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At the cinematheque: "Razzle Dazzle" (Jacobs, USA)

David Phelps
For a minute and a half, Razzle Dazzle is about the most beautiful movie of the year: little flickers of light, looking like flakes of crumpled paper, flash about, moving outward, appearing like traces of a carousel, in night, swirling around the camera. Which is what they are; Razzle Dazzle is Ken Jacobs’ remix of Thomas Edison’s one-minute short of the same name (actually made by A.C. Abadie), in which a carousel spins. Not quite so in Jacobs’ feature, in which the carousel is quickly flattened into digital wallpaper. Laid against a garish red matte—and I don’t think there is a name for this completely unnatural “red,” to be found only in pixilated form—the figures, in usual Jacobs form-alism, are sped up, slowed down, blown up, blown away, and even, at one point, blown apart. But this is not quite like his film work; it’s not even like his recent digital work with stereographic cards (some of which is included in interludes). With the cards, Jacobs flashes from one to the other, accentuating their slightly altered perspectives, as if jiggling the foreground apart from the background. The effect is of three dimensions in what is of course, actually two. But in Razzle Dazzle, Jacobs takes the ostensible three dimensions of the original short, and pitching them against a digital (pixilated) landscape, shows them as the two they really are. It looks like a screensaver from hell.
I think Jacobs thinks somewhat like I do, that very early silent film was a point of innocence—in content and form alike—to which we can never properly return. Tom Tom the Piper’s Son, a masterpiece, can only demonstrate the plethora of details on display in Billy Blitzer’s own little masterpiece (of the same name) by examining the individual details and forsaking the plethora that comes from Blitzer’s supposed stylistic naiveté (though a naiveté belied by any number of Blitzer’s other shorts). Here, Abadie’s Razzle Dazzle, swamped in digital gimmickry, is never allowed to play out fully as itself: by decontextualizing the short entirely, so that the carousal seems to twirl infinitely on some corrupted hard drive rather than finding place in any particular time, Jacobs’ adaptation becomes a simulation of a simulation of a simulation, with imitation carnival music finishing off the simulacra. The white blobs represent people in a faded film; the people in a faded film, stripped of their surroundings like a line of cut-out paper men, represent the entirety of the Abadie film Razzle Dazzle; and the Abadie film Razzle Dazzle represents people in a carnival around 1903.
The carousel riders, endlessly riding the same circle and thus riding nowhere, are well lost to the past; the past, as usual, is simply lost. Jacobs is perhaps the only artist who’s used digital to eulogize the (supposed) end of film; in his Two Wrenching Departures (which I’ve only been able to see part of, and still seems like one of the great movies of the decade), moving precisely because it moves, Jacobs not only delivers the ultimate elegy to two old, dead friends, but demonstrates how even the flicker of film can be a sort of eulogy: emphasizing that we see is a trace of something dead and gone, even as the flicker effect brings it to life. Like any proper eulogy, Two Wrenching Departures is a celebration and a lament—that things live on in memory, that that’s not a proper life. They’re gone and, for better and for worse, they refuse to go. Jacobs replays footage of his friends endlessly, as if trying to perform an exorcism as much as he is a resurrection.
Razzle Dazzle, however, is bitter lament without a bit of celebration. And for a guy who found a perfect match of form and content in his sharp and brilliant Capitalism shorts, made around the same time, it’s blunt. Whereas the stereographic play in the Capitalism series attempt to expose some dark truth about its subject—while blinking and shaking rapidly, as if to rattle the subjects awake and put the audience into a sleepy trance—the card tricks here are simply facetious, exposing the cards’ staged, Hogarthian narratives as false, militaristic platitudes and propaganda. The shaking just makes the subjects look sillier in jiggling around, when they’re clearly stuck in place, playing their programmed role. Likewise, the movie nearly ends with an Edison speech in praise of imperialism, followed by rapidly flickering slides of a green light, a red light, and a pile of skeletons. It’s like, we’re all cogs in the system, The Man’s unwitting henchmen! Jacobs possibly only could have surpassed such symbolism with shots of a mirror flickering between images of average Joes handcuffed by President Bush and taking it from behind. Why not replace all of Lee Marvin’s great death scenes with clip-art of skeletons, to get the point across a bit quicker? Hell, why didn’t Sam Fuller just release 30 films of skeleton drawings?
Of course, 90 minutes of Ken Jacobs’ flashing skeleton piles—barely glimpsed, and so, not quite so over-stated—would still be preferable to a bunch of Iraq war docs I’ve seen. And as J. Hoberman points out, that’s about what the dazzling, razzing 90 minutes Razzle Dazzle comprises (skeleton pile and Iraq war doc both). At its happy ending, even as a laughing, bobble-headed girl is enlarged over the scattered remains of Abadie’s short, the girl is so blown up (in a somewhat different sense than her companions) that her undistinguished features, negligible when she was small, leave her dangling as a skeleton and ghost—though coming forth as if the first to attempt to escape the flat, digital morass. And even within the first ten minutes, Jacobs’ ultra-abstract expressionism and décollage nearly turns the merry-go-round into a children’s Triumph of Death: the almost identical kids charging after one another, grasping the maypole as though it were a javelin or spear.
Jacobs has written:
“They look out - from their place at the start of the 20th century - with a remarkable variety of expressions, giddy to pensive. We observe them but of course they see nothing of this, our America, hopelessly gone to rot, its mountaintops leveled for extraction of coal, rivers and air polluted, crisscrossed everywhere with property-lines; they don't see its prisons or the corporations leaning in from their off-shore tax-bases to see what more they can take.”
I’d like to take the movie also as an attack on all things digital; things which Jacobs has openly embraced. Perhaps because I’m less than a third as old as Jacobs, his Powerpoint editing tricks (actually, the cut-outs were cut on FinalCut) carry a different connotation for me: spinning frames, bulging images, and cuts that shatter the screen into a few flying blocks seem like the none-too-razzle-dazzling devices of an 8th grade video slideshow, its makers eager to show off their bargain-basement special effects (Jacobs was not only assisted by his wife Flo, as usual, but Erik Nelson). Or perhaps not. The tackiness grates, but Jacobs is at least one of the few artists left in the movies who believe that art should grate (De Palma, with his digital tackiness, is another), at least if it’s to provide any reflection on so-called “modern times.” (Though why isn’t there a modern Chaplin to attack the more pressing issue of “Modern Places”? Adam Sandler?) Razzle Dazzle may be a film from 1903 embalmed in plasma, but really (I’m wondering), it’s a movie about a country that has refused to grow up—a society of spectacles, oblivious to the climate changes (quite literally—Jacobs puts the ignorant kids through a rain storm at one point), riding around and around, sacrificing progress for instant satisfaction even as it spins out of control and into the Inferno. Which is, if correct, a pretty reductive critique, and why Razzle Dazzle is pretty minor Jacobs. Which means it’s totally essential.
Jacobs’ liner notes transcribed below:
“Not that many people stop me now to ask directions to the 9.11 site. It’s close enough so that John Koos, seeing the burning buildings from Brooklyn, phoned to tell us to clear out before they fell on us. I used to enjoy looking at them out our bathroom window while pissing. Low-flying planes would approach, pass behind one building and then appear for a moment between the giant structures. It was a spectacle I intended to film and then edit out approaches and departures to create an illusion of a single nervous plane caught between them.
The buildings were monstrous but did reflect the late afternoon sun into our loft. Now the threat is that Freedom Tower will be built on the site. To fill the World Trade Center, N.Y. Governor Nelson Rockfeller [sic]—whose vanity project the WTC had been—had to relocate state and city offices scattered throughout the city. But no one seems so crazy as to sign up for Freedom Tower and we’re hoping the idea is finally shelved.
A newspaper story describes arrangements to protect George W. Bush once he leaves office. He will lurk among us, with caravans of steel-plated government limousines protecting him from machete-wielding citizens. He and Cheney—oilmen who saw their jobs as promoting oil-profits come hell or high water—will sometimes get together in a well-appointed bunker for a laugh at the idea the Afghanistan and Iraq invasions were a bust. With the shifting of attention from their Wahhabi-promoting business partners in Saudi Arabia, no bid contracts for Haliburton and Carlyle, and final and irreversible—less a revolution—concentration of public wealth into select private hands, they will drink to a catastrophe made in heaven. “And they called me dumb!”, Bush will say.
I stick to abstract cinema, shutting out news of gangsters big-time and small. I see that rhythmic connection is possible with what I think of as modules of action, a few frames and then another few frames circling quickly. Flo moves through the place like a melody. “Fuck them, fuck them, fuck them”, I quietly intone and attend to the screen.”


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