TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT May 2011

THE ULTIMATE KEN JACOBS

Still from the 16-mm film component of Ken Jacobs’s Nervous System performance XCXHXEXRXRXIXEXSX, 1980, approx. 90 minutes.

OF THE SENIOR AVANT-GARDE FILMMAKERS STILL working in New York, the three most prominent have been remarkably prolific in recent years. Jonas Mekas (b. 1922), Ken Jacobs (b. 1933), and Ernie Gehr (b. 1943) might owe something of their productive energies to release from their institutional affiliations—Jacobs and Gehr retired from teaching; Mekas relinquished the daily management of Anthology Film Archives—and to their switch from 16-mm to digital filmmaking. It is as if lives spent overcoming the economic and technical difficulties of working with celluloid prepared them for dispatching digital works with exceptional efficiency. Besides films, Mekas and Gehr have been exhibiting video installations, while Jacobs has redoubled his commitment to the paracinematic performances he has been putting on for decades.

With the publication this spring of Optic Antics: The Cinema of Ken Jacobs, edited by Michele Pierson, David E. James, and the late Paul Arthur (Oxford University Press)—astonishingly, the first book-length examination of the filmmaker’s achievements—we are prompted to give renewed attention to Jacobs’s profoundly influential career, which now spans seven decades. And though his engagement with his chosen medium began midcentury last, his activities show signs of acceleration. Indeed, retirement and the embrace of digital technology represent only the beginning of what I take to be a third phase of Jacobs’s extraordinary artistic production.

The initial (and shortest) phase, of approximately a dozen years, established Jacobs’s reputation as a filmmaker. Inflamed with resentment at the establishments of the late 1950s—in politics, the art world, and even the avant-garde cinema—he rapidly fashioned a strikingly original approach to film form, from the series of largely short, formally eccentric films he made with Jack Smith in the latter half of that decade to his most famous work, the structural film Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son, of 1969/1971. As Jacobs told critic Scott MacDonald (in an interview published in MacDonald’s A Critical Cinema 3 [1998]), “Form is only interesting to the extent that it verges on formlessness, to the extent that it challenges incoherence.” Although his combative personality and his uncompromising work might have positioned Jacobs as the ultimate outsider filmmaker, his historical timing was perfect: He quickly became a central presence in what Jonas Mekas promoted as the New American Cinema. Charismatic and indefatigable, he entered the second phase of his career as the most influential of a new generation of teachers of filmmaking and film aesthetics. His students from the State University of New York, Binghamton, where he taught from 1969 until his retirement in 2002, founded, and initially perpetuated his ideas and idiosyncratic tastes through, the Collective for Living Cinema (1973–92) with him as its éminence grise. During most of his years at SUNY, Jacobs concentrated on performances of the Nervous System, a movable three-dimensional projection apparatus, by means of which he “discovered” dazzling wonders hidden in fragments of old films. Through the optical stuttering of his jerry-rigged machinery, he mined intricate variations on illusionary movements and pictorial depth teased from footage culled from film archives, creating the most impressive paracinematic works we have ever seen. Then, in his third phase, he turned to digital reproduction to complete two long films that had remained unfinished for decades. Exhilarated and revitalized by the technology, he recorded many of his Nervous System performances while embarking on new productions—now exclusively in digital video—with hitherto unmatched energy.

These are, at any rate, the broad outlines of the history so thoroughly examined in Pierson, James, and Arthur’s extraordinary volume of writings devoted to all aspects of Jacobs’s work, which they have approached with great avidity and even devotion. Consequently, Optic Antics has the tone of a Festschrift.

Still, the bulk of this splendid book is analytical when it is not reverential. And, it should be said, the reverence is quite genuine, for Jacobs has always been a man of infectious enthusiasms, astonishing generosity, and extraordinary insight, despite his sometimes choleric and bellicose eruptions and his often domineering personality. James, for instance, puts his finger on the contradictory nature of Jacobs’s persona when (in his essay “The Sky Socialist: Film as an Instrument of Thought, Cinema as an Augury of Redemption”) he extols “the constitutive necessity of failure” in Jacobs’s oeuvre thus: “And whatever its source in Jacobs’ libidinal economy, his commitment to failure—his refusal of mastery, perfection, and control, and his insistence on rejectamenta, breakdown, and ephemerality—reflects an objective political condition, the obsessive recurrence to which marks him as one of the most important artists of the period of late capitalism.” Yet astute readers will glimpse allusions to Jacobs’s challenging personality in the essay by his longtime colleague Larry Gottheim, the filmmaker who brought him to teach at SUNY-Binghamton (“Bigger than Life: Between Ken Jacobs and Nicholas Ray”), and in Scott MacDonald’s account of the filmmaker’s provocations and explosions at a convocation of staid documentarians and film librarians (“Ken Jacobs and the Robert Flaherty Seminar”).

Ken and Flo Jacobs at the Film-Makers’ Cooperative, New York, 2011.

Writing on Jacobs as a teacher (in an essay aptly titled “Professor Ken”), Michael Zryd describes the filmmaker as if he were a Stoic sage coaxing his students into becoming themselves. “The meaning of personality oscillates between a kind of essential character (‘who you are’) and a notion of potential that needed to be activated through the transformative pedagogical experience (‘come into your personhood’),” Zryd speculates. “Jacobs recognizes this as central to his mission as a teacher: ‘I wasn’t the ideal teacher, but I was the ultimate Ken Jacobs.’” Zryd locates Jacobs among a small company of the filmmaker’s greatest contemporaries in the avant-garde cinema—all electrifying, autodidactic professors without college educations. “Un-school people,” Jacobs himself called them, adding, “I have to say that none of us were proud of it, we felt ashamed of our lack of education.” Naturally, then, the filmmaker might not have realized that he was following in the line of the great Stoic philosophers, who taught by the example of their lives; nor does he or Zryd mention the primary native example of the species, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who has been the pervasive model of the American “scholar” or artist-as-public-theoretician. Nevertheless, with Jacobs’s retirement from SUNY in 2002, the last of the larger-than-life sages of avant-garde cinema of his generation departed from the stage of institutional instruction.

Zryd’s essay is typical of the laudatory tenor of Optic Antics; only in the volume’s posthumous publication of excerpts from Paul Arthur’s remarkable diary, in which for decades he recorded his impressions of every film he saw, do we come across any reservations whatsoever about the filmmaker’s accomplishments. Arthur’s reaction to the second performance of New York Ghetto Fishmarket 1903, 1993, that he saw in 1995 is no doubt the harshest criticism in the book: “A lesser performance fronted by the self-indulgent ‘Part One’ in which Ken projects the footage totally out of focus in a slow pulse while he stands in front of [the] projector using a piece of paper with a hole (to form an iris) and his body edges (hands, arms, side) to reshape the screen and point to certain sections. The Jauniaux score seemed overwrought and heavy this time. . . .” Yet he had lavishly praised the piece when he first saw a performance of it three months earlier: “One of the most elegant conceits for the movement of history I have ever seen; better than the trains of the Soviets or Lanzmann’s Shoah for that matter, the long walk up the hill in Young Mr. Lincoln and maybe the unspooling of film in Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma.” The disparity between Arthur’s two responses to New York Ghetto Fishmarket reflects Jacobs’s restless compulsion for invention, even at the risk of sabotaging his achievements, rather than the changing humors of the critic. Arthur was profoundly sympathetic to Jacobs’s project; Jacobs, however, has been the enemy of any attempt to stabilize even his own masterpieces.

Jacobs had been a painter before becoming a filmmaker, and many of the contributors to Optic Antics refer to the lasting influence of Hans Hofmann, with whom he studied at the Art Students League in the 1950s. In every phase of his career, the filmmaker retained an eye for elegant and intricate compositions. But periodically the energies of his Abstract Expressionist training would be turned against that very elegance. The earliest film works that Jacobs still exhibits come from the late ’50s, when he befriended Jack Smith and Bob Fleischner, with whom he shared his aspirations and fantasies for the medium. They appear in his initial works, along with Jerry Sims, an indigent artist whom he met through Smith and whom he cast in the role of “Suffering,” opposite Smith himself as “The Spirit Not of Life but of Living,” in Star Spangled to Death. He shot most of the film in 16 mm between 1956 and 1960 and ultimately released it as a 440-minute-long video on DVD in 2004. Even though he intuited from the beginning that it would be a long and complex film, he believed for at least a decade after he initiated the project that he was on the verge of completing it. Instead, his remarkably successful career as a teacher was launched from the numerous works of apparently lesser ambition that he had made to divert or restore himself from this nearly interminable project. Yet very often these works, too, reflected the conflicting energies that stymied the epic film. According to Arthur, Jacobs’s “incomparable cinematic career—embracing shadow plays, double-screen films, and projected performance pieces as well as (un)conventional movies—has been marked by, perhaps even consecrated to, a movement of fits and starts, breakdowns and resurrections, accidents blossoming into critical knowledge.”

Ken Jaocbs, Blonde Cobra, 1959–63, stills from a black-and-white and color film in 16 mm, 33 minutes.

Thus, he made Little Stabs at Happiness (ca. 1958–63) as “a true breather” to escape the tyranny of Star Spangled to Death. Mekas saw it at an open-house screening he organized at the Charles Theatre on Avenue B in New York and proclaimed it a masterpiece of the New American Cinema. He also found money for Jacobs to print distribution copies of the film for the fledgling Film-Makers’ Cooperative. Shortly thereafter, Jacobs exhibited Blonde Cobra (1959–63), which he made using footage Fleischner had shot with Smith and Sims, interspersing its fragmentary scenes with long audio monologues Smith had improvised on tape; the screen goes black while Smith ruminates. Picking up on a quotation Smith uttered (‘Life swarms with innocent monsters’—Charles Baudelaire”), Mekas proclaimed Jacobs and Smith the forerunners of a new “Baudelairean cinema.” Jacobs returned the compliment by making Baud’lairian Capers (A Musical with Nazis and Jews) (1963). Although Smith found Blonde Cobra too dark and began to distance himself from Jacobs, it was that film and Little Stabs at Happiness that first drew attention to him in the avant-garde film community. But within a year, Smith made Flaming Creatures (1963), which established his enduring reputation, partially eclipsing that of Jacobs. Soon after, their relations were permanently severed.

In an almost diaristic essay titled “Nervous Ken: XCXHXEXRXRXIXEXSX and After,” filmmaker Phil Solomon, formerly a student of Jacobs’s, points accurately to the centrality of Little Stabs at Happiness in his teacher’s enterprise. He draws attention to the moment on the sound track when the filmmaker ironically announces that, having just listened to the text he improvised (which we have just heard), he finds it suitable because it is “vague.” Solomon concludes: “It is in the gap of that moment, that crack in time, that an uncanny and knowing sense of a spatio/temporal displacement, an unbridgeable ellipse begins to tremor and reverberate. . . . Oscillating between what was and what is, there exists the precarious thin ice sense of ‘presence’ in all cinema—time becomes plastic and malleable, a moment can become lost, then found.” Little Stabs at Happiness’s lost moment, in fact, entails a confession of friendship gone astray. Similar disjunctions at the heart of Jacobs’s best work, all through his career, indicate that trauma has been a primary generator of his imagination. The “gap” Solomon eloquently describes in Little Stabs at Happiness is a mild instance of that trauma, inflected by a sense of nostalgia, as it often is in Jacobs’s work. A more violent version occurs in one of the imageless passages of Blonde Cobra, as Smith is ruminating about a “lonely little boy” wandering through the house calling for his mother. He suddenly shifts from third to first person with a traumatic termination of the long auditory interlude: “The lonely little boy was less than seven; I know that because we didn’t leave Columbus until I was seven. I know it, I was under seven and I took a match and I lit it and I pulled out the other little boy’s penis and I burnt his penis with a match!” Here, Jacobs underlines the coincidence of the eruption of the first-person voice with grotesque violence, by cutting suddenly from the story told in blackness to another of the fragmentary narratives Fleischner had filmed and abandoned.

The theme of trauma became an explicit aspect of Jacobs’s cinema when he superseded the stagnating Star Spangled to Death with yet another epic, The Sky Socialist. He shot it on 8 mm in 1964 and 1968 (but it, too, languished, until 1988, when it was finally completed and released). It is a fantasy centered on the image of the Brooklyn Bridge, in which Flo Jacobs, the filmmaker’s wife and collaborator, plays an imaginary Anne Frank, who has been miraculously spared from the Holocaust to marry Isadore Lhevinne, an obscure novelist and linguist whose work Jacobs discovered while prowling used book shops. David James (in his essay cited above) provides superb glosses on the genesis of the film and its characters. The Sky Socialist is a formally elegant work lacking the anarchic energy Smith provided Jacobs’s earlier films. After shooting it, Jacobs stopped working with actors. The loss of his relationship with Smith might be seen as yet another traumatic impetus to his invention; for after a series of impressive short lyrics (Lisa and Joey in Connecticut, January ’65: “You’ve Come Back!” “You’re Still Here!” [1965], Airshaft [1967], Soft Rain [1968], Nissan Ariana Window [1968]), he made Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son, which marked the turning point of his career.

One of those lyrics forecasts the formal invention of Tom, Tom. For Soft Rain, Jacobs trained the camera on his loft window looking down on a rooftop and, beyond it, on Reade Street in Lower Manhattan, having affixed a black paper rectangle to the glass. As he said in a note about the film (originally published in the Film-Makers’ Cooperative Catalogue and quoted in Optic Antics), “Though [the cutout] clearly if slightly overlaps the two receding loft building walls[,] the mind, while knowing better, insists on presuming it to be overlapped by them. . . . The contradiction of 2D reality versus 3D implication is assumingly and mysteriously explicit.” He shot three and a half minutes of film and reproduced the whole roll three times in the film, slowing it from twenty-four frames per second to eighteen in projection. Eventually, the perceptive viewer can confirm that the roll is repeated by memorizing the sequence of pedestrians or of cars. More than any other work, Soft Rain demonstrates the lessons Jacobs learned from Hofmann and exemplifies the filmmaker’s natural talent as a formalist, against which he so often struggles (in what Arthur and James have called his pursuit of “failure”). Soft Rain crystallizes the intimacy between beauty and illusion that he loves and rediscovers again and again in overlooked places. As he implied in a letter of April 2006 to Nicole Brenez (quoted in her essay “Recycling, Visual Study, Expanded Theory—Ken Jacobs, Theorist, or the Long Song of the Sons”), our survival as creatures “with two adjacent eyes” grounds his cinema:

Ken Jaocbs, Blonde Cobra, 1959–63, stills from a black-and-white and color film in 16 mm, 33 minutes.

The serious avant-garde is less concerned with subject matter than with existential process: what is it to know the world via our senses and the tools we use to feed those senses? We fool ourselves consciously, to ward off being duped by the particular mechanisms nature has provided humans. Frog eyes, so different from our own and reporting to frog brains so different a picturing of the world, seem to work fine for frogs; think of frog tongues flicking out and catching dinner on the fly.

The wit and verve of Jacobs’s letters makes us regret that there is not more of his own writing in Optic Antics. In compensation, however, there is a lengthy, illuminating interview with Flo Jacobs by Amy Taubin (drolly titled “Flo Talks!”).

The late 1960s were not only productive years for Jacobs as a filmmaker; it was then that he began to demonstrate his considerable didactic and administrative aptitudes, although he characteristically made that flair problematic, with his ineluctable resistance to institutional decorum. In 1966, he secured a position as the initial director of the Millennium Film Workshop, then in the Second Avenue Courthouse (now home to Anthology Film Archives). St. Mark’s Church and the New School administered the project through a federal antipoverty program. Jacobs’s visionary plan for Millennium made equipment and working space available to all comers. But he clashed with the board of directors, who dismissed him in 1968, leaving traumatic scars and lasting resentment. Nevertheless, he was soon able to get a part-time teaching post at St. John’s University in New York, and then, in 1969, a full-time position at SUNY-Binghamton, which soon became tenured. At the time, it was the best-paid and most prestigious academic appointment an avant-garde filmmaker in the republic could secure.

Jacobs’s teaching positions allowed him to explore his lifelong fascination with the overlooked arenas of cinema. He had earlier discovered the Kuchar brothers at an amateur film club and brought them to the attention of Mekas. At St. John’s he shared with his students the wonders of cinema’s first decade and a half. Among the films of that era preserved in the Library of Congress’s Paper Print Collection, he discovered a “primitive” work based on the children’s rhyme “Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son,” reputed to have been made by the legendary cameraman Billy Bitzer. Soon he translated his art-historical appreciation of the details of that ten-minute film into his own 115-minute opus. In his hands, the 1905 original, repeated twice in full—at the start and near the end of the film—opens into an exploration of film grain, projector stutterings, the ghostly vestiges of anonymous actors, the elemental syntax of cinematic narrative: in essence, an ontology of cinema itself. In his obsessive need to break down forms and genres, Jacobs even interrupts the black-and-white variations with color images from a shadow play. The nostalgic veneer of primitive film clearly appealed to the filmmaker’s fascination with lost time, while the manipulations of his homemade optical printer permitted him to replace the estranged Jack Smith with presumably dead actors, resurrected in a mechanical Saint Vitus’ dance. In Optic Antics, Brenez brilliantly expostulates on the radical fusion of the “inconceivable movements[,] . . . figural intervals[, and] the profoundly unformed nature of the cinematic imprint” within the film. “This,” she writes, “is what Jacobs, with his total kinetic materialism, elaborates: he presumes to identify and demonstrate what is unformed and unreadable, to rework what is problematic, what is possible, and what is taken for granted in the name of symbolic representation.”

Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son pointed the way to a new opening for Jacobs, one in which he could combine his cinematic enterprise with his work in performance. Before his final rupture with Smith, the two had, in 1961, briefly staged what they called “The Human Wreckage Revue” in Provincetown, Massachusetts. When Mekas mounted the Expanded Cinema Festival in 1965 at the Film-Makers’ Cinematheque, Jacobs created a shadow play, THE BIG BLACKOUT OF ’65: Chapter One “Thirties Man” (while Smith staged his Rehearsal for the Destruction of Atlantis). Over the next three years, Jacobs added three more “chapters” to his shadow play. Then, throughout the ’70s, he concentrated on three-dimensional shadow plays using color-filtering glasses. By 1980, he had adapted a propeller mechanism of Swiss multimedia artist Alfons Schilling’s invention—an “exterior, revolving shutter,” as Jacobs calls it—through which he could project images from two nearly synchronous projectors, with easily manipulable speeds, thereby producing spectacular three-dimensional illusions without the need for special glasses. This became the mechanical basis for the performances he and his wife had been conducting, (under the rubric “The Nervous System”) since 1975, when they first experimented with 3-D.

Ken Jacobs, Lisa and Joey in Connecticut, January 65: “You’ve Come Back!” You’re Still Here!,” 1965, stills from a color film in 8 mm transferred to 16 mm, 18 minutes.

In his essay “Ken Jacobs and Ecstatic Abstraction,” filmmaker Lewis Klahr recognizes the affinity of the Nervous System works, which for the most part used parallel prints of old films, to Tom, Tom: “Only a handful of [the Nervous System works] offer the kind of directness found in Tom, Tom,” Klahr observes. “But Jacobs had discovered something more important: an approach to extend the language of Tom, Tom’s sublime cinematic history lesson into an ongoing realm of improvisatory abstraction. He had discovered a way to move forward around the formidable roadblock of his own masterpiece and refine the subtlety of his ecstatic seeing.” The dramatist Richard Foreman is even more unqualified in his estimation of Jacobs’s achievement in these performances: “These ‘Nervous System’ works,” Foreman writes in “Ken Jacobs, Moralist,”

fulfill the century-long dream of many artists of different disciplines to uncover a “second reality” behind or between the elements of the world as “seen.” . . . I maintain that for Jacobs this also has been a multi-year project, driven and sustained by the moral need to open oneself to the reality behind (or within) the reality of the lived world, and to discover a realm where the lived world is “cleansed” of its lies and hypocrisies as it opens to the vibrations of an energy that can never be co-opted into behavior that would in any way mislead or imprison his fellow man.

Undoubtedly, Jacobs found in the Nervous System an automatism evoking wondrous possibilities that would sustain him for three decades. Here, yet again, I refer to a crucial passage in Emerson’s Nature (1836) that I take to be central to the aesthetic of the American avant-garde cinema. If we were to substitute “three-dimensional projection” for “coach” and “camera obscura” in Emerson’s passage, we might be reading about the Nervous System:

Nature is made to conspire with spirit to emancipate us. Certain mechanical changes, a small alteration in our local position apprizes us of a dualism. . . . The least change in our point of view, gives the whole world a pictorial air. A man who seldom rides, needs only to get into a coach and traverse his own town, to turn the street into a puppet-show. The men, the women,—talking, running, bartering, fighting,—the earnest mechanic, the lounger, the beggar, the boys, the dogs, are unrealized at once, or, at least, wholly detached from all relation to the observer, and seen as apparent, not substantial beings. What new thoughts are suggested by seeing a face of country quite familiar, in the rapid movement of the rail-road car! Nay, the most wonted objects, (make a very slight change in the point of vision,) please us most. In a camera obscura, the butcher’s cart, and the figure of one of our own family amuse us. So a portrait of a well-known face gratifies us. Turn the eyes upside down, by looking at the landscape through your legs, and how agreeable is the picture, though you have seen it any time these twenty years! . . . Hence arises a pleasure mixed with awe; I may say, a low degree of the sublime is felt from the fact, probably, that man is hereby apprized, that, whilst the world is a spectacle, something in himself is stable.

Manipulating short bits of film, including turn-of-the-twentieth-century documents, comedies, war films, home movies, and even bits of Star Spangled to Death and Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son, Jacobs has made more than twenty performance pieces, some of them in multiple forms (as attested by Arthur’s reactions to two versions of nominally the same work just months apart). The conjuring of what Emerson calls “apparent, not substantial beings” became the primary exercise of Jacobs’s magic most of the years he was earning his living as a professor. In another register, the same Emersonian aesthetic prevails in the flat, projected films he made after Tom, Tom, especially in The Georgetown Loop and Disorient Express (both 1996). In the former, Jacobs juxtaposes two archival shots from 1903 of a moving train, mirror images in opposite directions, printed on a single 35-mm filmstrip, while the latter uses a 1906 source for a more elaborate manipulation of four moving images (including one projected upside down) of the same train at once.

The temptation to return to projected film reflects Jacobs’s frustration with the ephemeral nature of the Nervous System performances. Klahr is undoubtedly correct in claiming that this body of work allowed the artist to move beyond the cinematic summa of Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son and to sustain his aesthetic vision. In putting himself at the center of each of his performances, Jacobs also found a way around his phobia for completion, as his enthusiasm for invention and spontaneous discovery became the very stuff of his art. Yet at the same time, he was subverting his pressing need to make lasting works. In a sense, he had built a dimension of “failure” into his repeated successes with these performances. However, he has recently found a way to preserve the gist of his Nervous System works on DVD. Although the improvisational frisson and some of the most spectacular illusions are lost, the DVDs go a long way toward reproducing the original experiences. Much of Optic Antics could not have been written without them. In fact, the book’s title derives from the 1997 performance Ontic Antics Starring Laurel and Hardy, in which Jacobs reworked a scene from the comedy duo’s 1929 film Berth Marks, extending the wordplay of that title into a fusion of birth trauma and erotic confusion as Laurel repeatedly falls out of the upper bunk on a train. The erotic potential of the Nervous System had been manifested as early as 1980, when Jacobs first performed a ninety-minute elaboration of an antique piece of French pornography à trois as XCXHXEXRXRXIXEXSX. (For an account of the institutional and audience reaction to Jacobs’s first performance of this piece, see MacDonald’s essay cited above.) The exuberant reanimation of the presumably dead fornicators lends a necrophilic aura to the lighthearted protraction of their exhibitionistic al fresco ecstasy. In the Nervous System, as in Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son, the filmmaker repeatedly demonstrates that he is an archaeologist of the affections, not just discovering signs of vitality among the dead but insistently prolonging the electricity of life because they are dead. This antinomy became all the more poignant to the viewer watching a Nervous System performance (rather than a DVD), insofar as one realized that all would be lost, or turned to memory, the minute the performance ended.

Ken Jacobs, Nissan Ariana Window, 1968, still from a color film in 16 mm, 14 minutes.

The elegiac current of the Nervous System is most emphatic in Two Wrenching Departures, of 1989. The deaths of Smith and Fleischner within a week of each other prompted Jacobs to create a two-hour-long, three-dimensional envoi out of filmstrips of the two former friends shot in the 1950s and early ’60s. According to Tony Pipolo (in “Ken Jacobs’ Two Wrenching Departures”), who has seen more of the Nervous System performances than I, it is Jacobs’s “most affecting work in this form [and] a spectacularly theatrical experience.” Pipolo even pays supreme tribute to the filmmaker in an exquisite play on words when he writes: “Jacobs gives Smith the role of his life.” That, of course, is literally what Smith performs in Two Wrenching Departures: his life.

Discussing the sound element of the performance as fixed on DVD, Pipolo observes that Jacobs’s use of large swaths of the dialogue from The Barbarian, a 1933 film with Ramon Novarro and Myrna Loy, is symptomatic of the filmmaker’s being simultaneously “drawn to and appalled by the aesthetics and transparent ideology of old Hollywood fare.” In one of the more far-reaching essays of Optic Antics, “Busby Berkeley, Ken Jacobs: A Precarious, Extravagant, Populist, and Constructivist Cinema,” Adrian Martin situates Jacobs’s work in a broad history of interactions between avant-garde and popular culture, arguing that “perhaps no filmmaker in all cinema brings together the maudit and the flamboyant as systematically, radically, and energetically as Ken Jacobs.” Yet the broadest theoretical contextualization is that of Michele Pierson, one of the book’s three editors, who invokes Henri Bergson and, more persuasively, William James (in her essay “Jacobs’ Bergsonism”) as “parallels . . . [to] Jacobs’ own art and aesthetic philosophy” while acknowledging the irony of the filmmaker’s claim: “ ‘I want to work with experience all the time. I don’t even understand most conceptual work, I don’t get it.’ ” Her essay tacitly understands “experience” to be a conceptual category. Indeed, I would add that it is a central category for James, one that he elaborates from Emerson, his major precursor. Supported by Bergson, Pierson distinguishes between Jacobs’s use of “everyday experience” and that of John Cage or Allan Kaprow by pointing to Jacobs’s insistence on a fundamental difference between aesthetic representation and ordinary perception. Yet when she turns to James, that distinction dissolves. She astutely cites the chapter titled “Attention” in James’s The Principles of Psychology (1890) as an analogue to the spirit of the Nervous System, and implicitly to Jacobs’s oeuvre in general: “The whole feeling of reality . . . depends on our sense that in it things are really being decided from one moment to another.” She is scrupulous to add that “James isn’t talking about art here.” Although the American visionary tradition of which Jacobs is both a prime exemplar and in most respects a fierce advocate confounds the distinction between aesthetic and religious experience, his intense antipathy to religion in any form holds him apart. As what his friend Hollis Frampton would have called a heresiarch, Jacobs would rail against such a formulation of the tradition in which he plays so vital a part.

This month, Anthology Film Archives in New York presents a retrospective of Ken Jacobs’s 3-D films and videos (May 13–19), as well as a series of Nervous Magic Lantern performances, in conjunction with the publication of Optic Antics: The Cinema of Ken Jacobs (Oxford University Press).

P. Adams Sitney, the author of Eyes Upside Down: Visionary Filmmakers and the Heritage of Emerson (Oxford University Press, 2008), is currently the Anna-Maria Kellen fellow of the American Academy in Berlin, where he is writing a book on cinema and poetry. He teaches at The Lewis Center For the Arts, Princeton University.