New York

Ken Jacobs

Collective for Living Cinema

Ken Jacobs has worked in 3-D in one form or another (film, slide projection, shadow play) for over a decade. His current project, The Impossible, involves the stereo transformation of a 1905 chase film, Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son (the source for his 1969 “structural” feature as well). The Impossible’s first two chapters used phased double projections and polaroid glasses to simulate volume and depth; the two new chapters employ a technique derived from the Swiss “binocular” artist Alphons Schilling that induces a glasses-free 3-D through the rapid oscillation of two slightly differing images.

Where Schilling alternated slides, Jacobs uses consecutive or near-consecutive film frames—the effect is subtler and more stroboscopic. Chapter 3, titled Schilling, is the chaotic marketplace tableau which opens the 1905 film. Depending on the chronological proximity of the alternating frames, the lockstep movements of the on-screen crowd ranges from discreet twitching to a St. Vitus frenzy. Jacobs puts them through their paces for about 40 minutes, the only sound is the castanet click of his switch from one projector to the other. The piece is a cool celluloid cyclotron, producing an explosive energy from the collision of two frames, but it evokes a certain pathos all the same. One watches the galvanized shuffle of these anonymous, long-dead, film-imprisoned souls feeling like the green-faced alien from the Superman comics of the ’50s, whose hobby was shrinking entire cities and collecting them in bell-jars.

Used with film, the Schilling system does generate a shallow chasm between foreground and background. It’s far from full 3-D, but when Jacobs pauses on one projector for a moment the image goes shockingly flat. Hell Breaks Loose, his fourth chapter, offers the perfect demonstration of this elusive 21/2-D. The image is the interior of a barn—a backdrop actually—with the wall and door parallel to the camera and a phony ceiling painting in sloping perspective. As in Schilling, the alternating projections make the screen jump and stutter on the threshold of depth. But here, the situation is literalized as the barn door is being pushed from outside.

When the dead-bolt falls out of its mount, Jacobs makes it pirouette in the air or yoyo off the floor for minutes at a time. His most ethereal effect though, is achieved by oscillating two frames of the door as it’s splintered. The smashed planks flutter out from the picture plane, the blackness they reveal opens an abyss behind it. After 15 minutes of anticipation, the screen’s flatness is finally violated as Tom, jerking to and fro like a spastic puppet, and then the whole marketplace crowd tumble through the doorway in a brief, convulsive instant. The musical accompaniment, a ringing, clanking, cacophonous composition by the Swedish electronic composer Ralph Lundsten makes an apt counterpoint to the tensely minimal visuals.

Jacobs keeps recycling Tom, Tom to show that this “primitive,” ungrammatical strip of film is an inexhaustible welter of possibilities. Part of his appreciation is keyed to the fact that it was made by Billy Bitzer, a few years before he became D.W. Griffith’s cameraman. The inference of course is that cinema made an arbitrary, if not wrong, turn with the standardization of the Griffithian narrative. Jacobs thus substitutes himself for Griffith as Bitzer’s director, with the permutations he performs on Tom, Tom indicating the development film could’ve taken in an alternate universe.

J. Hoberman