more information here: http://www.eai.org/title.htm?id=8382
The curious Ken Jacobs
This week, experimental film pioneer Ken Jacobs presents his latest work at the Rotterdam international film festival. He tells Ben Walters about it on an eventful stroll in his native New York
For more than half a century, Ken Jacobs has been using found footage and artisanal techniques to craft his own unique, handmade annex to the palace of cinema. Witty and perceptive, mesmerising and provocative, his work is characterised by ravenous curiosity and scathing anti-capitalism, and a fascination with the plasticity of film and how we watch things. Star Spangled to Death, his sly magnum opus of US pop culture and political deviance, took 46 years to complete and lasts six and a half hours, while his Nervous Magic Lantern projection-performances constitute a kind of pure cinema that bypasses celluloid altogether. “I’m not a technical whiz,” he says of his predilection for experimenting, “but I’m dogged.”
Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son, the seminal 1969 title that remains Jacobs’s signature piece, mines the extraordinary riches found within the crowded, chaotic frame of a 1905 tableau-film. Based on Hogarth’s etching Southwark Fair, its street vendors, clowns and pickpockets form the backdrop to the famous nursery-rhyme pig-theft. By zooming in
on the easily-overlooked actions of particular characters, Jacobs reveals the complexity of the 1905 footage and the limitless wonders of personal agency. By zooming in even further, until the grain of the image becomes abstract, he makes celluloid feel painterly.
He has been tinkering with the footage ever since, and the latest iterations – which screen today at the Rotterdam international film festival – has him embracing digital manipulation, in Return to the Scene of the Crime, and red-and-green 3-D, in Anaglyph Tom (Tom with Puffy Cheeks).
Jacobs has lived with his wife Flo, a painter, in the same apartment building on Chambers Street in downtown Manhattan since 1965. When I met him outside it, on a mild, sunny afternoon earlier this winter, Return to the Scene of the Crime and Anaglyph Tom were works in progress, and he was exasperated. “Little Bo Peep, breakin’ my balls today,” he sighed, his native Brooklyn accent introducing an unexpected hint of bada-bing to the practice of experimental structuralism. “She’s a wonderful little actress embedded in this scene and there’s this wonderful expression I want to get in closeup. I just wasn’t getting what I wanted.”
It was the first time he’d left home that day, and he was keen to stretch his legs and find some food. “There a nice, dirty little place on the corner I prefer,” he said. As we headed north toward Chinatown, Jacobs – who is on the short side with a head of grey hair and penetrating eyes, and wearing a collared shirt and jeans – led the way with a pace that belied his 75 years. “Terrible day,” he muttered, shaking his head.
Jacobs’s intensely curious sensibility, ever alert to the wonders embedded in the everyday, radiates from his company as much as his work. As we paced past the imposing municipal blocks of the Civic Centre into the messier fringes of southern Chinatown, he was distracted by a stall loaded with skewered and fried treats. Reluctantly, he bought nothing (“my wife doesn’t like me to get food from the street – the dirt, the exhaust fumes”) but he paused at a fruit stand around the corner. After examining the dragon fruit and longan, he carefully selected three livid pomegranates. He seemed refreshed by the find. “Wonderful,” he murmured.
We strolled down Mulberry Street. “Look!” Jacobs exclaimed as we passed a novelty store, fixing on a shocking-pink balloon that bristled with hair-like strands. He fingered its odd rubber pelt, then set it aside. At the snack shop next door, we picked up black-bean patties, fried fish buns and sponge angel cake, walking with them through Columbus Park, past its bustling mid-afternoon Chinatown tableau of cobblers, fortune-tellers and booksellers. As we sat on a bench, a basketball shot out of the nearby court, narrowly missing the head of an African American woman in business attire who was walking past us. “You were lucky,” Jacobs told her.
Tom, Tom the Piper’s Son is constructed around moments like that. “I keep returning to it,” he said, chewing on a squidgy black-bean pattie. “I don’t want to, I just become fascinated with it. When I first saw it, it just seemed berserk – I didn’t know what the story was, I didn’t look for a pig. Now I see it makes wonderful sense. The individuals are all consistent. Now it’s very dear to me.”
There was more work to be done. As we headed back towards Chambers Street, we discussed the financial crisis (“The big winners will walk away and keep looting and we will be further impoverished”), Barack Obama (“He seems very humane … there’s things he says and backers he has that worry me but I hope he might save us”) and Jacobs’s taste for outré knick-knacks. “That pink balloon,” he said, “that was the kind of thing I’d grab.” I asked why he hadn’t. “Maybe I didn’t want to admit to you I have this kind of penchant.” As if any further proof of the peculiar curiosity of Ken Jacobs were required.
this interview first published here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2009/jan/28/ken-jacobs