It would be hard to overstate the importance of Ken Jacobs' contribution to film as an art form. From early, beat masterpieces such as Little Stabs at Happiness to his more recent output of consciousness expanding digital videos, Jacobs has relentlessly pursued a unique vision of cinema. His tireless explorations have led him to various media--film, video, 3-D shadow play, live performance, film performance, et al.--each one allowing him to wrestle with a different aspect of the twin enigmas that dominate his work: time and space.
In the cinema of Ken Jacobs, there is no space without a temporal dimension and no time without a spatial component. By recognizing that film transforms time into a material (24 frames per second, 40 frames a foot), he can pulverize time the way that Mark Rothko famously sought to pulverize the image. Jacobs has the ability to atomize each moment and then reconstruct it according to his own desires, which sometimes renders the original material unrecognizable. But this is rarely an aggressive gesture; it is more often a loving investigation, as in the elegiac Two Wrenching Departures.
In his Nervous System performances--where two identical strips of film in two different projectors are advanced one frame at a time, creating often contradictory illusions of stillness, motion and depth--one feels that Jacobs explores each recorded moment like a little boy lost in a mansion, going from one room to the next in wide-eyed wonderment. Once, when asked in an interview about "slowing things down" this way, he responded:
Nothing has been actually slowed down, we’re just finding more time in that time. There’s much more time in that time than we ever imagined, in two frames. 16 or 18 or 24 frames per second, that’s infinite time, and infinite motion is taking place, infinite numbers of events are taking place and this begins to explore that. I’ve never exhausted the time bounded by two frames.While studying with possibly the greatest teacher of Abstract Expressionism, Hans Hofmann, Jacobs learned the power of what Hofmann called push and pull: the ability of a two-dimensional image to allow for simultaneous, even mutually-exclusive readings of depth. But Jacobs has gone one step further: he has extended the concept of push and pull to the illusion of movement. He has applied the cubist grid to the fourth dimension, creating intersecting temporal planes that well up, overlap, burst forth and then recede just as quickly as they came. If time can be thought of as a river, these are the rapids.
But Jacobs doesn't only use time in the abstract; he also shows us that time is always being buried under more time and that cinema can be used to excavate. With a hawk-eyed leftist's look at American history, he uses found footage and other collage techniques to offer incisive, if often humorous, critiques of capitalism. The first, greatest and longest of these is Star Spangled to Death, a Frankenstein's monster of a movie that incorporates whole other films, intercutting them with a raucous, prankish kind of street theater. Although at times wildly funny--it has a certain nihilistic whimsy--Star Spangled To Death is an existential crisis in a can that you open at your own peril. After seven, vital, love- and hate-filled hours the world seems infinitely more wonderful, more wide-open, and more terrible than you previously thought possible.
In Tom, Tom the Piper’s Son, Jacobs revels in his abilities to oscillate between both the material and representational aspects of cinema. In wrenching rhythms reminiscent of Charles Mingus, he shifts from smooth spectacle to stuttering substance. Through almost every conceivable means, he makes us aware of the two-dimensionality of the picture plane and the malleability of the temporal plane. Also as in Mingus, there is a vitality that cannot be contained; it pushes at the edges of the frame, threatening to either break it open or destroy it. In fact, Tom, Tom doesn't really end, it just runs out of the projector, filling the screen with an ecstatic, white light. At the end of this film that lovingly, obsessively undresses every aspect of the illusion-making apparatus, you get the naked light of the projector bulb itself.
It is important to emphasize that Jacobs' movies are, first and foremost, human. They are beautiful, flawed, willing, breathing things that come into and go out of existence with force. But they are also humble--"life-sized" is the word he uses. They don't attempt to overpower the viewer, but to extend an invitation to experience, one person to another. Whether hand-held or mounted on a tri-pod, his camera work is embodied; you feel that there is a man attached to the camera and that, by watching, you too are attached to the camera. To see Window is not just a visual experience, it's a visceral one.
Likewise, by manipulating time in his magical-mechanical (and now, digital) ways, Jacobs takes time out of the realm of "twenty-four frames per second" and into the realm of lived time, allowing us to enter into time as we experience it as opposed to time as we measure it. This is why the "total running time" of a Jacobs film isn't actually a good indication of how long it will last. Seven hours can fly by in an instant while ninety minutes can stretch into infinity. But that is one of the great pleasures of this very demanding body of work.