New York

Ken Jacobs

Ken Jacobs reduces cinema to its essential ingredients, creating “film-performances” that are at once seductive and radically disorienting. A veteran Modernist who studied painting with Hans Hofmann before becoming a filmmaker, Jacobs is best known for influential avant-garde works such as Blonde Cobra, 1958–63—which reworked footage from an unfinished film starring Jack Smith—and Tom, Tom, The Piper’s Son, 1969, an extended, revelatory examination of a ten-minute 1905 film from the Edison studios based on a nursery rhyme. The making of Tom, Tom (which Jacobs described as “a frantic dig to and glad return from the edge of the abyss within cinematic illusion”) led to the invention, during the ’70s, of his “Nervous System”—two analytic stop-motion projectors equipped with a single revolving exterior shutter—an apparatus that yields shifting depth effects and a stroboscopic flicker when two near-identical prints are run through it slightly out of sync, sometimes only a single frame change at a time. Liberated by aggressive mediation, images and gestures emerge from the screen’s frozen surface with a fierce, often rhythmic energy.

Many of the images appearing in the more recent “Nervous System” performances—including parades, marine scenes, and trains—were popular themes during the early days of cinema, when the thrill of on-screen motion took precedence over illusion and narrative. After opening with darkness and the sound of crashing surf, Bitemporal Vision: The Sea, 1994, transforms about twenty-four seconds of marine footage into a meditation on the infinite—plunging the viewer into seventy-five-minutes of frozen yet lurching waves, visions of roiling clouds, lacy black scrims, and light glimpsed through trees. Created from ancient footage shot from the front of a moving train, the equally disorienting Loco Motion, 1996, hurls the spectator into a pulsing perspectival abyss reminiscent of the stairwell in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, and synonymous with the deep space of cinematic illusion. In The Georgetown Loop, 1996, images shot from a train filled with waving passengers, circling around a valley in 1905, collide, or copulate, in the form of mirror images.

Coupling, 1996, a prolonged, heartrending expansion of a Lumière shot of a village wedding procession, coaxes an anxious pulse from a long-vanished bride and groom. Intensifying this convulsion of the screen and the phantasmic bodies that appear on it, XCXHXEXRXRXIXEXSX, 1980, based on an early French pornographic short called CHERRIES The Latest Fashions From Paris, marries the powerfully erotic “Nervous System” flicker to visible sexual spasms. The figures in this 3-D ménage à trois make love with such superhuman ardor that the pleasure on their blurred features can barely be glimpsed. Intended by the filmmaker as an affront to the Reagan administration, XCXHXEXRXRXIXEXSX—which, in the version shown in this series, was framed by a darkened screen and a reverent narrative on frog mating calls—is at once erotic, violent, hilarious, and lyrical.

Invoking Edweard Muybridge, Jacobs calls all of these works “time/motion studies,” and in Chronometer, 1990, a haunting magic lantern piece, he replaces the markings used to indicate temporal shifts in chronophotography with an aural grid of ticking, grinding, and clanking sounds, conjuring a “Piranesian space” that “beats somewhere inside the machine”—a chaotic region deep inside the prison of linear time. At one of the edges of the glowing tangle that slowly revolves on the screen as he manipulates a ribbon of film within the lens, one can glimpse torn sprocket holes, which indicate that the strip is “unprojectable.” The image, then, has been doubly raised from the dead—raised both from celluloid oblivion and the death implicit in cinematic illusion. The footage contains a spectral female figure, her face inscrutable and her body flickering like a dark flame in an eerily bright dungeon, amid fugitive shadows of the filmmaker’s fingers, as the projector’s beam is intermittently broken by the whirling shutter.

Like William Blake, whom he references in the title for his dialectical tour-de-force The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (A Flicker of Life), 1995, Jacobs is acutely conscious of what he calls the “limitations of the senses in apprehending actuality.” He is also a machine-age visionary, mining forgotten regions of our collective history “to memorialize” and “to warn.” Jacobs’ impassioned and rigorous project is perhaps best described by borrowing a phrase from Blake, “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear as it is to man: infinite.”

Kristin M. Jones