PRINT Summer 2008


Ken Jacobs

Ken Jacobs, Razzle Dazzle: The Lost World, 2006–2007, still from a color video, 92 minutes.

IN 2006, KEN JACOBS took a one-minute film produced in 1903 by Thomas Edison and made of it an infernal machine. The title of the Edison film is Razzle Dazzle. Jacobs calls his version Razzle Dazzle: The Lost World. The subtitle refers to the world of the original film, which Jacobs excavates for ninety-two minutes to reveal the skull beneath the skin. Then, too, the lost world is our own.

Jacobs’s Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son (1969)—an American avant-garde classic, added to the National Film Registry last year—is similarly based on an early movie, G. W. “Billy” Bitzer’s 1905 adaptation of the cautionary nursery rhyme. Jacobs refilmed the original (which depicts the adventures of Tom and his purloined pig), using what now seem like laughably primitive tools: a 16 mm Arriflex camera and a variable-speed projector. A demanding, formally elegant, meditative work, Jacobs’s Tom, Tom has perhaps been best described by the filmmaker himself:

Ghosts! Cine-recordings of the vivacious doings of persons long dead. . . . I wanted to “bring to the surface” that multi-rhythmic collision-contesting of dark and light two-dimensional force-areas struggling edge to edge for identity of shape . . . to get into the amoebic grain pattern itself . . . stirred to life by a successive 16­–24 fps pattering on our retinas, the teeming energies . . . collaborating, unknowingly and ironically, to form the always-poignant-because-always-past illusion.

The passions that carried Jacobs from Tom, Tom to Razzle Dazzle, and through the scores of live 2-D and 3-D shadow plays and “Nervous System” and “Nervous Magic Lantern” performances in between, are implicit in the filmmaker’s statement: the dedication to history as it is inscribed in the photographic image; rescue and redemption through an art of detritus—recuperating not only “valueless” cultural objects but human beings as well (witness the outcasts who populate such early Jacobs films as Blonde Cobra [1959–63] and his seven-hour epic, Star Spangled to Death [1956–2004]); the exploration of the act of seeing in all its optical/neurological/psychological complexity and, correspondingly, of the properties of the filmmaking and exhibiting apparatus and the film material itself; and the desire to up the ante on the illusionary three-dimensionality of movies to create images that are as head butting and immersive as they are ephemeral.

A painter before he became a filmmaker, Jacobs was a student of Hans Hofmann, and Hofmann’s injunction to “manifest a three-dimensional event on a two-dimensional surface” has been, formally, the point of departure for all of Jacobs’s moving-image work. The intensity of Jacobs’s movies and film performances, which honor abstraction without being abstract, is not, however, a matter of optical effects. His works go to the heart of our belief system by both mining and undermining photographic illusionism, and they are impelled by a rage against capitalism and its basis in an economy of war.

About ten years ago, Jacobs began to translate his “Nervous System” analog method of examining found footage (essentially, he built a moving-image stereopticon using two variable-speed projectors with a shared shutter configured to produce a strobe effect) into digital postproduction software. Razzle Dazzle is one of several features and dozens of shorts that have resulted from this visionary approach to digital technology that’s all the more astonishing given that Jacobs is seventy-five years old. For Razzle Dazzle, Jacobs and his assistant, digital whiz kid Erik Nelson, souped up two standard video-editing programs—Final Cut Pro and Modul8—to create a viscerally and kinetically pulverizing experience of horror.

The underlying metaphor of Razzle Dazzle is innocence taken for a ride. Edison’s short depicts an amusement-park attraction, the Razzle Dazzle, a spinning, undulating, doughnut-shaped platform suspended from a maypolelike base. Girls of all ages in white summer frocks sit with legs dangling over the edge of the contraption as it revolves. Almost from the first frame, Jacobs’s movie evokes the queasy sensation and also the thrill of such rides. The stagger-stop movement of the images, the high-contrast close-ups of bone-white faces falling through blackness, the scratchy recording of a dirgelike piano waltz, the startling thunderclaps, and the continuously strobing light elicit a feeling of dread, intensified by the red that has seeped into the image like dripping blood. Intermittently, Jacobs interrupts the digital manipulations of Edison’s film with a “Nervous System” treatment of groups of stereopticon images that together suggest the United States’ expansionist tendencies at the turn of the nineteenth century which led to the bloody battlefields of the Spanish-American War and World War I. Just before the most horrific of the war images, Edison himself is heard on the sound track praising the valor of America and her allies in the Great War.

Razzle Dazzle’s progression toward death and destruction is punctuated by moments in which the digital transformation of space and time is so surprising and, yes, aesthetically satisfying that it takes your breath away. But eventually the horror becomes all-encompassing. The image, turning opalescent green and blue, seems to ooze and decay. Finally, a globe compacted out of skulls and bones spins over a field of skeletons. In the briefest of codas, Jacobs gives us a glimpse of hope: The laughing face of one of the young girls emerges from the darkness and, like a phantom, comes to greet us.

Ken Jacobs’s Razzle Dazzle: The Lost World is being screened at Anthology Film Archives in New York from June 27 through July 3.

Amy Taubin is a contributing editor of Film Comment and Sight & Sound.