3D in the 21st Century. Flash Forward: Four 3D Works by Ken Jacobs

More than any other single avant-garde filmmaker, Jacobs has explored the pulsating, tremulous frontier where images hit the eyes.
Michael Sicinski

Seeking the Monkey King

It is all too fitting that a film series focusing on “3D in the 21st Century” should feature the work of Ken Jacobs. More than any other single avant-garde filmmaker, Jacobs has explored the pulsating, tremulous frontier where images hit the eyes, and a great deal of his exploration over the last 30+ years—beginning with his experiments with the Pulfrich filter and his development of the dual projection “Nervous System”—has involved three-dimensional illusionism, that ambiguous perceptual space where flatness and depth wrestle in the optical mind. Historically, aesthetically, and technologically, it would make no sense to consider cinema in three dimensions without including Jacobs’ contributions.

But there’s more at stake in Jacobs’ presence in the BAM’s 3D series. No mere formalist, Jacobs has been a tireless artistic whistleblower, documenting and cataloging the ugliest aspects of American culture. From blackface and animal torture in Star Spangled to Death, through colonialist aggression in CAMERA THRILLS OF THE WAR and MAKING LIGHT OF HISTORY: The Philippines Adventure, and the resistance to official history in more recent works like CIRCLING ZERO: We See Absence and Blankets For Indians, Jacobs has consistently made films that reject the spectacles and bromides with which the power elite mean to keep us pacified and uninformed. For Jacobs, it is never enough to promote beauty. He must also combat stupidity.

So in this context, the four films showing at the BAM are particularly poignant, making a stand against the American empire of complacent acceptance. The series features 3D works by a number of great artists, including Jean-Luc Godard, Werner Herzog, Jodie Mack, Martin Scorsese, and Henry Selig. But it also contains concert films by Justin Bieber and Katy Perry, big budget mediocrities like The Adventures of Tintin and Beowulf, and disposable fluff such as Step Up 3D, Resident Evil: Retribution, and Piranha. The programmers of the series are indeed to be commended for their catholic approach, and it seems clear that their objective is to help us see all of these films in a bold new context. But it seems to me that this is precisely the sort of anodyne material that Ken Jacobs exists to vanquish. His eye-thumping broadsides against perceptual conformism may, if we’re lucky, provide an epiphany for some unsuspecting Belieber or Katy-Cat. But the insights come at a price. Jacobs’ films enter the eyes and envelop the mind, blowing out received ideas like an intellectual LRAD.

Of the four digital works BAM is screening, Canopy, from last year, is the most delicate. In it, Jacobs restricts his camera view to a single portion of a city sidewalk, bounded by construction and therefore cordoned off with the customary tarps and scaffolding. Plying his trade with his usual optical tools—single flickering frames set at a parallax angle to one another, flashing rapidly and separated by black—Jacobs isolates specific portions of the canopy and brings it to life as it billows and tugs in different directions. Not only does the vibrant, hesitant motion of the canopy in the wind produce a rich organic flux (Nathaniel Dorsky’s plastic bag shot from Variations gone cyclotronic). This rounded form moves and shifts against the bars of the scaffold, provoking a play of round against linear form. There is nothing overtly political about Canopy. Jacobs is, after all, one of the greatest film-poets of the New York experience. But we can certainly consider the piece in the context of gentrification and the disorientation that accompanies “new build” without much of a conceptual leap.

Another of the pieces, 2006’s Capitalism: Child Labor, is probably one of Jacobs’ most significant works of the young century, and undoubtedly among his finest films since moving exclusively into digital filmmaking. It is one half of a diptych of sorts with the much shorter Capitalism: Slavery, and both films are derived from found footage of an unconventional sort. Instead of working with old film, Jacobs has built his piece from a single stereoscope card, one containing a documentary photograph of the shop floor of a weaving or spinning factory. Several young boys work the spindles, spread among the gargantuan machines. Off to the side we see the adult foreman, bearing a passing resemblance to Simon LeGree. Everyone in the photo looks straight at the camera. With a bit more forced smiling, this could be an image from an annual report to shareholders.

Jacobs’ uses this most basic 3D material—a single stereoscope card—to generate a 15-minute work that occupies a turf somewhere between melodrama and horror film. Capitalism: Child Labor flashes back and forth between the two individual views, of course, providing the scene with a shallow but insistent parallax judder. In the wide shots, this pulse makes the entire factory floor seem to pivot on an unseen axis. But Jacobs uses digital editing to isolate and enlarge particular portions of the image(s): the boys’ vacant, work-dead faces; the machines’ grinding, impersonal presence; and the watchful, disciplinary gaze of the foreman. Accompanied by an original electronic score by Austin musician Rick Reed, a truly disturbing flange and beat that unavoidably evokes the deafening conditions on the factory floor, Capitalism: Child Labor is terrifying and potent, a kind of dialectical materialist séance in which Jacobs uses the stereoscope image (the very document of barbarism) to momentarily summon these exploited children back to life. Not unlike the photo works of Christian Boltanski, Capitalism: Child Labor brings history’s victims back to the witness stand.

Seeking the Monkey King

The longest of the four featured works, 2011’s Seeking the Monkey King, is a complex experiment that represents a Hegelian synthesis of the other films on the bill. (Shrewd programming by BAM’s Nellie Killian and David Reilly.) It is in most respects comprised of the most thoroughgoing abstraction in image and sound. Over the course of its 40 minutes, Seeking the Monkey King is largely comprised of a series of rounded yet jagged forms (not unlike crumpled aluminum foil) tensing and opening as if trying to come into some as-yet-undetermined shape. Jacobs uses this motion to approximate the inchoate struggle of a molten planet fighting to be born. But the physical forms themselves, rocklike and with seemingly infinite indentions and planar folds, are suspended in a state between solid mass and fluidity.

Throughout Monkey King, Jacobs employs incremental motion and black-frame insertion to create the customary stereoscopic flicker effects that allow these static forms to pivot and whirl on the screen before us, in a shallow but insistent 3D. However, Jacobs also uses other techniques here, honed from his various forays into digital imagemaking over the past fifteen years. In particular, many sections of Monkey King find Jacobs turning portions of the image in opposite directions, or at different rates. This heightens the 3D effect, since Jacobs is essentially drawing on the parallax differential that exists in actual space as we move through or across it. Consider the landscape as it unfurls before us in the lateral tracking shot of a moving train. The scenes closer to us appear to move faster than those in the distance. With the fragmented, digitally partitioned picture planes of Seeking the Monkey King, Jacobs applies this compositional principle to the volumetric stucco-scape of multifaceted polyhedrons whose staggered motion produces a simultaneously concave and convex screen pull. (This push and pull is echoed in the film’s soundscape, an industrial-electronic composition by J.G. Thirlwell.)

Additionally, Jacobs applies a color effect that is increasingly familiar from commercial cinema, but of course he deploys it for completely divergent ends. In addition to the pulsing flicker, Monkey King alternates between icy blue and amber gold, two complementary screen hues. Given that Jacobs’ film generates a set of rocky surfaces, almost implying planetary surfaces potentially plundered for ore, one may subconsciously read these alternating colors as the false promises of empire, or its inevitable consequences for those left in its wake. Gold becomes ice are interchangeable for those condemned to extract wealth from the world but never permitted to keep it. (For a literalist’s gloss on the same idea, consult Avatar, also screening in the series.) But on a purely formal level, the alternation of blue and orange produce a “pop” which, as David Bordwell and others have noted, has become a kind of visual default setting for industry knuckleheads. Jacobs goes against stereotype, using the device as a painterly tool that, in concert with his other gestural methods, allows Seeking the Monkey King to remain in constant motion, a volatile mix of ingredients churning on the screen.

Seeking the Monkey King

And among those ingredients, Jacobs includes his own written commentary, a bold political frankness that at first seems entirely out of place against the molecular pulse of Monkey King. Jacobs allows the movement of forms to achieve a certain crescendo and then, following a brief blackout, provides us with a new view of the abstract landscape in freeze-frame, with a paragraph that articulates a piece of Jacobs’ account of the American nightmare. Starting from the slave trade, encompassing the Industrial Age and taking us up through the Reagan era and the courageous defiance of Chelsea Manning (still known as Bradley at the time the piece was made), Jacobs is telling a historical fiction that traces the discontinuous progress of “the Monkey King,” a dehumanizing impulse in human affairs that consistently acts from the basis of crazed self-interest. Drawing on the infamous figure from Journey to the West, whose power was so absolute that he himself could barely control it, Jacobs describes war, violence, and capitalist neglect as our default setting, the air we breathe. How can this Monkey King be stopped?

The fourth film on the BAM bill provides one possible answer among the many that potentially exist. On its face, A Loft (2010) would seem to be the least “engaged” film of the bunch. It does not address the broad vicissitudes of American history like Seeking the Monkey King, nor does it delve into a single snapshot of injustice like Capitalism: Child Labor. In fact, unlike Canopy, A Loft doesn’t even go outside. Instead, it is a video shot inside Jacobs’ own lower Manhattan home, examining parts of his work area. We see a film projector, metal shelving with books and other objects, and a ceiling fan, all tightly grouped in the small space. Jacobs then subjects the spatial image to his usual 3D manipulations: parallax frame flicker, digital image rotation, color manipulation, etc.

If you have seen Momma’s Man, the feature film by Ken’s son Azazel, in which Ken and his wife Flo portray the protagonist’s parents, then the systematized clutter depicted in A Loft will be a familiar image. But here, Jacobs transforms it into a kind of combustion engine. The movement of a ceiling fan, perpendicular to a vibrating film projector aimed at a 30° angle, makes it look as if we are watching the actual apparatus that is creating the film we are currently watching, in a kind of feedback loop.

In claiming above that A Loft might have the most to say to us about a future politics of inclusion than any other film on the bill, I am not trying to be willfully perverse. Instead I’m posing a question of hospitality. It is a piece in which Jacobs not only welcomes us into his home, but also subjects his home to a rigorous compositional process. This allows us to really consider who our host is, what the space is for, and how we might develop new tools for perception if we rise to the occasion.

Jacobs makes parts of the image jut out, and he rotates and otherwise manipulates the image. But we get the sense of viewing a piston-powered metaphor for the relationship between the artist and his viewers. The title, A Loft, is clearly a pun. Jacobs invites us all into his visual universe, in the hopes that we might soar. But we are promised that we will at least get off the ground.


Part of the Notebook's critical supplement to BAMcinématek's "3D in the 21st Century" series, running May 1 - 17, 2015. Ken Jacobs' short films play on May 11.

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