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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Film Artist: Form

Let me read a quote from you on your Nervous System projector performances. You wrote or said, "I enjoy mining existing film. Seeing what film remembers, what's missed when it clacks by at normal speed. It tells us stories and much more, but it is inefficient in gleaning all possible information from the film ribbon." What did you mean by that? Talk about that as an entry into what you do in your art.

Well, I usually take short lengths of film and pore over them, or pour into them. Dig into them. So it's mining. And I'm looking for things that literally you just don't see when it zips by at 24 frames per second, normal sound speed. Film is a relation of frame to frame to frame, and I am also declaring relations of one frame with another frame. I want to see what can be done between those two frames and then, maybe frame A and frame B, and then frame B frame C. Okay? It definitely is a dig. What I'm after, of course, is vital, interesting, amusing, crazy-making stuff.

With the aim of creating what kind of experience for the viewer?

Hopefully, many, many different kinds of experiences, but essentially wakefulness, consciousness. Experience.

But also disorienting in a way.

Disorienting because that's how you get to thinking, otherwise you take things for granted. Oh, I see that, I know what that is. And disorientation makes you struggle for uprightness again. You have to seek what's going on: where am I? Then your mind is brought to work, you're activated. When you talk about suspense in a movie, you know, Hitchcock: Who did it? How does it work out? Will they fall in love? Will they get away? Will they get the jewels? You're also pushed off balance. A question has been asked. So my questions are different questions. They can literally be questions of physical imbalance.

But you see that as a step toward raising people's consciousness both about experience and about themselves?

Well that's what I'm offering but, you know, essentially I do it because I want that experience and I want to share it. I must say I do something because I'm interested, I'm fascinated. And then I want to invite others to come along. Ken Jacobs with Flo, preparing to shoot.

You don't go out and shoot a film. You have compared yourself, in some ways, to a ragman who buys and finds pieces of rags that turn into treasures. Tell us about that and why you do that.

Well, I do shoot film also.

There's evidence of that, okay.

And video. The rags, you know, it has to do with Jewishness. It has to do with coming from Williamsburg, Brooklyn where a lot of people spoke Yiddish, all the older people did. And I grew up thinking that as you grew older you moved from English to Yiddish and that was part of the process of just becoming bigger.

And can you speak Yiddish?

I understand it more than I can speak it

I'm very, very shocked by existence. I'm shocked by what's taking place in time. Dealing with film, where a piece of time is actually captured, in a kind of half-assed way, it's been recorded, and you can play it back and forth. You can stop time. It's been arrested. To an extent, in a very limited way. But even that limited way, that limited recording, offers an enormous amount to consider and it does offer me a little bit of a way to get a grip on things. Film, as a cold cut of ongoing life, allows me a chance to work into it, not find it fleeting at all times, and to get some kind of grasp on things, even if the grasp is a kind of joke on myself and ironic and full of errors and mistakes. There's some kind of engagement with it.

Now, to undertake this journey into frames of film you've had to draw, as I said, on your skills as a tinkerer and so you have created a way of doing performance film through a projector. Tell us about the projector and how it empowers you to feel this experience.

Well, for The Nervous System, it's two projectors.

And The Nervous System, we should explain, is a collection of works that you've done over time.

Yes, you could say that. And these are performance works. Ken and Flo Jacobs in front of a 1996 poster: 'Wrong Turn into Adventure: The Film-Performance Art of Ken Jacobs. I have to do them live, which was the case, of course, in early cinema. I am usually working with projectors made to be able to stop, to go back, to go forward at a frame at a time at my direction. Some projectors can go at two frames per second or four frames. And I play with all those things. And of course so-called "normal" speed. But usually what I'm doing is pitting different frames of two prints of the same film against each other.

Which are both being projected at the same ...

Both being projected usually on the same space, one on top of the other. At the same time I don't like superimposition. I think it's a very, very weak ... superimposition usually for me just means I have one image. You know, each image confuses the other so it's a very, very weak image, the superimposed image. And what's happening is that I have this propeller set up in front of, in between the projectors, which is moving ...

Like a fan.

Yes. And it's, roughly put, alternating the images. So you have this kind of thing going, but also its possible to work this so the two images don't just vibrate against each other, they merge in very, very strange and mysterious ways. It's possible to create continuous movements with these two frames from the same film, one frame out of synch with the other, to merge them and make them do all kinds of things, make them move this way or that way, or up or down. And also, in many cases, to bring them into three dimensions.

And this experience which you have characterized as vitalizing the mind, you hope to have that effect on your audience, is that correct?

Yes. It's life against death, right? So I'm trying to make lively things that are interesting adventures for people, and of course they're having them with their minds.

And this comes about, using this projector, by in some instances seeing a frame again and again so that you're really forcing the viewer to see everything they can in a particular frame, and then the frames over time.

Well, "force."

Bad word.

The only people I bully are my students, so anybody can leave any time.

Let's say you're calling the viewers' attention to things they would not normally have seen if the frames were moving ...

It's demanding endurance from them sometimes, but it rarely is that. It's mostly because they're saying, "Wow, look at this. This is so interesting." That's what you do, you know, turn to your buddy and say, "Wow!" So it's mostly "wow." I'm going "wow" for a couple of hours.

Now what you're doing is radical, it's innovative. And one wonders if we go back to that kid in the museum being exposed to all this great cinema, why do you think you didn't follow the path of an Orson Welles or an Alfred Hitchcock and go the traditional route of making big movies for big production companies?

A part of it is when I started I didn't think that I was a captain of men. I didn't think that I was up for ordering people around to make that kind of production, since I was like about seventeen years old. That's one thing. And although there were certain films I appreciated -- and to this day, so-called commercial films or narrative films that [I feel] are great; and I know that I've become a more authoritative personality than I was at the age of seventeen, I could probably pull it off -- a couple of things happened. Welles offended me by his overweening presence. I was put off by his "great man" style. Hitchcock, since you mention Hitchcock, I thought he was fundamentally a rather evil guy. And I wasn't ...

Because? Why was he evil?

Very hateful.

Just as a personality.

Yes. In terms of personality. I mean he made, as far as I'm concerned, one great film. I like the very early British films from the early thirties. They're very tasty to me. But the great film by him, which he seems to have also thought was his best film, was Shadow of a Doubt. And this was a movie that he makes during the war years about Santa Rosa as this ideal little American community and what Hitchcock does, with the help of the writer [Thornton Wilder] ...

Where an uncle comes to visit his favorite niece and turns out to be evil incarnate.

Well, the uncle's not what he represents himself to be, but neither is the town. So it's not only all these deluded people, these fooled people, fools, the town is really not worth saving. This is the war years, and the point where Uncle Charlie [Joseph Cotton] goes to visit Hell -- Uncle Charlie takes Theresa Wright to this hellish bar -- it's when you see soldiers in the film, American soldiers, during the war years. And it just struck me as, you know, what an amazingly unsympathetic picture of America this was during the war years, of the American soldier, of the American town. You know, is this really worth fighting for, [worth] saving? And my essential feeling about this guy, once you get into this thing, is that he could survive in any regime. You know, he's just very clever.

You're talking about Hitchcock.

Yes. Communism, Nazism, Capitalism. He'd make himself comfortable.

Next page: Film Artist: Substance

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