Ken Jacobs Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Film and the Creation of Mind: Conversation with Ken Jacobs, film artist; 10/14/99 by Harry Kreisler.
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Ken, welcome to Berkeley.

Thank you very much. And thank you for those words, with the exception of, was it "revere" my attitude toward film?

"Worshiper." I worried about that word, is it okay?

No, I have many, many mixed feelings about it, including root fear. I think it's very, very powerful. Very dangerous.


Film, yes. Cinema. Essentially that it's a way of thinking and it's a way of conducting the mind. So it can be very dangerous.

We'll talk about that in a minute.

I mean, part of what I do is explode film.

Right, and let's talk about that, but let's talk a little about your background first. Where were you born and raised?

Williamsburg, Brooklyn. And then at some point I was moved to Flatbush. And then at some point even went for a short while to Hempstead, Long Island, for about a year, then back to Williamsburg, Brooklyn. And then at some point I actually crossed the river into Manhattan.

And how did growing up in New York affect you? The place of New York is important in your art.

Well, New York was the Emerald City from where I was. I was on the other side of the East River and I could see it. So I stepped out and there was the Williamsburg Bridge that went right to New York. But it really was an enormous cultural, psychological distance. And at some point I had to leave Williamsburg and take my chances in New York.

And how did your parents shape your character?

My parents?


They were divorced before I was born, Ken Jacobs as a boy that shaped my character a lot. And my mother became ill quite early and died very young, at which time I moved in with my father. He had been a professional baseball player and he was very disappointed when his back went out and he lost his footing entering the major leagues. And I don't think he ever quite got over the disappointment.

And was your background working class?

Oh yes, working class.

Any significant mentors or role models in your life before you moved into art, as a young person?

I read a lot. Dickens and ... I would say countless role models, if you want to call them that, from a distance. But in terms of knowing people, I remember one history teacher at the high school in Williamsburg and he was very lively and had a sense of humor. I actually got to meet his wife and friends. And his playfulness and seriousness, I would say, was actually inspiring to me. For instance, I was visiting their house and dropped a cup and it broke. And he and his wife and their friends picked up cups and smashed them against the wall. That was a great life lesson.

So, empowering you, in a way, with your own mistake.

No, it gave me like a sense of proportion. Like, don't sweat it. You know, it's a cup. Okay it wasn't a great cup, it was a five and ten cents store cup. So forget about your embarrassment. Big deal. Let's break cups.

We can say, looking at your life, that art and film became another Emerald City for you. There's an interesting story about being in high school and a world opening up to you through museums. Tell us a little about that.

I actually went to a number of different high schools. I was a rootless cosmopolitan. But at the Eastern District High School in Williamsburg, the school was given a pass for students to the Museum of Modern Art. I learned of it -- a teacher told me about it -- and I would borrow it and I would bring it back and borrow it again. And at some point the teacher said, "You're the only one that takes it. Just hold onto to it until somebody asks for it." And so I had very little money but I could go to the Museum of Modern Art for thirty cents or something. I would traipse after the lecturers and learn some things. I was very bewildered, however, but very attracted. And one day I had to go to the bathroom, which was in the basement, but it was also a homosexual pick up joint. But I had to go. So I went there and then noticed that there was a theater down there. Of all things, there was a movie theater there. That this was a museum that showed film! And I began seeing the films. I began to see early American comedy with Chaplin and Langdon and people I hardly knew anything about. I saw French avant garde film of the twenties. I saw the Soviet experimental films. I saw the great American silent films that I never suspected existed. It was a revelation. I was already drawn to almost all the arts and that just really exerted a terrific pull.

And what do you feel, in retrospect, about film drawing you in?

That it was an enveloping atmosphere. It became worlds for me. And in many cases they [the films] relieved me of being conscious of having pimples, of stammering. It relieved me of myself and it was just deeply enthralling.

So, realizing this, did you then want to pursue it in studies? Did you study film or art anywhere beyond this self-taught, experiential mode?

Well, I was in the Coast Guard for a couple of years and when I came out I actually had saved some money and I was able to buy a camera. And also at that time the G.I. Bill was available. This was maybe 1955, or something like that. And the City College of New York had a few film classes. They were technical film classes. And I took two courses, one in cinematography and one in editing. They were very, very basic, and to this day it's what I know. Even though I've taught all these years, I don't know much more than I learned in those classes.

But at one time were you influenced by the work of Hans Hofmann? That was my understanding; is that correct?

I went with a friend, Alan Becker, to an exhibition at the Whitney Museum and saw a painting by him that knocked me for a loop. And my friend who was more savvy said, "Oh yeah, he teaches and he sometimes will take people as monitors, or whatever." So it meant giving up the G.I. Bill. I was studying with terrible painters. At the time I was told that Hofmann wouldn't take attendance and therefore he couldn't get government money for students. I don't know whether that's really true. But he did accept me and never really did ask me to do anything for it. He was just very, very generous and treated me like everybody else.

And what did you learn from him?

Painful confusion for a long time. Partly because, although he had been in America quite a while by that time, he never learned to speak English very well. And I think I spent a lot of time learning that when he said "foot" he wasn't talking about the foot, he was talking about the entire leg of a model. And as I mentioned, other students ... it was kind of like entering -- there was some quality of entering a cult where some people were advanced and they weren't going to be so generous with newcomers. They would let them learn the hard way that "foot" meant leg. So things like that were difficult. And then it was his way to demonstrate his ideas very often by tearing charcoal drawings up and placing things about. And I didn't know what these movements signified. I just couldn't get it. It was a profound, painful disequilibrium that I was sent into. But I was caught in it and I had to learn how the story worked out. At some point I had to find out and understand what was up. And eventually, between looking at his work and reading Kandinsky's works ... there wasn't that much literature that was helpful around, but I found some things and mostly I looked and I thought. I'd spend a lot of time looking, and finally found paths into things that had been closed to me.

Jacobs and his wife, Flo Jacobs, with a book on Hans Hoffmann

Photos by Jane Scherr

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