American History, from the Mind of Ken Jacobs, in Seeking the Monkey King

One of last year's best films, Ken Jacobs's Seeking the Monkey King is showing Saturday at Anthology as part of a program presented in support of Occupy Wall Street.

An exhilarating audiovisual workout that simultaneously engages multiple parts of the brain, Jacobs's 40-minute movie is a sort of hallucinatory jeremiad. The basic imagery seems derived from close-ups of crumpled metallic foil; this material, which oscillates in color between rich amber and deep blue, is subjected to a barrage of cyclical digital manipulations and married to J.G. Thirlwell's clamorous score. The sound surges; the screen is a roiling imaginary landscape of frozen fire and burning ice. Intermittently, Jacobs superimposes the text of a caustic anti-capitalist, anti-patriotic harangue addressed to a figure he calls "The Monkey King": "Oh, mighty lord of deception, America has always kissed your hairy ass."

Covering 500 years of American history, this furious beatnik analysis makes a people's historian like Howard Zinn seem like a Chamber of Commerce booster, particularly as delivered amid Thirlwell's industrial-strength rhapsodic noise drone, against the seething apocalypse of melting glaciers and crystallized lava that soon becomes an ongoing Rorschach test. Faces come out of the rain, along with paper snakes, Tibetan samurais, baleful simians, Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase, and scarab-encrusted Mayan temples. Denouncing the U.S. as essentially fictitious, "an enlarged and empty Brillo box," Jacobs has moments of Syberbergian melancholy, evoking admired artworks (Moby-Dick, Freaks, Greed) and kindred artists (Max Beckmann, Maya Deren, Fats Waller) even as a tremendous energy is unleashed on the screen. This homemade slingshot has the capacity to resist and pulverize the idiotic visual aggression of a commercial behemoth like Transformers. It's a '60s vision happening today—beautiful, terrifying, and determined to storm the doors of perception.


Seeking the Monkey King
A film by Ken Jacobs
January 7, Anthology Film Archives

Seeking the Monkey King is showing with several of Jacobs's short works (19th-century stereopticon slides treated as material for a cyclotron) and excerpts from his 3-D footage of Zuccotti Park. Other films showing in the series are An Injury to One (2002), Travis Wilkerson's lucid, form-conscious essay on the 1915 lynching of an IWW organizer in Butte, Montana; a selection of YouTube clips documenting various Occupy Wall Street protests; and, another blast from the past, Peter Whitehead's evocative personal documentary The Fall (1969), on the occupation of Columbia's Low Library.

My Voice Nation Help

Well, I just finished viewing this movie at Sundance and all I can wish for is that a studio picks up this movie so it can be made into a full length motion picture, since this movie only had a measily 40 minutes to convey the message "I am a schizophrenic with trust fund money". The village voice wrote "An exhilarating audiovisual workout that simultaneously engages multiple parts of the brain, Jacobs's 40-minute movie is a sort of hallucinatory jeremiad." I believe the movie is more likely to cause seizures from all the flashing bright imagery. Seriously, this movie has some stunning visual effects with an eclectic, interesting musical score; However, to run this 'long' short as the second of four movies was a disservice to the third and fourth movies, who's directors were present at showing. Many people left theater because it was too punishing on the senses for 40 minutes. Most did not return for the latter two movies. This movie belongs in the Sundance pavilion where cutting edge experimental movies/techniques are displayed, but at the viewer's self guided pace.


This movie is horrifically bad. 40 interminable minutes of strobe lights flashing on a space blanket interspersed with tired sophomoric rants about the evils of the government. 15 minutes into the movie half the audience had their eyes covered to try and stop the pain, most of the remaining audience was hiding in the theater lobby because they couldn't watch any more. Everyone else was fleeing the theater. One of the Sundance staff was literally begging the projectionist to turn it off. If the point of Avant-Garde is to make 200 people want to claw their eyes out and run sobbing from the theater then Monkey King is a rousing success.

"...this furious beatnik analysis makes a people's historian like Howard Zinn seem like a Chamber of Commerce booster"... Really? There is more intellectual depth in one of Howard Zinns turds than in all 40 minutes of this painfully useless piece of self-important art.

Jeffrey M. Jones
Jeffrey M. Jones

Shocking, sad and incredibly small minded to let go a critic of this stature


Now Showing

Find capsule reviews, showtimes & tickets for all films in town.

Box Office Report

Join My Voice Nation for free stuff, film info & more!

Movie Trailers