By most measures, the films of Azazel Jacobs, screening this week at BAM, are on the offbeat end of the cinema spectrum. From his award-winning short Kirk and Kerry to the melancholic cult feature The GoodTimesKid to his latest, Momma’s Man, Jacobs’s movies focus on dysfunctional people in a style that is as minimalist and mannered as it is sympathetic and sensitive. (Momma’s Man, which opens in New York on August 22, is a wry, touching story of regression about a new dad who can’t leave his parents’ Chambers Street loft.) But compared to the work of his father, experimental-film maven Ken Jacobs, responsible for such American avant-garde landmarks as Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son and Star Spangled to Death, the 35-year-old Jacobs admits: “I’m the traditional one.”
Azazel, who now lives in Los Angeles and cast Ken and Flo Jacobs as the parents in Momma’s Man, spent years “trying to find what I was in contrast to my father,” he says, sitting next to said patriarch in the Yuen Yuen Restaurant, a Chinatown hole-in-the-wall they’ve been frequenting for years.
In the early ’90s, Azazel attended SUNY Purchase, where he began watching what he calls “story films.” “It was the first time I was seeing [Jean-Luc] Godard or Stranger Than Paradise. It wasn’t as extreme as what my father was doing, and I really loved it; it was like there’s another world out there.”
The older Jacobs didn’t expose his son to much contemporary narrative cinema: “It wasn’t really my focus,” says Ken. Azazel even studied one summer with experimental guru Stan Brakhage. “I really valued what my father and mother were doing from as far back as I can remember,” says Azazel, who fondly recalls learning how to thread a film projector and attending screenings and discussions at the Collective for Living Cinema. Except for one time when Ken and Flo left him and his sister to see the work of George and Mike Kuchar.
“We thought the kids would enjoy it,” says Ken.
“It was more hardcore gay stuff. I was like six,” remembers Azazel. “We just saw dudes soaping each other in the shower. It was like . . . what?“
“You were both really angry with us,” says Ken.
“So, the fact that I saw this stuff way before seeing narrative films,” says Azazel, “made them not seem strange.”
Azazel’s film education expanded during a summer working at the Cinématographe, a long-defunct revival house on Vandam Street, where he sold tickets, popped popcorn, and projected films. Particularly instructive was a John Cassavetes retro, where he learned one could make narrative films that acknowledge the actors’ presence or the film’s artificiality, but that were still “completely alive.”
This tension between cinematic reality and illusion runs through both Jacobs’ work, they say. But Momma’s Man is more conventionally scripted and less film- conscious than Azazel’s previous films— at least on the surface. There’s one repeated sequence, however, that stretches the limits of realism: The protagonist, Mikey (an aptly baby-faced Matt Boren), is so psychologically paralyzed that he’s unable to take a step outside his parents’ apartment—his foot simply hovers over the staircase. But for Azazel, the moment’s quirk is intentional: “I’m saying, ‘This is a movie,’ and maybe this is more honest because it’s saying this is a movie.”
Azazel’s decision to cast his own father, who in the film tinkers with his projectors in his and Flo’s actual apartment, also indicates a sense of self-reflexive play. Azazel likens his father’s presence to his previous films’ “particular odes”—The GoodTimesKid pays homage to Jim Jarmusch and Aki Kaurismäki, for example. “With Momma’s Man, I have a living, walking, talking example to focus on,” he says.
The film also includes an excerpt from Jacobs’s 1990 “Nervous Magic Lantern” projection Chronometer and a tender autobiographical segment from his 1976 home movie, Spaghetti Aza. “I was using his work as pillars fundamental to the story,” he says. “It was a way for me to be connected— I wanted that world to be part of my world.” (Despite such cross-pollination, Ken—whose latest Tom, Tom reworking, Return to the Scene of the Crime, will appear at MOMA this fall—maintains there’s a key difference in their work: “I take liberties I don’t think you’re in a position to,” he says to his son. “Like, I can dismiss concerns about holding attention. I don’t have to entertain you. You have to find your own way.”
“Even though our approach is different,” acknowledges Azazel, “what I really get from his work is that I’m not so interested in the center of the frame. Hopefully, wherever you look, it’s part of what’s necessary.”
The Jacobses’ apartment, for example—which Azazel describes simultaneously as “sometimes hard to breathe [in] and hard to leave”—provides an enormous array of visual points of contact, cluttered with boxes, books, film equipment, and an oddball assortment of props and toys, from baby-doll heads to wind-up red robots. (“What props? It’s my life,” Ken responds.) The Jacobs’ loft, in fact, gives Momma’s Man its enduring paralysis metaphor: the home that is both claustrophobic and comforting.
While Momma’s Man is not autobiographical (Ken and Azazel talk more than the father and son depicted in the film), Azazel was, ironically, struck with Bell’s palsy during post-production. “In terms of parallels with the film, it’s freaky,” he admits. The paralyzing disease gripped him right after telling his girlfriend (The GoodTimesKid‘s Sara Diaz) that he was going to stay in New York to edit the film: “The next thing I know, I’m waking up and half my face is frozen.” He went to an acupuncturist three days a week, but the palsy lasted four months. It wasn’t until the film neared completion that it finally lifted and he was able to return to L.A.
After leaving Yuen Yuen, father and son walk down Bayard Street back toward the Jacobs’ loft. Ken stops to buy a bag of lychee fruit, and the two reminisce about the city’s transformations over the years, from Ken’s early memories of “horses delivering milk on the cobblestones” to the time Azazel was caught in the middle of an Asian gang fight at the Chinese Ice Cream Factory. (Azazel’s currently writing a gangster flick.)
“Nothing is sacred in this city; everything changes, and I know our place”— referring to his parents’ apartment, which is a rental—”won’t be mine to go to,” says Azazel. “In an odd way, I wanted the film to disconnect me from it: to allow us to own it without buying it, to be a way of letting it go, to remind myself that it’s not the physical location, it’s not the square feet—it’s only what was done with it.”