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: Substance

You said elsewhere that the city is essential to your art. Is it also true that a radical political perspective is a base upon which you do your work, even though it may not be reflected in a particular piece of work?

That's very sharp. Honestly. The city of course is the city of ideas. I love going out in the country. I mean it's just incredible being out at the Headlands, it's intoxicating. So it isn't like I don't appreciate the hills and dales. But a city is where ... that was my school. I was shaped by the city and all those ideas colliding, all those people colliding. It's very, very exciting.

Disorienting, which is an experience you reproduce, right?

It's disorienting and I guess it's addictive. But, you know, walking around in San Francisco is an experience. My wife and I live in lower Manhattan. We go back and forth to Chinatown. Sometimes we go over to the West Side where the Hudson River is and there's a little patch of grass there and you can actually see the sun bouncing off a little strip of water. But for the most part it's unusual that the sun actually makes its way through the buildings and hits a piece of concrete; that's an ecstatic moment for us. We're really Mother Nature-starved. I teach upstate, and we drive back and forth and that gives us a chance to actually see the sky and the seasons. And it's valuable that way.

Okay, the thing about a radical political stance?


Yes. I'm not happy with capitalism. We visited Moscow and Leningrad just before it went down the tube. And that was a pretty miserable situation but I don't think anybody really believes that that was an optimum development of a socialist state. I think it was Russia. Russia's a mess.

A couple of your films are more political than others. In one you use some old footage on the Philippines to make a point. Talk a little about that film and how this format for your art is tied to a real historical experience.

Well, the work is called The Philippines Adventure, and I hit upon a little film purporting to be the history of America's relationship to the Philippines. It was just a little propaganda piece and I used it almost intact, essentially to mock it. To bring out things that were there. The work is essentially my horror at what this piece of imperialism has been.

And then on one of your rummages you found an old can of film recording the aftermath of the assassination of Malcolm X and turned that into a work called The Perfect Film. Tell us about that.

It's not "the" perfect film, it's just Perfect Film, which has more resonance. Perfect film? Film can be perfect? I didn't turn it "into." I mean, my contribution was leaving it alone. It was outtakes from a television studio, the news report. This was the stuff that they had discarded and someone, instead of just throwing it in the wastebasket decided, who knows, it might have some future use, so without any kind of order the film clips were attached one to the other. And that's how I found it. It was being sold for the reel, the metal reel it was on. And it was very cheap because this person selling it gave you the task of having to unspool all this discard. I looked at the discard and in my eyes it was good. Very revealing. So I just let the evidence be the way it was. I looked at it and said, "perfect." From beginning to end, "perfect."

Hence the title.

Hence the title. Let it speak for itself. By the way, there's one more thing about going to the Museum of Modern Art that was very important to me as a kid. It was seeing In the Street, a short film by James Agee and Helen Levitt. They just took a camera out and it was mostly Puerto Rican kids and kids from the Lower East Side and Spanish Harlem. And I was very impressed by that. There was also a film group called Cinema Sixteen that Amos Vogel, who came over I think from Vienna, made happen: a European film club in New York. And so when I could afford the very cheap ticket I would go there and see unexpected things. At the Museum of Modern Art one of the films I saw was the Eric von Stroheim film Greed. And it was amazing.

In what sense?

It's harsh, and to me, a truthful depiction of life. Okay, it was a true story in its way. And so emotionally powerful. The integrity of it was incredible. And then afterwards I read the program notes that were supplied by the museum. And they said that this hour and a half version, or eighty minute version, whatever it was, was what remained of, I think, maybe a seven and a half hour movie, which people in the studios had looked at and said, this is the greatest film ever made, and then decided to cut it down into normal consumer size. And I am quite sure it was at that moment I said, this is not the way to go. If I'm going to make something I want its feet to be there, and its head and its arms and legs, and all those little fingers. You know, I don't want someone "fixing" it.

And so this is an example of the way the film industry has wreaked havoc on the potential of film as an artistic medium?

No. There's many, many wonderful films that have come out of the film industry. That one was going too far. They weren't going to allow ... I think it was essentially, MGM had just organized itself and I think there was a statement that film was now to be put on a rational, factory basis. Enough with the geniuses, okay. We don't want the geniuses. And now everybody will understand: you're a director, you're a writer, you do this. Forget about having a vision. And some people have been able to survive and really do work that swings. Early Capra is pretty astonishing. Later Capra I despise.

Are there any contemporary filmmakers whose work realizes the potential of cinema in a way that you find satisfactory?

Oh, no. The potential of cinema is unknown. Who knows what's possible? And I don't mean in terms of the latest digital effects. But in terms of profound works? The problem with "the movies" is that it's story and celebrity based. That's what people are going to the movies for, so it rarely ventures into form, to really offer the audience a complex way of thinking, a real mental exercise. An imaginative exercise. It's usually about people and their problems with each other. Usually it's about the problems of beautiful people. When I was younger you never knew how anybody earned any money, it was always the problems of beautiful and rich people that didn't have to go to work. You know, Cary Grant: did he work for a living?

So for you ...

But I was going to say, I do every so often see the sort of films that startle me and I admire them, but I see them as photoplay. As sensitively film visualized theater. And that's not my deepest interest in films.

But is there any film maker that you would find more satisfactory than others?

Well, I admire Jim Jarmusch. I saw the film Dead Man, it really stayed in my mind. I don't see a lot of movies, I must tell you. But Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Terry Gilliam, I had a lot of respect for that. There's plenty of things I've seen that I respect, but I know they're also exceptional films. I'm very interested, very receptive to early talkies, from the first four or five years of sound, before the Code came in, the censorship mostly driven by the Catholic church. And I find in the early sound films that there's air in a lot of them. There's a sense of visiting a breathing world. And then things close up and become airless studio productions, more and more, for a long time.

What is the potential of film to shape our moral imagination?

Moral imagination?


Well, that sounds like propaganda.

Why is it like propaganda?

Well you know, somebody's morals ...

So "moral" is the bad word there?

I'm very involved with morality, and of course I think we are struggling, a lot of us, towards doing right. Being able to live with ourselves, being able to respect ourselves. But essentially, as I said before, I think that the deeper opportunity, the greater opportunity film can offer us is as an exercise of the mind. But an exercise, I hate to use the word, I won't say "soul," I won't say "soul" and I won't say "spirit," but that it can really put our deepest psychological existence through stuff. It can be a powerful exercise. It can make us think, but I don't mean think about this and think about that. The very, very process of powerful thinking, in a way that it can afford, is I think very, very valuable. I basically think that the mind is not complete yet, that we are working on creating the mind. Okay. And that the higher function of art for me is its contribution to the making of mind.

And making mind, on the one hand, by disorienting it so it sort of has a sense of itself. And beyond that, what else?

Well in some cases also mindfulness. Mindfulness, in the case of The Philippines Adventure of American imperialism, you know, American self glorification, self-mythologizing. So there are things where you also want to create mindfulness, but it's of lesser value than this primary thing of keeping the mind alive. And there's lots against keeping the mind alive. We are surrounded, inundated, with bullshit. Okay. From almost everywhere. Advertising, which is a euphemism for lying. This government of lawyers who are working for people who pay them to go out and be on television and be ingratiating and get votes. They go to the lawyers, and they lie. And all of this just eats up the mind and makes us stupid. And stupid is also moving away from existence. We lose a hold on existence.

Next page: Lessons Learned

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