As he stands in the back of a movie theater behind his Nervous System, an unwieldy contraption made out of two single-frame projectors, avant-garde-film icon Ken Jacobs looks a little bit like the Wizard of Oz. He fiddles with the knobs on his projectors, caught in a trancelike state of intense focus. He’s watching the screen while manually shifting identical images back and forth over each other, one frame at a time, playing the pictures, like a DJ, in and out of sync. The effect is almost indescribable: By slowing the images, layering them and messing with their synchronization, Jacobs creates a dense flickering dance of movement that seems to extend outward into space.
”It‘s hot stuff,“ says Jacobs in his thick New York accent, and he’s right. The filmmaker‘s kindred spirits include cinema’s visionary founders Eadweard Muybridge and Georges Melies, and his performances spark a sense of awe that must have been common at the turn of the century, when film was part magic-lantern show and part carnival ride. And, as with Muybridge and Melies, the 66-year-old Jacobs is one of the major influences in the history of cinema. He has dedicated his career to investigating the fundamental components of motion pictures and the nature of human vision.
Jacobs came of age as a filmmaker in the 1960s. With his wife, Flo, he founded the Millennium Film Workshops in New York City in 1966, and participated in the wild East Coast film scene alongside radical filmmakers such as Andy Warhol and Hollis Frampton. Influential critic Jonas Mekas included Jacobs‘ early films in what he dubbed ”Baudelairian Cinema,“ a term that captured the ecstatic and transgressive nature of some ’60s cinema experimentation. Jacobs gained entry into this club with Blonde Cobra, a confounding study of eccentric fellow filmmaker Jack Smith, made between 1958 and 1963. In addition to showcasing the ridiculous antics of Smith, the film is notorious for its soundtrack — the projectionist turns up a radio at intervals, meaning that no two audiences experience Blonde Cobra in the same way.
Jacobs has always worked with borrowed images and is a precursor to the culture-jamming artists of today. But his interest isn‘t in ironic commentary; instead, his thefts are meta-commentaries on primitive cinema. His Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son (1969–71), for example, recycled footage shot by D.W. Griffith cameraman Billy Bitzer in 1905. Jacobs re-photographed the original footage, zooming in and scrutinizing the nuances and multiple meanings hidden within. This sort of analytical attention to the medium makes it a central work in the 1970s structuralist film movement, which was devoted to studying cinema‘s primary structures.
Although Jacobs’ early work is extraordinary, the invention of the Nervous System has assured his position as an innovator. His device is unique, and his performances are unparalleled. Seeing the uncanny play of images as Jacobs moves them frame by frame, watching them fall in and out of registration, all the while feeling the relentless strobing effect through your body, provides a cinematic experience unlike anything else in the world. ”It sounds very slow,“ says Jacobs, as he explains the process of reducing cinema to its essential components. ”But there is endless, uncanny and unusual amounts of motion and depth taking place. People inevitably Rorschach,“ he continues. ”They‘re absolutely convinced that they’ve seen things, but it‘s really a combination of what I’m projecting and what they‘re projecting. It’s very hallucinatory.“
Jacobs has continued his investigations of vision by attempting to create what he fondly calls ”deep space.“ In Opening the 19th Century: 1896, he reprinted footage shot in 1896 by the Lumiere brothers, such that for long sections all of the original tracking shots now move in a single direction. With this project, Jacobs wants to recapture what he believes is the sense of wonder felt by viewers in 1896 as they first experienced cinematic motion, but with a twist — he makes the footage appear three-dimensional. To get this effect, Jacobs asks members of the audience to hold a tinted filter in front of one eye. The filter slows the flow of information from the screen to the brain, and that delay, combined with the lateral camera movement, creates two separate views that magically join in our minds to replicate 3-D vision.
For contemporary viewers, seeing this archaic footage expand outward from the screen is astonishing; Jacobs finds profound treasures of visual experience buried within old images. The Nervous System performances and the excursions into three dimensions may sound gimmicky, but Jacobs has consistently pushed the history of avant-garde experimentation in fascinating directions. Looking to the past, he‘s investigated the origins of cinema, reclaiming images and filmmaking techniques relegated to the ”primitive“ dustbin of cinema history. As an artist on the forefront in the investigation of vision, space and motion, he’s also looked forward. And, frankly, he puts on a damn good show, creating a filmgoing experience that‘s at once conceptually intriguing and totally psychedelic.