Optic Antics: The Cinema of Ken Jacobs (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Michael Sicinski

A Scene from  Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

A Scene from Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

Edited by Michele Pierson, David E. James, and Paul Arthur. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. 312 pp., illus. Hardcover: $99.00 and Paperback: $39.95.

I have always been a little bit intimidated by Ken Jacobs. By this, I don’t just mean the man himself, although that is indeed the case. He has been unfailingly cordial to me in social situations, regardless of his reputation for being somewhat prickly. Even still I think that, more than with other filmmakers, I have just been too nervous about saying something dumb to him to attempt much sustained conversation beyond mere pleasantries. Who wants to risk sounding stupid in front of Jacobs, for whom stupidity and its critical excoriation is an artistic and academic specialty?

But I speak here not of my presumed deficiencies as a conversationalist. No, even as a writer and critic, I have never felt as comfortable tackling Jacobs’s cinema as I have the work of other experimentalists, some of whose work I would categorize as equally difficult. There is something overwhelming and intangible about Ken Jacobs’s greatest achievements, given that they bypass or even short-circuit so much of what we have been taught to consider “cinema”—linear elaboration, conceptual development, and in some cases even the boundaries of the screen or the sanctity of the frame. Jacobs’s work over the last twenty or so years, particularly his “Nervous System” and “Nervous Magic Lantern” performances, have delved into the very heart of cinema’s plastics, what Walter Benjamin (following the art historian Alois Riegl) called the “haptics” of the image. Working at the incremental threshold between frames, introducing systematic flicker and shutter play with his patented dual-projector apparatus, Jacobs has been able to mutate ordinary fragments of found film into twisting, warping whirligigs of volumetric protuberance, throbbing and thrusting, the image-world as close analysis and close analysis as experiential thrill ride. Not at all unlike the early slide presentations of Muybridge in the protocinematic era, Jacobs has nestled into the sweet spot between science and, if not “magic,” at least a kind of unbridled spectatorial wonder.

Trouble is, the work is as slippery and body-bound as it is rigorous. I, for one, often found myself at a bit of a loss, as though I were trying to verbally reconstitute the sensation of standing in a rainstorm. (I took an ill-fated stab at writing about one of Jacobs’s key works from the Nervous System period, 1994’s BITEMPORAL VISION: The Sea. The results, such as they are, are available via a quick Google search. I apologize in advance.) And let it be known, this astonishingly fertile period is only one segment in Jacobs’s vast career, one which, of course, includes his early films with Jack Smith (Little Stabs at Happiness, Blonde Cobra), his painterly, pre-Tom, Tom formalist shorts (Window, Soft Rain), his deconstructionist classic Tom, Tom the Piper’s Son, his old-new-revised digital film Star Spangled to Death, experiments and one-offs that nevertheless yielded notable results(Perfect Film, The Doctor’s Dream) and now, even his recent works in digital video which employ patented software of Jacobs’s own design (called “Eternalism”), replicating many of the chief effects of the original Nervous System. One would be hard-pressed to think of many other twentieth/twenty-first-century cine-masters who have undergone as many seismic shifts in their basic practice. Even Brakhage maintained more fundamental continuity. Really, there’s only Godard. (And Jacobs hates Godard.)

Only very recently, and actually, in the course of delving deeply into the remarkable new volume, Optic Antics, did it occur to me on a conscious level exactly why I have had such a tough time grappling with Jacobs’s film work, why he has posed unique challenges for me. As a critic, it’s my impulse to look at a film and begin taking it apart. I’d guess I’m not alone in this. I regard a film as an integral whole and tackle it as something in need of disassembly. But Jacobs, as an artist and as an educator—as the essays in this collection make clear, the two are virtually inseparable—is always already in the process of taking things apart. Granted, he is not a conceptual artist in the 1970s sense, drawing attention to aspects of the cine-world through strict textual analysis. (There are exceptions, e.g., the flash-frame texts in Star Spangled to Death.) Rather, his process is one born of frame analysis, critical seeing, breaking apart, and fragile reassembly. Jacobs’s art is held together by a thin membrane of, well, nervous energy, which forces atoms into contact, often against their own ionic charge, in order that we may see within the charmed particles of light what typically remains out of sight, beyond our “ken,” and yes, outside the usual “flo.”

We are indeed fortunate, then, that so many fine minds have risen to the challenges of Jacobs’s films, of wrestling with their angels of vision and creating language-based insights where so many of the rest of us stalled out in slack-jawed astonishment. Optic Antics is a collection that is both long overdue and right on time. What we find in this collection is a variegated slew of critical analyses, historical contextualizations, and artists’ recollections that are both poignant and deeply insightful. The editors, then, have produced a volume as wide-ranging as Jacobs himself. This is a significant achievement, given the too-common tendency of certain kinds of film writing (the analytic/scholarly mode) to trump all others in presumed legitimacy. Instead, Pierson, James, and the late Paul Arthur have pulled together a rare, multifaceted assemblage of voices and perspectives —a Cubist criticism or, perhaps more accurately, one characterized by a “push and pull” between discursive modes, none settling down or attaining dominance. Like a canvas by Jacobs’s painting teacher and mentor, Hans Hofmann, different “planes” of Jacobs come forward at different moments. The more time you take in Optic Antics, the more expansive “Ken Jacobs” becomes.

One of the finest and most enlightening entries in the collection comes from Arthur. His “A Panorama Compounded of Great Human Suffering and Ecstatic Filmic Representation” is a compendium in brief, the best primer on Jacobs’s art and esthetics I’ve yet encountered. Arthur covers most of Jacobs’s career, drawing parallels between disparate works, eras, and tendencies, tracing through all of them the antimastery impulse, and through that impulse Jacobs’s unique combination of modernist rigor and postmodernist openness. Critical essays on individual films are equally indispensable. We’re given David James on The Sky Socialist, Tony Pipolo on Two Wrenching Departures, and an impressively detailed formal reading of Tom, Tom by the Norwegian scholar Eivind Røssaak.

But I personally found two more broadly based critical essays most suggestive, in part because they put forward theses about Jacobs’s work in general that are highly original. Nicole Brenez’s essay, “Recycling, Visual Study, Expanded Theory,” introduces the problem of cinema as research, of motion study as a concern throughout film history and experimental film as a genuine form of experimental research. After setting the broad field of inquiry, Brenez examines Jacobs’s multiple reexaminations and revisions of Tom, Tom the Piper’s Son, particularly those in recent years since Jacobs has turned to digital media. The other essay, by filmmaker Abigail Child, places Jacobs’s oeuvre in the context of performance and improvisation. Not only does she examine the performative aspect of several key Jacobs film, including some recent digital masterworks such as Capitalism: Child Labor and Capitalism: Slavery; she also identifies Jacobs as a touchstone for an entire strand of performative film work in the contemporary avant-garde. Child is to be commended for undertaking this necessary genealogy.

Speaking of the performative, other works in Optic Antics highlight another crucial aspect of Jacobs’s career—his role as an educator, and cofounder of the Cinema Department at Binghamton University (SUNY) in New York State. I confess, as someone who taught at Binghamton briefly, I always recognized the sense of history and circumstance upon taking the podium in Lecture Hall 6, hoping that I could offer something at least half as useful as Jacobs’s legendary pedagogy. (Honestly, it could be a bit intimidating.) Michael Zryd’s essay “Professor Ken” provides an analysis of Jacobs’s professorial history, his style and influence, and the long-term resonance his teaching at Binghamton has had for avant-garde filmmaking, criticism, and programming. Jacobs’s cofounder of the Binghamton program, filmmaker Larry Gottheim, provides a fascinating (and deeply ambivalent) text regarding Jacobs’s loyal following, and the complications when Nicholas Ray came on as a faculty member. (Suffice to say, Jacobs and Ray had their differences concerning the function of a university and the role of its undergraduates.) And in the midst of a personal appreciation of Jacobs’s friendship, filmmaker Fred Worden describes the man’s support and guidance as a pedagogue.

Personal remembrances and discussions from those who know Jacobs the best—those who call him simply “Ken”—are really the most exciting parts of Optic Antics, in part because they provide a wholly “other” form of insight about his art. These are viewpoints from the community of makers; those who struggle to organize perceptions and harness sensations, and understand what it is to generate the “analysis” right there on the screen. Like Jacobs, they tend to be takers-apart, reassemblers, or, in Manny Farber’s classic word, the termites. We hear, of course, from Jonas Mekas, but also Richard Foreman, Lewis Klahr, Phil Solomon, and, rather surprisingly, Art Spiegelman, whose comic (in both senses) contribution is the book’s centerpiece.

If there is one notable oversight in Optic Antics, it’s that the voices of curators and programmers are essentially absent. For example, the Zryd essay I mention above is similar in tone to a number of writings by film programmer/former Jacobs student Richard Herskowitz, who describes Ken’s methods of teaching “experimental seeing.” But, sadly, no writing by Herskowitz appears in the volume. But if there is one single text in Optic Antics that could be said to illuminate Jacobs’s practice more than any other—and this would be a tough call indeed—it would have to be Amy Taubin’s interview with Ken’s “producer,” confidant, first viewer, and life partner, Flo. What comes through in this interview, which will come as no surprise to anyone who has had the pleasure of meeting Flo Jacobs, is what it means to assist seeing, to truly support creation and help bring vision into the world. What Ken Jacobs, does for the rest of us, Flo Jacobs does for Ken.

Optic Antics is more than a fine tome on Ken Jacobs, although, as I hope the foregoing review makes clear, it certainly is that. Given the inherent difficulties not only of generating and assembling scholarship on the avant-garde in general, but also on specific films and filmmakers—this is material that has been deeply out of vogue in Film Studies for decades, and the academy at large has only begun to once again recognize its deep, abiding esthetic and social value in, say, the last ten—this kind of hybrid text is both a perfect practical solution and an appropriate future for a fully “situated,” intellectually comprehensive poetics. By which I mean, scholars will inevitably miss certain things about Jacobs’s films that other experimental filmmakers will immediately pick up on, and (perhaps) vice versa. Programmers will add a third counterperspective. This multifaceted approach, of course, is likely to deepen our understanding of any cinematic topic. (See, for example, James Quandt’s excellent Cinematheque Ontario volume on Robert Bresson from 1999, soon to be released in an expanded edition.)

But, at the risk of claiming “the avant-garde is special” (something I personally take great pains to avoid claiming, most of the time), it must be acknowledged that, for large spans of recent institutional history, programmers and fellow filmmakers kept this “research” fresh and alive, whereas the academy left it, by and large, a fallow field. And so, what we find not only in the very material of Optic Antics, but also in its editorial approach (which is not new—it very much mirrors David James’s own format from his equally strong 1992 volume on Jonas Mekas), is what I consider to be a model for avant-garde film scholarship. There are things that our teachers, students, friends, and spouses know about us that no amount of scholarly research could ever discern. We have typically considered this to be a matter of extratextual concern, the realm of anecdote or even innuendo. But we can learn not only from Optic Antics’s model of nonhierarchical organization, but also from the unique case of Ken and Flo Jacobs. The intimate, the domestic, and all those other categories that both modernism and traditional scholarship have denigrated as not being distanced and bracketed enough to provide usable, objective knowledge, may in fact be the repository of tacit life-world understandings which in no way preclude—and may in fact demand—continual relentless criticism. Compared with that, it’s really no wonder the rest of us might hang back for a while, for fear of saying something stupid.

Michael Sicinski is a writer and teacher living in Houston, Texas.

To purchase Optic Antics, click here.

Copyright © 2011 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XXXVI, No. 4