Ken Jacobs’s Primal Dreams


Ken Jacobs was not born yesterday. For over 40 years he has been jump-starting rebellious energies at the cinematic fringes as a filmmaker, teacher, administrator, programmer, and, since 1975, the inventor and jazzlike soloist of spectacular “Nervous System” performances. Working the controls of a two-headed analytical projection device, Jacobs executes stuttering frame-by-frame excavations-cum-reanimations of short pieces of “forgotten” movies, often dredged up from the era of cinema’s birth. Believing that our culture already has far too many extant images, he leisurely revisits an assortment of “primal” scenes in order to unleash little shards of beauty, terror, sexuality, and other desiderata concealed by the full-speed tyrannies of movie camera, commercial projection, and generic convention. Although the range of imagery and subjective experiences available in this para-cinema is incredibly varied, the films share a common fascination with the metaphysics of fusion and eternity. Or to put it less grandly, Jacobs is a master of visionary mindfuck, a combination of Dr. Frankenstein (“It’s alive, it’s alive!”) and Dr. Freud (“Yes, and what else do you see?”) in the guise of a Jewish immigrant dealer in dusty remnants.

On the occasion of the theatrical premieres of Ontic Antics Starring Laurel and Hardy and Un Petit Train de Plaisir (Anthology Film Archives, December 14 through 22), Jacobs, rarely at a loss for words, reflected on the deeper motives behind his idiosyncratic method. For starters, the materials he chooses are in no sense the product of a conscious, academic rewriting of film history: “I never look for things: Things say to me, ‘Do it,’ and that’s it.” Discovering the classic 1929 L&H Berth Marks as much needed comic relief while recuperating from a serious heart attack, he only later realized that the film was made within a couple of years of his own birth, “the real time of my coming into the world.” Thus the wacky-horrific birth imagery teased out of a passage in which Ollie emerges from a tangle of upper-berth bed linen, assisted by Stan’s slapstick midwifery and eerie female screams from the original soundtrack, is just the sort of psychic “accident” cherished by a devout believer in chance. As is frequently the case in the Nervous System universe, the effect produced is of a grossly overdetermined rebirth—encompassing the original footage, its mechanical “delivery,” and uncanny on-screen events. Fittingly, it is preceded by a metaphoric death as L&H appear to pummel the “corpse” of a bass violin case before boarding their train.

Jacobs is forever forging ontological marriages that lurk behind his image-sources: birth/death, mechanical/organic (he reminded me that film stock is composed of “animal guts”), landscape/human, male/female, and, not least, performance in cinema versus performance of cinema. In this light, it is possible to connect recent Nervous System pieces—including a suggestively titled The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (A Flicker of Life) (1995)—with Jacobs’s earliest adventures in film performance, starring the brilliant but notoriously recalcitrant Jack Smith. Just as Jacobs, in avant-garde landmarks such as Blonde Cobra (1958-63), parlayed Smith’s manic resistance to order and directorial control into eruptions of unconscious shtick, he now collaborates with long-dead comics to reveal inchoate elements in their art. This process is especially obvious when the bodies of Stan and Ollie are transformed into a gyrating, self-copulating two-headed beast.

For Jacobs, the now antiquated technology of railroading collides with the now antiquated technology of cinema in a series of “train works” that includes Un Petit Train de Plaisir, adapted from an 1896 Lumière Brothers trek along a Paris street, as well as Loco Motion (1996) and Georgetown Loop (1997). Representing the flip side, as it were, of his handling of the human figure, excursions into ancient locomotive movement tend to unseat the stable contours of landscape and architecture in a frenzy of shape-shifting metaphoric fusions, during which the viewer is likely to see everything from giant wombs to A-bomb explosions to hideous monsters.