I grew up seeing radical art. I was also interested in film and this sense of radical movement, of starting again. From the main highway that’s developed over the years, what else is possible? Starting from the roots of something again — that’s what made me a radical filmmaker.”
Ken Jacobs presents Toward The Depths of The Even Greater Depression, a Nervous Magic Lantern performance, REDCAT on Mon., October 12, at 8:30 p.m. An evening of Jacobs’ new and recent work screens at the UCLA Film & Television Archive at the Billy Wilder Theater on Thurs., October 15, at 7:30 p.m.The Whirled screens together with Aza Jacobs’ The GoodTimesKid at Los Angeles Filmforum at the Egyptian Theatre on Sat., October 17, at 7:30 p.m. Anaglyph Tom (Tom with Puffy Cheeks) screens at Los Angeles Filmforum at the Egyptian Theatre on Sun., October 17, at 7:30 p.m.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.