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Digital Joyride: Ken Jacobs Gives ’em the Old Razzle Dazzle

The Prowler

Once more into the breach, Ken Jacobs further explores the ground zero of cinematic representation with his feature-length Razzle Dazzle: The Lost World. Screening this weekend at Los Angeles Filmforum, Jacobs’ video projection takes its evocative title and much of its imagery from a minute-long 1903 Thomas Edison actualité, which documented the circular whiplike amusement-park ride known as the Razzle Dazzle.

Edison’s image spins in and out of grainy abstraction, accompanied by a combination of old-timey carnival music and solo-piano waltzes. Jacobs complicates the footage through stroboscopic cutting, invented close-ups, and some meticulous digital colorization. The effect is precise without being slick, as when the artist contrives to have the whole once-photographic image pivot and float away. Later, the picture plane will swell and throb, or take the form of a spinning cube.

Despite such digital razzamatazz, Jacobs’ video is predicated on the rhythm of projected film. The same impulse can be found in Stan Brakhage’s late abstractions — but, unlike Brakhage, Jacobs is never ahistorical. He annotates the amusement-park footage with a series of 19th-century stereopticon images, with domestic scenes shifting to more spectacular photographs of midair leaps and crashing waves. The rapid oscillation of two slightly different points of view produces a shimmering, frozen moment, while inducing a shallow 3-D effect.

Jacobs slices the image like a sausage, introduces new colors, creates floating vapors. As he focuses ever more closely on the original material, however, this excavation becomes a memento mori. Faces start to resemble skulls; Old Man Edison himself materializes, or rather his voice, talking about the “Great War.” The stereopticons obligingly provide images of soldiers, battlefields and Jesus hovering in the sky. Ultimately, these are compressed into a planet of skulls and bones, spinning midscreen like a Buddhist mandala.

In a sense, Razzle Dazzle is a continuous loop. The amusement park merges with the film machine; these long-vanished children are riding the celluloid ribbon through the projector. Despite its defined ending, the piece projects an eternal Now as the artist ponders the infinite possibilities that photography (and re-photography) afford to reconstitute the moment. Razzle Dazzle feels endless — not a criticism — because it is. (Los Angeles Filmforum at the Egyptian Theatre; Sun., March 29, 7 p.m. www.lafilmforum.wordpress.com)


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