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Extending the Window: A Conversation with Ken Jacobs

The legend of experimental filmmaking discusses the influence of painting, 3D, his "Nervous Magic Lantern" performances, and more.
Ken Jacobs. Photo by María Meseguer.
This past June in A Coruña, Spain (S8) 6th Mostra de Cinema Periferico hosted a retrospective of Ken Jacobs. A legend of experimental filmmaking, this New Yorker gave a master-class about the influence of abstract paintings on his work, presented a broad selection of films in his filmography to the audience, and premiered New Paintings by Ken Jacobs (2015), a new film performance using his famous Nervous Magic Lantern, consisting of a series of abstract slides that he projects with a special device of his own creation. The program focused on Jacobs’ first films, close to a kind of Brakhage-like documentary style, the long series he made along with Jack Smith as an actor/performer, and his experiments with 3D, both in film and digital formats. After all these screenings, we had a coffee or two with him and talked about the films in the program. 

NOTEBOOK: You became interested in cinema at the age of 17, visiting the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Do you still feel the films you saw there as an influence?
KEN JACOBS: Absolutely. They were good films then and they are good films now. I remember seeing Greed by Erich von Stroheim. I don't like his other work, but that was incredible. I was very impressed to learn that he had made a much longer film, like 8 hours long. The studio took it away from him and cut it down to a normal size movie. That probably meant the end of working professionally for me. If they can do that to a film that they knew was a masterpiece... They knew it was the best film ever made, and they cut it down and threw away the parts, they are gone! 
NOTEBOOK: So this is a bit like what happened to you with Orchard Street back in 1955.
JACOBS: Well, I didn't meet with that malevolence, I just didn't have the money. Also, when I cut it down from the original 27 minutes to 11 minutes, I was very unhappy. It took me some months before I was able to film again, and that was Star Spangled to Death (completed in 2004). 
NOTEBOOK: Before that, let me get back to the origins. You studied painting with Hans Hoffman and you have mentioned how important Jackson Pollock or Franz Kline are to you. So why film?
JACOBS: A 2D picture or a painting used to be a captured scene, where the attention is on the scene. Also, the royal family, for example. You would paint portraits of them that would last through time to show their dignity and power. Then, impressionists became interested in themselves. They captured the actual events of their lives. The next big thing was Cézanne. As much as he cared for what he was painting: the apples, the mountains... He began making things that broke away from the normal rendition of a scene. When things are close to him, he is an impressionist. So he starts painting what he sees with one eye and then with the other eye, separately in the same painting. He makes these strange walls, things that don't match...
When Picasso comes along, his promise is that the main thing is now the painting, not the painting of the scene. You don't go to see how the mountain or the apple look like, you go to see the painting, that becomes the primary thing. It goes further and further with Picasso. I think that he is very influenced by cinema. Cinema is time, change, one picture after the other. He is interested in bringing together different times, points of view...it is wild!
The paintings I care about are those that have changed within them. Each time you see them, you are going to see them differently. You can understand the way they would exist, it is an imaginary space. These are two-dimensional figures that you can understand in more than one way, that creates an image in depth. I think this is a matter of intellectual class. Optical illusions are cheap. They do not have the stature that people want to demonstrate when they discuss painting. An optical illusion? Isn't that a trick?
Of course it is a trick, but a wonderful one. Many paintings are built on this optical illusion. The painting is always static but the changes happen in your mind. You can understand them in imaginary depth in a number of ways. That impressed me very much.
I was still painting in the beginning and then the fascination with cinema just took over. But I was always drawing, so I may eventually show things on the wall.
NOTEBOOK: Will these be “a vast controlled accident,” like Pollock used to say? Don't you think your work might fit in that description?
JACOBS: I like the statement. How beautiful.. [thinks for a while]. But, no. There is an order in an accident too, you know? One thing falls this way, that other one the other way... and that is an order. But I see a kind of direction throughout. The big surprise was when I saw a 3D illusion and that just pulled me out of where I was. With the film Window (1964) you can see I am still concerned with three-dimensional events, but holding to a two-dimensional screen. But after seeing actual 3D, the open space of 3D, I had to keep pursuing that. I found ways of doing it that were surprising to me, and I found surprise within 3D that, when you had the means to create 3D, you could also create unbelievable distortions.
NOTEBOOK: You have experimented with 3D in your flicker films, but also using the Pulfrich effect. What are the differences?
JACOBS: There is a 3D that I do now and also things coming from Pulfrich. Now I work with a camera with two lenses and I shoot in a traditional way. What I do afterwards with that is not traditional. One of the simplest and most powerful possible ways is to exchange the left for the right eye. It makes a world of difference. Simple things like that are available in two-pictures-3D. But I have also worked with one picture or different pictures that don't relate in the same way a left-right eye image does.
NOTEBOOK: I guess you have seen Window Water Baby Moving by Stan Brakhage many times. Nissan Ariana Window (1969) reminds me of that film.
JACOBS: Window is an homage to that film. It is also part of a name, one of our daughter's name. 
NOTEBOOK: When you try to film your daughter, she constantly moves. The cats don't. There is this sort of comparison between the animal and the human world.
JACOBS: Well, I am trying to make a very formal picture with the baby in the center and she has her own mind. The camera is fixed, waiting for the baby to enter the center of the picture but she continuously escapes. The cats stay in the center until one of them begins to disturb the pile and they all leave. So... well, the comparison is still there. When you see Flo [Jacobs, his wife] pregnant, the cat is pregnant, you know.
NOTEBOOK: There is a shot of a seagull from a window that I guess was not taken from the apartment. Why did you place it there?
JACOBS: It is like a child's fantasy. It is an opening to the perception of the world through the window. With cinema, you can extend the window. 
NOTEBOOK: I can also feel the influence of Brakhage’s Cat's Cradle. But my question is more about documentary. You don't seem to be so interested these days in this approach.
JACOBS: I have done lots of things with documentary material. But it is true. I carry this camera with me all the time [a small pocket 3D camera that he actually brings to the interview] so I am constantly documenting, but I don't make documentaries. I don't know what's wrong, I think that in terms of the camera shots; sometimes I use them to make a work. But I would like just to have a gallery on my Vimeo site, so people that have 3D can go to it and just see the pictures. I have got thousands of pictures uploaded.
NOTEBOOK: Why were you interested in making films with Jack Smith in the first place?
JACOBS: Jack was a fascinating character and we were very different. We learned a lot, developed and amused each other. He was an exhibitionist, but I could be it also.
NOTEBOOK: He has been considered by many the Jerry Lewis of experimental cinema. Do you agree with that?
JACOBS: Sure. I mean... Jack and I stopped being friends in the summer of 1961. We had been hanging out for about 6 years but when it stopped, it stopped. I tape-recorded his voice in two sessions for Blonde Cobra (1963) and then we were done. This film has something to do with a jam session. I was very impressed by jazz. When we first began shooting I did very careful setups and I saw they were not good, they weren't alive. Saturday Afternoon Black Sacrifice (1957) and Little Cobra Dance (1956) were totally improvised, we were just playing around with friends. And this was the way to go.
NOTEBOOK: A couple of days ago you used a soundtrack in the last bit of Blonde Cobre that you had recorded just before the screening. It consisted of sound bites of a radio program you didn't understand. I don't know if you are aware of the connection between the oral text and the images.
JACOBS: There is always a connection, as the radio is a fountain of stupidity and idiocy. Well... I am sorry, that is not true. It isn't always like that, but I never hear Noam Chomsky talking on the radio. There is one left radio station in New York that sometimes is good. You have probably seen Democracy Now by Amy Goodman. You should watch this. It is totally different from American TV or radio.
NOTEBOOK: Well, the bit you chose was about religion and politics. There was even an advert about an insurance company. It matched so well!
JACOBS: But it always does. The film shows in several parts of the world with different languages and people always tell me how well it connected and they are surprised the way you are. The film has the power to frame what you take for granted and expose it. There is a self-confession the radio is always making.
NOTEBOOK: This was the last time you worked with Jack Smith. Apparently, he was not so interested in the avant-garde movement of the 60s as you were. In some of your films, we can see portraits of important filmmakers of your time such as Jonas Mekas, Stan Brakhage or Peter Kubelka. How often did you see these friends back in the 60s, with the explosion of the movement in New York?
JACOBS: It was on a daily basis. I was working in the theater and Flo was taking tickets, so we saw everything and met other people. Peter Kubelka came to New York for the first time, for example. We were in the midst of it and that was valuable. But Jack was in his strange nostalgia. He could defend the values of these 1940s movies, like a Hollywood Arabia, you know. I mean, he saw it for what is was, Jack was smart. But he loved this terrible actress, Maria Montez, who was a completely forgotten ridiculous person and he made her famous. He would pick up on a presence. Later on, I also began doing it with bad actors. I was interested in black cinema, there had been a small market in Hollywood for them, like with the films of Oscar Micheaux. And these are terrible films! No rhythm, insane, the actors have no skill, very often they forget their lines, they don't rehearse... So what you have is real life, they are exposed in real situations. And that is valuable, life itself!
NOTEBOOK: I would like to link Blonde Cobra to Globe (1971) as I think they are both porn films in a way, without even showing sexual intercourse. Is this a political statement?
JACOBS: Yes. These houses that you see are a reward for foolish people that work for corporations in Binghamton, New York, where they have their offices. The houses lack playfulness, there is no originality. The sensuous woman voice was taken from a phone line record made in the 60s and I used this voice talking about sex with a frigid scene, a frozen dead scene. It is very formal.
NOTEBOOK: In the 70s, you came up with the idea of para-cinema. Why did you call it like this?
JACOBS: There was an expression... para-medic. Not a doctor, but somebody who could do some things parallel to the doctor. I saw I was working in a way that was not cinema in its classic sense but... First of all, it was a lie, very often it was not fixed on film, it was shadow-playing. It was a way of saying I make something like-film.
NOTEBOOK: This leads us to the Nervous System. I have a quote from you here that I would like to read: “Eisenstein said the power of film was to be found between shots. Peter Kulbelka seeks it between film frames. I want to get between the eyes, contest the separate halves of the brain. A whole new play of appearances is possible here.” I think this quote explains for itself, but as I have you here...
JACOBS: I am very optical, I am always seeing. The world is incredibly rich. I hear too, but not the way I see. Right now I see the people moving on the street from this angle or this other one and it is all uncanny. With the Nervous System we began working with the slight drift between one frame and the next one. If there was movement, there was a slight difference, equivalent to the difference between the two eyes, the vision one sees having two parallel eyes. This whole thing of getting in between, what is considered a tiny space, became very intriguing to me. I found things there way beyond what I expected.
When we use the filter in one eye, it has the power to delay light. Who would have imagined such a thing! A man with one eye, Pulfrich! OK, I'll tell you how it happened. We lived next to the Brooklyn Bridge, which we loved. Flo asked me to buy some things at the drugstore nearby, I only had a few dollars and, on my way to the counter I saw a cardboard with aluminum silver decorations. It said: “See TV in 3D. One dollar.”
NOTEBOOK: So you bought it.
JACOBS: You bet! [we both laugh intensely] See TV in 3D for one dollar? How does one walk away from that? It changed my life. It didn't work well but at a certain point it clearly did. When I saw it working, there was not going back. I made it work. But there was another honest man experimenting in 3D that lived nearby: Alfons Schilling, who came from Vienna. For a while, 3D was of very low repute. People used to think of the stupid Hollywood movies of the 1950s. The stereo-optical was forgotten. No one remembered that there had been a world of stereo-optical pictures the people were fascinated with. The stereo-optical was a great art that left us thousands of photographs around. But with the arrival of the movies, they were all forgotten. But Alfons and myself were really interested in this illusionary space, which was nowhere in the arts. People treated you like a fool or an idiot for being fascinated with it. So for a while, he and I were each other's audience.
At the time, I was doing the Nervous System with two projectors and I had invented a shutter that went back and forth, released one picture and covered the other one. But Alfons wanted to work with two pictures that he was making with a stereo-camera. He wanted to show these two pictures without the use of the glasses. Working with stereo-photographs, two images were mounted together and they could not be two feet apart, they needed to be close to each other. I helped him by giving him a stereo-photograph projector from the 1950s. Previously, they had been popular and I had a nice one so I sold it to him very cheaply. But to deal with this problem of the pictures working together showing or projecting them separately, he resorted to a turning wheel, a special shutter. Which, by the way, you can find in all the museums, in all the projectors. When he did it, he had amazing unexpected results. When the stereo-pictures paired they appeared in complete 3D. He began to exhibit this in New York and at a certain point he asked me why I was not using it too. I said: “But this is your discovery.” He told me that was really foolish and that I should be using it.
With the shutter coming back and forth the pictures were just flat images placed in space, as if they were cardboard cut-outs. With the turning shutter they became really three-dimensional figures. I did a piece at the Museum of Modern Art called Schilling, indicating it was his discovery. He reacted and called me a crook. Apparently when he told me to use the turning shutter, he meant it only for my studio, not in public, which was ridiculous. He then said: “I am more like a scientist, you are more like a showman.” But it was too late. I had used it and I kept using it.
At that time, also lenticular screens became available and Schilling had the money to print some of these pictures on lenticular screens, so you would look at them and see them in 3D without wearing glasses. The result in this case wasn't really great but he had some ideas and embarked on some adventures. 
NOTEBOOK: Do you think this kind of work relates more to sculpture than to painting?
JACOBS: That is true. It is sculpture but not made of stone or wood and it takes place in your mind, which is flexible. One can change the way it appears to the mind, it can be seen in more than one way. 
NOTEBOOK: In Cyclopean 3D: Life With a Beautiful Woman (2012) this sculptural side is really present. And I have the impression you tend to gradually emphasize details, as in Roland Barthes' punctum, to reveal new meanings in the pictures.
JACOBS: Not consciously. You know, the last shot of the water is the most amazing shot of all. The water goes through changes. There are many things in that movie that are unreal, they don't imitate 3D in life. 
NOTEBOOK: Yes, I agree. But I mean that, by re-framing the shots, you make us see hidden details. As in that Stan Brakhage portrait, where you focus on this sentence: “Desire not too much.” It is almost a declaration of principles, something sarcastic.
JACOBS: [Laughs for a while]. Yes, it was meant to portray him in an ironic way. This is the opposite of the way he lived.
NOTEBOOK: In Opening the Nineteenth Century (1990), Disorient Express (1995) and Globe (1971) you use a symmetrical structure. Why?
JACOBS: For Opening the Nineteenth Century, a friend gave me these shots that were the first ever made with the camera itself in movement, traveling on something, a boat, a train... As the film came, in some shots I noticed the camera moved to the left, in some others to the right. We see all the film twice. The Pulfrich filter has to be in front of the eye that the foreground objects are moving. When they are going one way, they stay. When they move the other way, they are turn upside down, so they are also moving in the same direction. After all the film goes in one direction, the Pulfrich filter goes in front of the other eye and they go in the opposite direction. But I like to see things upside down. It is surprising; you can feel the weight of things even upside down. People say things seem more dimensional like this and they don't take the world for granted. 
NOTEBOOK: You deal with questions of colonialism or slavery in some of these films. Regarding Jack Smith—a homosexual—you declared a few days ago that you feel “sympathetic with people that America has despised.” Do you consider yourself a feminist filmmaker?
JACOBS: Of course, this is a world of individuals and you have to give each one its chance, including children because there are brilliant children. You can't see the world in categories, you have to see individuals. Men, women, boys, girls... and they come in different colors. Nothing has had more impact in my sense of the world than the killing of the Jews of Europe. This is a shock every time I think of it. These people were like anybody else: professors, artists... And they were selected and brutally horribly killed. When you are a young person you just absorb it and forget about it but it always stays with you. It always stayed with me.
America is so disappointing. When I was a boy, I went to see the cowboys and Indians movies. That was horrible! People used to say education is the movies, now it is television. I was being deformed and made into a monster. Two days ago I read in the New York Times about the Navy SEALs that caught Bin Laden. These are monstrous gangsters, very well-funded by America. All over the world, they kidnap, mutilate and kill. The world is insane. I guess this insanity begins by having guns everywhere. We are told that we live in a democracy and that we have to go with the will of most of the people. Well, most of us don't want people owing guns, machine-guns, rifles... but there is no way to stop it. The gun manufacturers control the government.
Films picture the world. My images of the world are impossible so you have to be alert. Hollywood makes films to conform a complete delusion. This is ideology. With Seeking the Monkey King (2011), for example, I want to bring people to the point of questioning what they see. You have the obligation to protect your individual perception. Think about it! I was talking about delusions, which is when you believe. I don't want the audience to believe, I want them to be entertained by illusions that they recognize as illusions. That is the fun of it. 
NOTEBOOK: Actually, for Seeking the Monkey King you worked with composer J. G. Thirlwell, which is not common in your work. Why was music so important to you in this case?
JACOBS: Thirlwell is a wonderful genius. When I first heard his music I thought it was over the top. He also makes music for cartoons. I had finished the editing of the film and my daughter brought me a CD of Thirlwell's music. I heard it and thought it was ridiculous and crazy and I put it aside. But later on, I realized it was the right music for the film. He came by and worked with out daughter Nisi, the one that appears in Nissan Ariana Window, but grown-up. They edited the music to the film and I loved it. 
NOTEBOOK: Your daughter Nisi works with you in many of your abstract films nowadays. What does her work consist of exactly?
JACOBS: She is the computer expert, so our work consists of me saying: “Can we do this?” And she makes it happen. 
NOTEBOOK: I know you don't like to talk about it much, but maybe you could explain just a little how your Nervous Magic Lantern works.
JACOBS: I am supposed to be secretive but I am not. For me, secrets are really hard to keep. I am not sure I have any secrets. I mean, I told the audience. It is all in this propeller and that's it. There is the light source of a theater lamp, a lens which is a single glass element, and then I place things between the lamp and the lens. I do it in a way that these slides can take different positions. I always use a clear plastic circle and I never know how it is going to work in there. You could say this can result in different paint states from the same painting. Parts of it are enormously enlarged. It is always an improvisation and what is new for the audience is also new for me. I only have some control to a point, but not much. Of course, I have the control of the sequence of images but that doesn't mean that I can control what is happening. I think that the discs I work with need to have different qualities, so I choose the order regarding these qualities or colors. It is not a theory and it doesn't follow logical reasons, it is just my feel. A bit like a cook, you know, this taste follows this other taste. Or these two together form a really good taste. For every show, I make a selection of pictures, as I have many. 
NOTEBOOK: In New Paintings by Ken Jacobs (2015) you decided to add soundtrack just to the last disc instead of using different sound bites for each disc, as you used to do with the original show. Are you going to keep it like this?
JACOBS: Oh, I like that! In Time Squared it is very interesting to link the sounds to what you hear, which is also very spatial. The brain finds odd correspondences and that is rich. But I wanted for this one to just look at the image, just see it for what it is. I think it is good to concentrate on the image. In the end, when the sound appears, it is a way of saying: “OK, this is over, we go home.”

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