Ken Jacobs, born in Brooklyn in 1933, started his career as a painter and studied with the noted abstract impressionist Hans Hoffman. But Jacobs found his attention diverted toward the burgeoning underground film scene in New York City, and soon he was producing his own experimental films alongside the likes of Jonas Mekas and Stan Brakhage. Over the years, Jacobs has made a lot of films, using a lot of different techniques, and also found time to create the Millennium Film Workshop in New York City and to found the Department of Cinema at SUNY Binghampton, where he has taught since 1969.
Thirteen films are included in the Ken Jacobs Collection from Kino Lorber, ranging chronologically from his debut film, the 1955 silent documentary Orchard Street (one of my favorites, due to the way it captures the vibrant street life of an ungentrified New York City) to his most recent, the 2021 film Movie That Invites Pausing. In length, the included films vary from 3 minutes to 115 (presumably for reasons of space, his 2004 film Star Spangled Death, which runs almost 7 hours and is composed entirely of found footage, is not part of this collection).
Jacobs’ 1951 Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son, one of his best-known films, was inducted into the National Film Registry in 2007. The starting point for this 115-minute feature is Billy Bitzer’s 1905 short of the same name, in which a group of elaborately-costumed actors on an ostentatiously artificial set act (well, it was 1905) out the story of the nursery rhyme (“stole a pig and away he run”). Jacobs begins by showing the film as Bitzer made it, then proceeds to deconstruct it through a variety of manipulations, then brings it back at the end. You need some dedication to make it all the way through this film, but even if you just watch a bit, you’re bound to experience film viewing differently in the future.
Movie That Invites Pausing opens with a title card of instructions, a technique Jacobs used several times and that recalls for me the music of Steve Reich in the way that it considers the artistic experience as a collaboration between the creator (Jacobs, in this case) and the performers and/or audience. The creator presents a framework (in this case, the film) but allows and in fact expects that others will take an active decision-making role in creating their own specific artistic experience. Movie That Invites Pausing consists of 24 minutes of silent, abstract color imagery, which the viewer is invited to watch once straight through, then again using the pause button as desired, noting how the colors on screen appear to change in the process.
Jacobs uses a variety of approaches in the films included in this collection, and most of them are firmly on the avant-garde end of the cinema spectrum. It’s not reasonable to expect that every film will appeal to every person, but there’s plenty of interest to be found among these films, particularly if you have taste for filmmaking that transcends the boundaries set by conventional, commercial filmmakers. | Sarah Boslaugh
Ken Jacobs Collection is distributed on Blu-Ray by Kino Lorber. The Blu-ray set includes two discs, with two extras included: a recent video conversation (conducted via Zoom or something similar, and it will immediately be clear to you which of the parties is the experienced filmmaker) between film scholar Tom Gunning and Jacobs (29 min.), and a booklet essay by film critic J. Hoberman. One gripe: the on-screen menu is inconvenient to use—surely there is some way to make the titles all the films on each disc visible at the same time, rather than forcing the viewer into scrolling through what turns out to be an infinite loop?