On a Hunch

Lauren O'Neill-Butler on Ken Jacobs

Ken Jacobs, Blonde Cobra, 1959–63, stills from a black-and-white film in 16 mm, 35 minutes. Jack Smith.

IN 1963, KEN JACOBS received a postcard requesting his presence as a guest on a daytime NBC television show. The honorarium—a “much-needed” twenty dollars—along with the chance to present his films to a broad national audience, seemed like an appealing, if unusual, arrangement, and Jacobs accepted. He decided to bring along Saturday Blood Sacrifice (1956), his black-and-white slapstick comedy featuring his friend Jack Smith.

Arriving at the studio, Jacobs learned that he was to appear alongside Carolee Schneemann on . . . a quiz show. Broke and game for practically anything, the artist and auteur agreed to appear on Play Your Hunch, even though the studio replaced the sound track of Jacobs’s film with their own music. Hunch Your Back (1963), Jacobs’s grainy 16-mm short, captures the affair from a TV set; jumping and flickering lines distort the fish-eyed appearances of the artists, contestants, and the host as well as the film-within-the-film in true Jacobs fashion. Following the disorienting jump cuts and meandering shots, a final intertitle provides comic relief: It took a month for the check to arrive.

Continuing to play off tragicomic themes, the two aforementioned films, along with Little Cobra Dance (1956) and Death of P’Town (1961)—four shorts Jacobs collectively dubs “The Whirled”—portray Smith as an enigmatic and transfixing subject. However, it is Blonde Cobra (1959–63), one of Jacobs’s most influential films, that most intimately follows the feverish luminary. Smoking pot, drinking, eating, and wearing garish dresses and heavy makeup, Smith seems never to leave his apartment. “God is not dead, he’s just marvelously sick!” he screams while black leader rolls. A sense of uneasy camaraderie emerges in the film through Jacobs’s erratic and intense edits. In 1964, their intermittent friendship was put to the test: Jacobs was arrested at a screening of Smith’s audacious (at the time) Flaming Creatures and sentenced to sixty days in a New York City workhouse. As J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum note in their book Midnight Movies (1991), “the underground nearly went under.”

Ken Jacobs’s “The Whirled” and Blonde Cobra will be screened at Anthology Film Archives in New York December 19–20. Ken Jacobs will be present at the showings. For more details, click here.