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 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.