PRINT September 1971

“Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son”

KEN JACOBS’ FILM, Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son, is, with Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera, one of the two great works of a reflexive cinema whose primary subject is an esthetic definition of the nature of the medium. Jacobs himself has called it "a didactic film.”1 It deals with several major critical areas: with representation, narrative and abstraction, with the illusions involved in the film-viewing experience, with the possible ways of handling space and time, with structure and with perception. It is, as well, a work of radical transformation; a primitive work from the earliest period of film history is transformed into a highly innovative work, modernist in character, constantly pleasurable to the eye and, at the same time, a sophisticated exercise in film and art criticism.

Jacobs, then, has taken an early American film called Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son, a rendering of the nursery rhyme, and recreated it. He first presents the original film as it was made in 1905 (probably by Billy Bitzer, Griffith’s great cameraman). Then, for 70 minutes, by photographing the original film while it is being projected, Jacobs performs an exhaustive analysis of it. Finally, he shows the original film in its entirety once again, adding a brief coda of his own.

The original film is 10 minutes in length and consists of eight tableaux or shots showing a crowd in pursuit of Tom and a stolen pig. All eight tableaux are photographed in a basically theatrical way—in long shot, with the camera placed front row center. The space in each of the shots is shallow and is articulated in a very simple manner—with some use of groups and with some suggestion of receding space painted on the sets. There is also very little rhythmic articulation. Events either happen all at once and are difficult to distinguish or else are strung out at great length one after another.

The film has great charm, largely because there is a decorative quality to the painted sets and the costumes (supposedly modeled after Hogarth prints 2) and also because there is so much close attention to detail. In the opening tableau, at the fair, there are acrobats, jugglers, many revellers, a fight between sailors, as well as the stealing of the pig—a tableau crammed with simultaneous activities. The subsequent tableaux follow the chase with each of the ten or twelve chasers individually jumping into haystacks, climbing out of chimneys, climbing over or through fences, all ending in a barnyard filled with ducks, geese, and flying birds.

From this, Jacobs has made a radically different film. Using the basic procedure of photographing the original film from a screen upon which it is being projected, he employs just about every strategy known to film. He photographs varied portions of the original shots, sometimes showing a shot in almost its full size, sometimes blowing up a very minute part of the original. He moves his camera along, up, down, into, and away from the original, in which there is no camera movement at all. He uses the freeze frame technique, stopping the original on any one frame for any period of time, then going back into motion. He uses slow motion, reverse motion, superimpositions, masks, and wipes. He adds black and clear leader, creates a flicker effect, and leaves in the circles and flares that appear at the end of reels of film. He photographs the film strip as such and sets his screen within a larger spatial context, creating a kind of screen-within-a-screen. He does shadow play with fingers against the screen from which he is shooting, visibly moves that screen while the film is being projected, and even photographs the light bulb of the projector. He also adds two color sequences which do not appear in the original film. All of these strategies are employed both individually and in the most extraordinarily complex combinations. Jacobs sets up an extremely rich vocabulary and proceeds to employ it exhaustively, using the basic montage principle (the possibility of combining in any way) to create a completely new work.

In doing all of this, Jacobs is essentially involved in an analysis, a contemplation, of the original work. “I’ve cut into the film’s monumental homogeneity (8 statically photographed sets . . . ) with some sense of trespass, cropped and given a Griffith emphasis to parts originally submerged in the whole—but (this is a didactic film) it was necessary to do so in order to begin to show how much was there.”3 Very much attracted to the original film, he decided to show what interested him in it. His film is a revelation of the original, achieved by analyzing, fragmenting, and abstracting the original and reconstituting it as a new film. In revealing what interested him in the original, Jacobs has revealed what interests him in film. And in so doing, he has created a discourse on the nature of film. He has created a film that deals with several major esthetic problems and preoccupations.

THE 1905 TOM, TOM is both a representational and a narrative film. It depicts a world which has reference to people, places, and objects that we can recognize and it tells a story which we are expected to follow. Ken Jacobs’ Tom, Tom is quite different. Because Jacobs subjects the images to so many radical alterations, they frequently lose their recognizability and attain varying degrees of abstraction. The point of reference both to the outside world and to the original film, disappears. A human body becomes patterns of lines, forms, and light and dark. Thus, Jacobs’ film constantly oscillates between two kinds of images—the completely representational and the completely abstract, with all the varying gradations between representational and abstract also included.

In addition, there is a constant oscillation between narrative and abstract images. As long as enough of the original images is shown, the actions of the original film are recognizable. The audience can react to what is being seen in terms of actions, of a narrative. On the other hand, when Jacobs photographs a smaller part of the original film or otherwise distorts the image, the audience can no longer react in terms of actions.

Two points become clear in Jacobs’ treatment of this problem. The first is the degree to which representation and narrative are inextricable. The reaction in terms of narrative, of following actions, depends on representation, on the recognizability of people and what they are doing, on the existence of a certain kind of space in which actions can happen.

The second point that is very clearly elucidated by Jacobs is that these two modes of art elicit different kinds of experience. As long as the images are representational and narrative, we are following the film in terms of actions, with interest in and attention to these actions. When the images are abstract, a very different response is called forth. We must adapt a much more contemplative attitude and see the film largely in terms of the interaction of form, line, light, movement. Jacobs forcefully demonstrates the differences in these two experiences by constantly oscillating between the two poles of representation and abstraction.

Jacobs is also very much concerned with another element in the film-viewing experience. He is concerned with exposing, through the systematic reduction of images, the two major illusions upon which the filmic image depends.

The first illusion concerns light. Because he photographs a film off a screen and because he photographs it so closely at times, the image is reduced visibly to various intensities of light and shadow. The fact that the filmic image always consists of varying intensities of light projected on a flat surface, the fact that film is really always a kind of shadow play, is revealed by the process of reduction.

Much of Tom, Tom can be seen in terms of Jacobs’ preoccupation with the nature of light and dark, a preoccupation that he has demonstrated in areas outside of film as well. He has created a number of shows involving shadow play (live people behind a white screen) and the illumination of dark environments. He is fascinated by the Blackout of 1965, stating that he felt more secure in the truth of the Blackout than in the usual illusion of security.4 It is possible to talk of his part of Tom, Tom as an “illumination” of the original film, as bringing the qualities of the original “to light.” Jacobs’ inclusion of the flicker effect, of black and clear leader, of the flares and circles, of shadow play, of shots of the actual projector bulb, as well as his major exploration of the light and dark areas of the original film, all attest to his interest in and revelation of the light potentialities of film.

The second illusion that is revealed in Tom, Tom is the illusion of movement. By using the freeze frame technique (holding any one frame for any period of time) and by constantly alternating frozen frames with moving images, Jacobs reveals that the film image consists of a series of unmoving, still images. (The illusion of movement is achieved by the eye combining the still images into movement through the persistence of vision.) As always in Tom, Tom, this demonstration is taken as far as it can go. For instance, Jacobs sometimes moves his camera over a frozen frame, complicating and reemphasizing the fact of the frozen frame by insisting at once on the lack of movement in the frozen frame and on the presence of movement, albeit illusory movement, because of the moving camera.

JACOBS ALSO DEMONSTRATES A DEEP interest in the spatial potentialities of cinema. He explores this aspect by using as his model or point of departure, a primitive film with shallow, stagetype space, in which the camera is placed at a fixed distance from the subject and in which the only change of space is accomplished by a cut and a change of setting. He transforms this conventional concept of space by literally breaking down the spatial unity of the original and reconstructing from the fragments, a more radically filmic space.

He does this in a number of ways. For example, he is constantly compressing and expanding the space of the original film by juxtaposing the full range of shots from long shots which generally have deep space to extreme close-ups which are much flatter. He also juxtaposes moving images and frozen frames, taking advantage of the fact that a still of a moving image always appears to be flatter and therefore closer to the screen surface. Thus, the flat screen surface becomes a point of reference as the eye is drawn alternately towards and away from it. A tension is created between two-dimensional and three-dimensional space.5

Sometimes he demonstrates the process of this expansion and compression. In one sequence, involving the boy with the striped trousers, a series of stills of the boy is projected on the screen, each shot becoming progressively closer. Then, the still becomes a moving image, in slow motion, which flickers, and, at the same time, the camera begins a sudden and dramatic move forward into the picture. The movement continues until the black and white stripes are so close to the surface that they become flat black and white shapes, flickering and moving across a flat screen. In another sequence, the ladder-climbing sequence, the camera again moves into the picture until the magnification is so intense that the images appear to disintegrate into flat abstract shapes. Also, at this point, the grainy, pointillist texture of the image, evident throughout the film, is heightened to its magnificent best.

Still another point concerning the compression and expansion of space should be made. In addition to creating a tension between two- and three-dimensional space, which Jacobs does throughout the film, in certain sequences, he generates a dynamic tension within the flat screen surface itself. There is one outstanding example of this—the most magnified portion of the ladder-climbing sequence. Here, the shapes press against one another as they move in slow motion around the surface and off the edges of the surface. Light areas react against dark ones, large shapes against small ones, curved lines against jagged ones, and negative planes against positive ones.6 Altogether, this section is an exquisitely choreographed ballet of forms.

Another way in which Jacobs questions the spatial conventions of the original film is through experimentation with the notion of offscreen space. In the original, when the characters move off the screen, it is as though they walk offstage; their existence seems to stop at the edge of the screen. Jacobs, however, sometimes creates an awareness of space outside the limits of the screen. For example, one of the original tableaux shows three spectators watching people jump, one by one, out of a chimney. Jacobs shows a detail of these spectators in the act of watching but he excludes the spectacle which they watch. Thus, we are encouraged to fill in the missing images from our memory of the original film; the offscreen space is extended to our visual memory.

Later in the sequence, there is a shot which includes both the spectator and the spectacle. Now, both actions are “onscreen.” Suddenly, the spectacle is “wiped out,” as if a black shade were drawn halfway down the screen and again the spectators appear to watch nothing at all. This time, however, the offscreen action is taking place behind the black wipe. That is, the offscreen space is now part of the visual field.

Still another variation on this theme takes place later in the sequence when we are again shown both the spectator and the spectacle. This time, a complete wipe occurs. The black shade is drawn down to the bottom of the screen, is lifted briefly, exposing the image, and is drawn once again, leaving us to contemplate blackness. Although we are seeing nothing but blackness, the action seems to continue through our memory image of the previous shot. Now, all of the action takes place in offscreen, or, more precisely, behind-screen space.

There are several other interesting ways in which Jacobs shatters the spatial unity of the original film in order to construct a spatial concept which is special to the film medium. In the scene in which the chasers break down the door to the cottage, for example, there is a long shot of the interior which perpetuates the stage space of the original. Suddenly, there is a cut to a shot in which both sides are masked and the remaining central figure is frozen. The effect is dramatic. The illusionistic stage space is radically compressed and the image resembles a flat wall upon which an oriental painted scroll is hung. But Jacobs does not end his spatial experiment here. Instead, he unfreezes the still image and with an explosive burst, the moving figures reacquire their volume and spill through the door, puncturing the flatness of the screen and creating an exciting tension between two-and three-dimensional space.

Another commentary on film space is contained in an extraordinary set of ten sequences which are scattered throughout the film and which we shall refer to as the “screen-within-a-screen” sequences. In these, the screen we have been watching is suddenly reduced and set within a larger, black screen. Each of the ten sequences is different and each reveals, with varying degrees of complexity, the subtle relationship between the flat screen surface and the projected illusion of depth.

Several of these sequences shall be described here. In one, the small screen which is set within the larger one begins to jiggle and then moves quickly up, down, across, away from us, and back again, carving out a space for itself in the amorphous black field.

In another, the small screen shares one edge with the larger one. Its apparent diagonal intrusion converts what would have been simply a two-dimensional black surface into a dark, undefined suggestion of space.

The final screen-within-a-screen sequence to be described, perhaps the most spectacular of all, can be more easily visualized if we describe briefly the way in which the film was shot. The setup consisted of a transparent screen which was flanked on one side by a projector and on the opposite side by a camera facing the projector. As the original film was projected onto the screen from one side, Jacobs photographed it from the other side.

Keeping this setup in mind, one is better equipped to enjoy the subtleties of this sequence. This time, we see moving silhouettes which appear to be in front of the small screen-within-a-screen. A shadowy hand moves and turns up a corner of the small screen, jiggles it about, and then actually lifts it up, revealing the light bulb of the projector.

Like the other screen-within-a-screen sequences, this one deals with spatial ambiguities, but, in addition, it reveals the actual space in which this particular film was shot. And it goes still one step further—it extends into the space of the audience. We suddenly become conscious of ourselves watching an image projected upon a screen in which someone else is watching another image projected upon another screen. We experience not only the space between ourselves and the large screen but also the space, or, more precisely, the illusion of a space between the shadow man on the screen and the small screen-within-a-screen.

The short coda at the end of Tom, Tom involves the use of split screen. At first, the screen is split vertically into a black and a white panel. One panel is quickly replaced by a frozen frame and then by a moving, flickering sequence from a scene in the film. The other panel alternates between black and white in such a way that the eye is repeatedly bombarded by intense flashes and flickers. Although this section is extremely brief, it reiterates many of the spatial preoccupations of the film—such preoccupations as the tension between two- and three-dimensional space, the interaction of light and dark, and the juxtaposition of still and moving images.

TOM, TOM MUST ALSO be studied in terms of Jacobs’ treatment of time; it illustrates the many ways in which time can be manipulated in film.

In the most general terms, Jacobs’ section of Tom, Tom can be seen as a distension, largely through editing, of the original film. A 10-minute film has been made into a 70-minute film. There are several factors involved in this process, the most basic of which is the elaboration of certain sections or parts of the original. This elaboration is achieved through the use of all of the various strategies we have already discussed and through extensive use of the principle of repetition. The most extreme example of this is the stepladder sequence. In the original, it takes the whole group of chasers about 30 seconds to climb the ladder; this sequence is expanded to about 20 minutes by Jacobs. One part of this sequence—a woman with black dress and white trim who is climbing the ladder, followed by a man with white sleeves—lasts about one second in the original and becomes an extended 12-minute, almost entirely abstract, section in Jacobs’ film. Basically, what is happening here is that Jacobs is taking a portion of the original, fragmenting it, treating the fragments in various ways, and reassembling them into a new whole.

This general process of distension is furthered by several other factors, most notably the addition of extraneous material like black and clear leader and the two color sequences. It should also be added that within this overall pattern of distention, there is a minor pattern of contraction. Jacobs does not elaborate all of the material in the original film. While elaborating some of it at great length, he also completely omits other material, thereby illustrating the possibilities of ellipsis in film. In addition, Jacobs rearranges the order of the material within each of the original tableaux. In his treatment of the first tableau, for example, he starts with material in the middle, then goes back to material at the beginning (including the title), then treats material at the end. Interestingly, however, he maintains the order of the tableaux, never skipping back and forth between them.

Jacobs also illustrates the various kinds of temporal experiences possible with film. This is seen especially in his treatment of representation, narrative, and abstraction. As long as we have a clearly perceivable element of representation and narrative story—telling in the images, we tend to experience the passing of time in terms of the time of the events or actions seen. When the images become more abstract, this sense of narrative time begins to disappear, becomes much less pronounced. In the most abstract part of the ladder sequence, for instance, the sense of time of the original action, or of any actions, is completely lost and the time of Jacobs’ film, the time in which the forms, lines, patterns of light interact, becomes paramount. In general, the extreme elaboration of a moment produces an extreme distension in which the sense of the duration of formal interaction, whether it be of line, form, and light or of edited pieces of film, becomes the predominant experience. This supremacy of film time can be illustrated with one more example—again with the use of camera movement over a frozen frame. The freeze frame absolutely stops, freezes, the time of the original film. The camera movement over the freeze frame produces a sense of evolving time, but the time, in this case, is the time of Jacobs’ moving camera. It is Jacobs’ newly created film time, not the time of the original film or of narrative actions.

In his remaking of Tom, Tom, Jacobs also investigates the overall structure or composition of the film. The original version is arranged sequentially, in narrative order. It consists of eight shots, each separated from the other by a distinct cut. Jacobs dissolves this simple and rigid structure and constructs in its stead a much more intricate and fluid one. He includes the model in his reconstruction, so that what emerges can be viewed as a kind of triptych: the original Tom, Tom shown twice forms the two narrow side panels, Jacobs’ version forms the large central panel, and the split screen section at the end can be seen perhaps as a “misplaced” predella panel.

Like the side panels, the central panel is also divided into units. (These include the striped trousers sequence, the woman with the hoop sequence, the ladder-climbing sequence, and the abstract section within it.) However, these new units are of a radically different kind. Instead of eight long tableaux, there are now many units of varying lengths, often created by the isolation, magnification, and distention of small details taken from the original shots. In addition, the new units are freely interwoven and are combined without any regard to narrative development.

Although Jacobs systematically dissolves the basic structure of the original, his film is not an exercise in chaos. For one thing, he utilizes the triptych framework mentioned above. For another, in spite of the structural transformations which occur within the central panel, he retains certain aspects of the original organization, such as the movement from one tableau to another.

The special way in which Jacobs integrates the model into his structure is significant because it gives rise to a new dimension in film perception. Our viewing experience of the central panel is intricately linked to our memory of the first panel. When the figures or actions in the central panel are recognizable, one cannot help but identify them in terms of the original narrative arrangement. When we see the woman with the hoop, for example, we grasp our location in the original, our location, in fact, in someone else’s film. During the long abstract sections, we are apt to lose our place in that other film, even though we have no difficulty following the flow of images in Jacobs’ version. Whenever the images are recognizable, they serve as landmarks in an unfamiliar territory, as ever present reminders of the fact that the original film is literally the construction materials for the new film.

The memory image of the original is, in a sense, projected in our minds while we are watching the new film. That is to say, the original Tom, Tom is mentally superimposed upon our viewing experience of Jacobs’ Tom, Tom. The model is thus continuously present in this unique manner, as a continuum of comparison to its own transformation.

In Tom, Tom, Jacobs presents a brilliant lesson in perception and perception-training. He shows us what to look for in the 1905 version of Tom, Tom. He selects for us those aspects of the film intriguing to him by isolating and magnifying details, by distending important moments. Those elements towards which he directs our concentration—formal elements for the most part—tend to draw our attention away from the narrative. When he projects the original film once again at the end of his reworking of it, he is allowing us the pleasure of viewing it with our newly trained eyes. At the same time, he is heightening our awareness of how much we have just learned about visual perception.

But Jacobs’ film is not only about what to look at in the primitive version of Tom, Tom. While one watches the unraveling of his visual analysis, one becomes aware of the fact that perception or perception-training is actually one of the subjects of the film. As P. Adams Sitney has pointed out, Jacobs retards the fictive development of the original and, through his process of elongation, induces an awareness of perception itself as a value and an esthetic experience.7

It is clear that Jacobs does not expect the viewer to respond passively to his method of perception-training. He presents a rigorous course for the eye and he demands, in return, a great deal of visual work. The level of difficulty of perception demanded of the viewer varies throughout the film; at times, one can easily grasp what one sees, while at other times, the images and interactions of images are so quick, complex, and elusive that repeated viewings are necessary in order to comprehend them. With each viewing, one actually sees more. One becomes visually more sophisticated and more attuned to the multi-faceted potentialities of cinema. One emerges with a set of visual tools with which to perceive not only the original Tom, Tom and not only Jacobs’ intricate reworking of it, but also film in general.

The second point concerns transformation. We have already stated that the entire film involves a major act of transformation, the transformation of the original primitive film into Jacobs’ radically modernist one. Further, we have implied that in each of the areas we have discussed, there is an element of transformation—the transformation of representational and narrative into abstract, the transformation of the image to reveal the illusions behind it, the transformation of space, time, and structure.

What is especially important about Tom, Tom is that we always perceive the process of transformation. The film itself is an act of visible transformation, demonstrated in the film. We witness the stages between representation and abstraction, we experience the state of forming. Similarly, we see the illusory image in the process of dissolving into light and dark, the moving image become frozen.

The space is visibly changed, and we feel the shifts in kinds of temporal experience. The fact that all film involves some degree of transformation is made manifest in film in which the subject is the act or process of transformation.

Lois Mendelson and Bill Simon



1. Ken Jacobs, Program note prepared for showing of Tom, Tom, the Pipers Son at the Gallery of Modern Art, New York, April, 1969.

2. The Audio/Brandon Film Catalogue, (Mount Vernon, N.Y., 1972/73), p. 380.

3. Jacobs, Program note.

4. Jud Yalkut, Critique # 5, The New York Free Press, New York, March 28, 1968, p. 9.

5. It is interesting to note that Jacobs is pursuing his investigation of spatial problems by experimenting with 3-D film.

6. This section of the film seems to reflect the influence of Hans Hofmann with whom Jacobs studied painting for a period of time.

7. P. Adams Sitney, “The Avant-Garde Film,” Afterimage, No. 2, London, Autumn, 1970, p. 4. For a restatement of this idea see Sitney, “Structural Film,” in The Film Culture Reader (New York, 1970), p. 335.