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At the cinematheque: “Return to the Scene of the Crime” (Ken Jacobs, USA)

Above: a silent film digitized, with a wry title card added by the digitizer and archeological filmmaker, Ken Jacobs.
At its most immediate and thrilling level, Ken Jacob’s new video Return to the Scene of the Crime is engaged in cinematic archeology. With a great deal of embarrassment I admit that I don’t know what Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son, the filmmaker’s 1969 film using the same 1905 silent short as its source material, did with its over 60 year-old subject.  But now 103 years after it was originally made, Jacobs digs the short up again from silent cinema’s treasure trove of forgotten and unseen films for us to bask in its multitudinous sense of life, drama, theater, humanity, crime, and cinema itself.
As with Razzle Dazzle (2007), Jacob’s last feature film, the filmmaker digitally deconstructs the dense but tiny silent short, exploding in our faces the details of movement, patterns of graphic abstraction, moments of sly asides and horrific distortion and tumult, and dozens of other minuscule discoveries.  They are all dug out of the thick surface of Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son and highlight for our pleasure, curiosity, frustration, and edification, the extreme range of content a film of this old age, and this short length, and this ancient story, and this creaky cinematics can contain. As I pointed out when writing about Razzle Dazzle, what is wonderful about Jacobs’ videos in this vein is the expression of the philosophy, whether relegated only to early cinema or not, that in every film, in every moment there is a potentially endless amount of creative expression about all matters of art, life, and politics. Of course, this is not a general point: the reason why Jacobs has hit upon Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son (and presumably why he has hit upon it again) is to go beyond an homage with a short the filmmaker clearly values for a great number of reasons, many of which, such as the short’s incredible vivacity, Jacobs even tells us through title cards.  Rather, The Return to the Scene of the Crime is intervention—a wonderful one—as an act of creative and historical criticism to excavate, as it were, the density and richness of this specific film.
André Bazin would have loved Ken Jacobs' attitude, if not Return to the Scene of the Crime itself, because they take this short composed of a single long-take long-shot and explore and expose, expose and explore as many details as this one dedicated spectator has had the pleasure to discover and reveal. Is this not a call for all film viewers to do the same, to pay as close attention, to look not just at the story and the characters but to look nearly at every possible imaginative way of perceiving a film? From the abstract movements of clothing in grainy black and white, the plastic metamorphosis of film frames digitized and filling in the gaps between the frames to create a new kind of animated film, to such more conventionally cinematic, or at least theatrical pleasures as underscoring short film’s open framing that lets a crowd of people and characters wander in and off of dramatic space, the video is structured in 13 parts that look at film in at the very least 13 very different ways.  Return to the Scene of the Crime, like some kind of ideal film viewer, sees the moving image as a bountiful expression of nearly everything that life encompasses.
Return to the Scene of the Crime plays in the Museum of Modern Art's retrospective, Ken Jacobs: Filmmaker Extraordinaire, October 16-24, 2008.  The program miraculously also includes Jacobs' 7+ hour opus, Star Spangled to Death.

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