|“I don’t offer delusions”
Ken Jacobs interviewed by Alberte Pagán
[published 25-05-2016] [an excerpt of the interview was published in Spanish in Caimán Cuadernos de Cine in July/August 2015]
Ken Jacobs (New York, 1933) is mainly known for his seminal film Tom Tom the Piper’s Son, a milestone in the history of structural and found footage cinema. In Jacobs’ found footage films the primitive becomes avant-garde. But his works, in a sixty-year career, go well beyond minimal cinema. Some of his early films, with Jack Smith in front of the camera, are imbued with a beat and anarchistic freedom. Since 1999, he has used digital technologies to create his works, some of which recreate his live 3D performances with two film projectors, which Jacobs developed from 1975 to 2000 under the name Nervous System Performances. These heavy performance system was gradually substituted by the Nervous Magic Lantern, a technique which uses one single projector and eschews the film strip altogether. The illusionism and magic which results of both systems were born of the live shadow plays he created at the beginning of his career but also of films apparently as cerebral as Tom Tom…
Be it film, video, shadow, performance, 3D or magic lanterns, the work of Ken Jacobs, ever accompanied by his partner and collaborator Flo, is always creative and innovative. And deeply anti-capitalist and antimilitarist. Most of the action and narration in Razzle Dazzle (The Lost World) comes from the 3D photographs: soldiers saying goodbye, women waiting, soldiers returning; and we see skulls and color flicker in the explosive finale. In Star Spangled to Death Jacobs likewise expressed the bombing of Hiroshima through flicker. Formalism can be political. An active audience will become socially and politically less passive and conformist.
In Return to the Scene of the Crime, Jacobs’ umpteenth remake of Tom Tom…, the Juggler is baptized “God”: a reflection of the filmmaker as creator? He stops performing when there is no public to watch him.
I interviewed Flo and Ken Jacobs on 7 June 2015 in A Corunha, during the (S8) VI Mostra de Cinema Periférico. After a few months I e-mailed Jacobs a few further questions which he was kind to answer on 3 April 2016. I’ve also used some of the statements Jacobs made during the presentations of the films and the discussions after the screenings. Ken Jacobs revised the full interview in May 2016.
Filmography of Ken Jacobs
This filmography is partly based on information provided at the end of Optic Antics. The Cinema of Ken Jacobs (edited by David E. James and Paul Arthur) and on Fabriques du cinéma expérimental (by Éric Thouvenel and Carole Contant). Performances, live shadow plays and installations are not included, unless there is a distributed digital reworking or a video recording of them. Ken Jacobs is currently very active uploading recent short pieces and older films onto his Vimeo account.
8mm and 16mm films:
Orchard Street (1955-2014, 27’)
The Whirled (1956-1961, 19’), including:
Saturday Afternoon Blood Sacrifice (1956, 4’)
Little Cobra Dance (1956, 2’)
TV Plug (1963, 7’)
The Death of P’town (1961, 5’)
Star Spangled to Death (1956-2004, 430’)
Little Stabs at Happiness (1968-1960, 15’)
Blonde Cobra (1959-1963, 30’)
Artie and Marty Rosenblatt’s Baby Pictures (1963, 4’)
Baud’larian Capers (A Musical with Nazis and Jews) (1963, 25’)
Window (1964, 12’)
The Winter Footage (1964, 50’)
We Stole Away (1964, 64’)
Winter Sky (1964, 14’)
The Sky Socialist (1964-1968, 140’)
Lisa and Joey in Connecticut, January ’65: “You’ve Come Back!” “You’re Still Here!” (1965, 18’)
Naomi is a Dream of Loveliness (1965, 3’)
Airshaft (1967, 4’)
Soft Rain (1968, 12’)
Nissan Ariana Window (1968, 15’)
Tom Tom the Piper’s Son (1969-1971, 115’)
Globe (1969-1971, 22’)
Binghamton, My India (1969-1970, 25’)
Changing Azazel (1973, 4’)
Urban Peasants (1975, 51’)
Jerry Takes a Back Seat, Then Passes Out of the Picture (1975, 15’)
Spaghetti Aza (1976, 1’)
The Doctor’s Dream (1978, 23’)
Perfect Film (1985, 22’)
Opening the Nineteenth Century: 1896 (1990, 9’)
Keaton’s Cops (1991, 18’)
Bitemporal Vision: the Sea (1994, 80′)
Looting for Rodney (1994-1995, 11’)
Make Light on Film (1995, 15’)
Disorient Express (1996, 16mm, 30’)
Coupling (1996, 60′)
Loco Motion (1996, 25′)
The Georgetown Loop (1998, 11’)
Flo Rounds a Corner (1999, 6’)
New York Street Trolleys 1900 (1999, 11’)
A Tom Tom Chaser (2002, 11’)
CIRCLING ZERO: Part One, We See Absence (2002, 114’)
Keeping an Eye on Stan (2003, 117’)
Celestial Subway Lines/Salvaging Noise (2004, 108’)
Mountaineer Spinning (2004, 26’)
Krypton is Doomed (2005, 34’)
Insistent Clamor (2005, 22’)
Leeds Bridge 1888 (2005, 6’)
Spiral Nebula (2005, 46’)
Incendiary Cinema (2005, 1’)
Let There Be Whistleblowers (2005, 18’)
Ontic Antics Starring Laurel and Hardy: Bye, Molly! (2005, 86’)
New York Ghetto Fishmarket 1903 (2006, 132’)
Pushcarts of Eternity Street (2006, 11’)
Two Wrenching Departures (2006, 90’)
Chronometer (2006, 24′)
Capitalism: Child Labor (2006, 14’)
Capitalism: Slavery (2006, 3’)
The Surging Sea of Humanity (2006, 11’)
RAZZLE DAZZLE: The Lost World (2006-2007, 92’)
Hanky Panky January 1902 (2007, 1’)
We Are Charming (2007, 1′)
Nymph (2007, 2’)
GIFT OF FIRE: Nineteen (Obscure) Frames that Changed the World (2007, 28’)
Return to the Scene of the Crime (2008, 92’)
Anaglyph Tom (Tom with Puffy Cheeks) (2008, 108’)
The Scenic Route (2008, 25’)
The Guests (2008, 89’)
Amorous Interludes (2008, 13’), including:
His Favorite Wife Improved (or The Virtue of Bad Reception) (2008, 2’)
Alone at Last (2008, 2’)
The Discovery (2008, 5’)
Love Story (2008, 3’)
We Are Charming (2008, 1’)
Hot Dogs at the Met (2008, 10’)
Berkeley to San Francisco (2009, 24′)
What Happened on 23rd Street in 1901 (2009, 14’)
“Slow is Beauty” – Rodin (2009, 51’)
Brook (2009, 2’)
Bob Fleischner Dying (2009, 2’)
The Day Was a Scorcher (2009, 8’)
Jonas Mekas in Kodachrome Days (2009, 3’)
Walkway (2009, 8’)
excerpt from THE SKY SOCIALIST stratified (2009, 18’)
BRAIN OPERATIONS (2009, 22’)
Ronald Gonzales, Sculptor (2009, 21’)
Gravity is Tops (2009, 11’)
Berkeley to San Francisco (2009, 24’)
Fair and White, Parts I, II, III and Extra (2010, 133’)
SENSORIUMS AT SEA: Dr. Toothy’s New Entranceway (2010, 10’)
SENSORIUMS AT SEA: Toothy Two (2010, 8’)
The Near-Collision (2010, 28’)
A Loft (2010, 17’)
A Train Arriving at a Station (57th Street) (2010, 19’)
The Pushcarts Depart the Scene (2010, 13’)
Day and Night (2011, 3′)
Revolving Door (2011, 5′)
The Pushcarts of Eternity Street (2011, 11’)
America at War (2011, 32′)
Seeking the Monkey King (2011, 40’)
60 Seconds of Solitude in Year Zero (2011, 1′)
Another Occupation (2011, 15’)
The Green Wave (2011, 6′)
The Roses (2011, 5′)
Street Vendor (2012, 6′)
Blankets for Indians (2012, 57’)
Occupy Wall Street in 3D. The 99% Join (2012, 72’)
Cyclopean 3D: Life with a Beautiful Woman (2012, 47’)
A Primer in Sky Socialism (2013, 58’)
Cyclops Observes the Celestial Bodies (2014, 16’)
Canopy (2014, 5’)
Flo and Ken Jacobs using a Pulfrich filter while watching Globe at the CGAI during the (S8) Mostra. (Photo by María Meseguer)
Are you happy with the term “experimental film”?
You don’t hear about experimental painting. But I think, because there is a big tradition of consumer film made to please and interest people, it seems appropriate to call “experimental” something which is going to go further out and make other kinds of demands on the audience. It’s OK, but I never actually experiment – I make things. I’ve always been trying to do something new, you know, but I never think “I’m experimenting”.
When you made Orchard Street, your first film, were you familiar with the avant-garde film tradition?
Yes, I was. Mostly with the films from NY MoMA and what I saw at the NY film club Cinema 16. I was impressed by the Maya Deren film [Meshes of the Afternoon, 1943] but generally I felt the films were too precious. And I wanted to make something that could innovate but that could be understood by most people. I wasn’t interested in the sexual problems that people were manifesting, political problems were far more important to me . I was aware of a larger oppression, although I can understand gay people in a situation where their life is made miserable every day by oppression. I am very sympathetic to the people that America despises. I am very sympathetic to the cause of black people, a problem today even with a black president – with all the police murders of innocent black men and women and kids. Mutual hatred seethes in America. Jack Smith was gay and when the AIDS plague hit New York, he was one of the victims. He was a strangely willing victim. He knew he was going to get sick and continued his experiences. When he was dying, however, he was very courageous.
How long did it take you to make Orchard Street?
I lived round the corner from Orchard Street on the old lower East Side, which was a shopping street, still very Jewish. It took months of filming. I would be spying on the street, I would see something and go for it. For Orchard Street, the movie In The Street  by Helen Levitt was a key. It showed you could simply pick up a camera and begin – you didn’t need a crew, you didn’t have to have sponsors – you had your camera and you began. Helen Levitt lived in New York but we never met. Now we know people who knew her. I’m very sorry we never met.
Was Orchard Street screened publicly, at the time?
It wasn’t shown because there was no way to sell it. When I made Orchard Street I still had thoughts of somehow making feature films, making stories, and I hoped it would bring some attention to myself. After I made the film I learned that a short much longer than 10 minutes had no chance of selling and cut it down to less than half. I needed to sell, I was broke. And then when I cut it down I was unhappy with myself and never tried to sell it. That’s how I became an underground filmmaker. The shorter version was sometimes shown but I recently  went back and resurrected the original 27 minutes as video, and this is the real film, done in 1955 and first shown in 2014. I left out considerations of sound, at the time of shooting I figured it as having music. I’d never seen a film without music. I couldn’t conceive of a film that would play silent until we saw Stan Brakhage’s Window Water Baby Moving . And not only was the birth of a baby astonishing, but the film was silent; and it was so strong, partly because of that.
When I went back to filmmaking after a year, all considerations of making a film that would sell left my mind. I began to work with Jack Smith. I made Little Stabs At Happiness and conceived and composed Blonde Cobra from Bob Fleischner’s filming of Jack. In the late ‘Fifties I shot a seven hour film called Star Spangled To Death starring Jack.
NISSAN ARIANA WINDOW
Your film Nissan Ariana Window not only is similar to, but shares the word “window” with the Brakhage film.
Yes, the “Window” is in tribute to Stan’s film.
You mean that the name of your daughter was a tribute to Stan Brakhage?
[Laughs] Yes, that’s right. It’s really part of her name.
Did you actually film the birth of your baby?
You didn’t want to?
No, we barely got to the hospital in time. I wasn’t prepared to. And the birth of our second child, in 1972 in Binghamton, took place in a Catholic hospital. They were terrible people. Flo and I had asked for natural childbirth, she was in a lot of pain and asked for something that would alleviate the pain and one of the nurses, a nun in disguise, said, “You asked for natural childbirth and you’re going to get it”. Vengeance was theirs on the New York Jews.
Did you direct Flo about what to do in the film?
Very simple directions. Maybe: look here, or now get up and get the baby’s clothing. Simple things like that. But the child, you see how she doesn’t take direction at all. Daddy wants to photograph the baby, and baby wants to travel the world.
In RAZZLE DAZZLE (The Lost World) and New York Ghetto Fishmarket 1903 your partner Flo Jacobs is credited as “assistant”. What is her role in your filmmaking?
She’s beyond “assistant”. We live together, do everything together. Flo values any ideas moving in my head. A film that is absolutely her doing is The Guests. It’s an early 1896 Lumière recording. The cinematographer’s daughter is getting married and he films his daughter’s wedding. The people are coming to the church. In one shot all the kids dressed in church vestments are in procession around the church, but we didn’t use that – we used the bride and groom and the family coming up the steps, shot from the entrance to the church. And we made two 3D films from this. One is Coupling, where the bride is magnificent because overexposed and like a radiant white spirit. It’s very beautiful. And the second part, the part we now have on a 3D Blu-ray, is The Guests. Flo was insistent I do this project.
We did it in a number of ways. One was as a series of 2D slides working in pairs to create 3D. Flo taped frames to glass slide-holders, enough to fit a Kodak Carousel slide-tray for the left eye and another Carousel tray for the right eye. One projector lens had a Polaroid filter for the left eye and the other for the right eye. Viewers wore Polaroid glasses and it was about an hour long. But it was really her enthusiasm for that project that made it happen, I’d probably have gone onto something easier. There was an inherent problem for this work because the people were mounting steps and heads would get out of line with each other and you can’t put together as 3D things that are vertically on different levels. So I had to work around that. Flo insisted that I meet the problem and continue with it.
And now you are also assisted by your daughter Nisi [whose name titled the film Nissan Ariana Window]. Is she the one who does all the computer work?
Now, yes. I’ve also worked with other people and each can become very important to particular works. I make all the decisions but each person will have a certain facility with the computer and it can effect the character of a work. Nisi’s really professional, she taught computing at NYU. And she loves to learn, she is happy when she is learning. And I’m very bad at learning but sometimes good at using other people’s abilities.
Jack Smith in Bonde Cobra
After Orchard Street you started to work with Jack Smith. All his films, either made by himself or by others, like Ron Rice, Andy Warhol or yourself, are very similar.
Similar only because Jack’s consistently outlandish but you’ll have to show me how the films can be confused with each other. Jack Smith is unique, like Charlie Chaplin. The first two films that I ever shot with Jack were Saturday Afternoon Blood Sacrifice and Little Cobra Dance. Now parts of THE WHIRLED, these two films are very important to my development. I’d tried to shoot Jack before but he was stiff, he was too postured, things didn’t breathe. And then one day for fun I began shooting Saturday Afternoon Blood Sacrifice, extemporaneously, and we looked at the film when it returned from the lab and it was glorious. I had half a roll of film left and next day we shot Little Cobra Dance. Both films are shown today as they were made, no cutting. They had spontaneity, they had life, they were very funny. This was the way to work.
How did you two meet?
I got out of the Coast Guard and at the time there was a government stipend for veterans to go to school and to live on, the G.I. Bill, G.I. for “Government Issue”, a great thing. I began again to study painting and to also study filmmaking. It was a small amount of money but I could go to City College where there was a small film program, technical courses, and I studied camera operation and basic editing. That’s all I’ve ever studied. The person in charge of the school, who did nothing [laughs] but give it a face, was Hans Richter. I admired his early silent films, so I went to see Hans Richter, and he approved me, but I didn’t know he approved anybody that would pay some money [laughs] for classes. His own films had become terrible by then, dopy films picturing art-world celebrities.
Dreams that Money Can Buy .
Oh, terrible, sad. I learnt later that he was a pretty good draughtsman and I like his drawings and paintings, but the films had become nothing. Anyway, there was Hans Richter, seated way up high so he looked down on me. I had to explain why I wanted to study film. He okayed me as he okayed everyone. And then he took the money and went home [laughs] and I never saw him again. But I had gone “to study with Hans Richter”!
And Jack Smith was studying there as well?
Yes, that’s right. Also Bob Fleischner, also on the G.I. Bill. He was the only person in my class that knew or cared anything about the art of film, the others only wanted jobs in the film industry. At some point Bob said that there was someone in another class that also cared a lot about film. He said, “The guy is very strange”, but Bob was pretty strange himself. He described leaving the school with the fellow, being in the subway. Bob loved to talk, he found himself very funny while people forced to listen could be faint with boredom. So he’s standing on the train talking to the guy who’s smiling and nodding, smiling and nodding, and at some point the train stops at a station and the fellow, Jack Smith, steps backwards through the train-doors. The doors shut and Bob realizes the man’s out there on the platform still smiling and nodding. I said, “He has style, I want to meet him.” We met soon after, both of us living on the Lower East Side, one block from each other as it turned out. I thought he was interesting but not that much, but my girlfriend at the time thought he was really hot stuff. One day Jack was over and made a drawing, and his drawings were always brilliantly imaginative although he knew nothing about drawing. He kept himself pure of any contamination of knowledge. He drew a picture of the two of us sitting at a table talking and he called it “The Delicatessen of Life”. I was impressed. But the thing that really impressed me – I lived one flight up from the street, it was a sunny summer day and my window was open and this voice comes from below: “Kenny, Kenny, can you come out and play?” That was it, any resistance was over.
He had a lot of very serious ideas about cinema. He was fascinated with Von Sternberg and Maria Montez. I liked Von Stroheim, so when Flo came into our lives I was talking about Von Stroheim while he’s talking about Von Sternberg, and she thought we were talking about the same person [laughs]. Jack loved certain stupid movies he had seen as a kid in the 1940s. He knew they were stupid but they had qualities, they had, above all, a star, Maria Montez. The worst actress, and he knew she was a terrible actress but one whom he could value because she was always herself, and that was better than being a convincing actress. He could follow her mind and see her acting! and was fascinated by her.
Jack had no interest in avant-garde cinema. He had no head for it and I’m not sure if he ever saw a Brakhage film. He had no interest in art-films, in foreign films, intellectual films. I remember one time we were looking at a projection of La Dolce Vita [Federico Fellini, 1960] and I could sense his way of looking at it. And the film shriveled, it died on the screen because of the way he was looking at it. He saw Warhol films because he was in them. Jack was very important for Warhol. No Jack Smith, no Warhol. Flaming Creatures stirred Warhol to make films.
He was a bit angry at Warhol for never completing and releasing his film Batman.
Oh, sure. But completing work didn’t really matter with him.
Yes, that’s right, he never completed his own films…
Yes. There’s a wonderful moment of Jack climbing over a fence [in Batman]. How he climbs over that fence is fantastic. That’s the story, climbing over that fence, that’s Batman. But Warhol had the money and Jack did not. Warhol could steal his superstars, like Mario Montez. Mario Montez was a poor Puerto Rican gay guy made to embody a figment of Jack’s imagination. “Superstar” is a word Jack made up and Warhol took over. His religion was superstars. The person you should talk to, eventually, is John Zorn, the musician. He worked for Jack for some years, recognizing Jack’s greatness. He was a very young person at the time and Jack was crazy, abusive, paranoid, but there were people devoted to him who would put up with Jack’s shit. Jack said to me once, “The measure of a friend is how much of your shit they put up with.”
Were your films the first ones he ever acted in?
Yes, that I know. He had made a film as a teenager, imitating Maria Montez, always imitating Maria Montez. And he had worked at a 16mm film called Vultures of Bagdad before we met. A mess. As a teenager he made The Saracens on 8mm. That was better. I had The Saracens for a couple of years and then gave it back to him, a mistake, because to preserve Jack’s things, you don’t give them back to him. You rescue them. It’s like… you steal the child in order for it to have a chance to live. Jack wanted to do big things that needed money. Warhol mostly made things to make money. I think he made some good films but also many awful things, or at least signed his name to them.
The films are good because he couldn’t sell them.
Ken: That’s right. He stopped making films because they didn’t make money. What a jerk. But he was a nice jerk. I have to say he was a nice person in his strange way. You know, one day I was running the FilmMakers Showcase, Flo was taking tickets.
Flo: Selling tickets. Jerry Sims was taking tickets at the door.
Ken: Oh, Jerry was taking tickets, that’s right. So one day we’re working and the film’s about to begin, and I’m walking up the aisle towards the screen when the lights go off. I can’t see a thing. A man rises from his seat just then and steps into the aisle in front of me, and I walk into the back of his head nose first. “Oh, my god, my nose is broken again!” Blood pouring, I go back to the lobby. Warhol’s standing there talking with other hot young painters. These guys were so involved in “making it”, they were such a different breed from the artists that came from the ‘30s into the ‘40s and ‘50s. I pass them, bleeding, and go upstairs where there’s a mirror to look at myself. My nose is clearly broken but I have a thought and take hold of the bottom part, turn it and hear the bone clicking back in place! Warhol arrives with a bag of ice. When he saw me pass with all this bleeding he immediately went out and found a place where they were selling ice. The other artists, “Oh, this guy’s bleeding, how interesting!”, but Warhol had the sense to engage, he was in the real world. Oh yes.
Now you show Saturday Afternoon Blood Sacrifice, TV Plug, Little Cobra Dance and The Death Of P’Town as a single work, The Whirled.
They are fragmentary but together make a film.
In them you just set the camera and Jack Smith improvised in front of it. Didn’t you instruct him?
I did but you can’t truly direct Jack Smith. He’d often misunderstand the instructions or willfully do something else. But usually I would somehow get what I wanted. I had to, and I wanted to, adjust to this latitude because his mind was always working, he was always creating theatre. No script at all, it was all improvisation yet I was clearly after precise events. Jack was correct for himself, he had a certain logic, it held together. It may not have been useful to you or to me or to other people but his was a defiant true logic. It was truth to him. Why would I want to stifle that and give him a line to deliver? Let him be.
And then in Star Spangled to Death he played with Jerry Sims, and Jerry Sims is no actor at all, there’s no way he can act, except as himself.
Was The Saturday Afternoon Blood Sacrifice originally intended for inclusion in Star Spangled to Death?
Jack Smith in The Death of P’Town
Is the P’Town in The Death of P’Town Provincetown, Rhode Island?
Yes. I was studying painting again summer of ‘61 with [Hans] Hofmann in Provincetown. He had retired from teaching but couldn’t help himself, if people came around to study with him he just had to do it. He had a big barn and students drew and painted in the barn. There was a picket fence around his property, student works were placed along the fence and he’d walk along and speak about each one with a crowd around him. He was a very generous man, a great man.
In Little Stabs at Happiness you say, talking about Jerry Sims: “If I mention his name he will sue me.”
That’s right. So he threatened. Both he and Jack are not what you call actors, they’re personalities. They’re condemned to be who they are. Jack would put on disguises, paint and transform himself but always as an expression of Jack Smith.
How did you get the images of the TV game show [Back your Hunch, hosted by Robert Q. Lewis on NBC] in TV Plug? Did you have somebody filming the screen off the TV set?
It was not a live show. They videotaped it and then told me when it would be on. I had a hundred feet of film and filmed what I could and you can hear me laughing on the recording. When I explained that the film is named Star Spangled To Death, that was not allowed to be broadcast. They cut just before the words “To Death” and then repeat something about obscure Brooklyn officials as if an emergency has taken place. Nobody can follow or remember what they say but they say it over and over until I stop speaking, because I’m saying things that are whimsical but politically critical. And then at the end the announcer says: “Well, he’s honest, isn’t he?”
In TV Plug you modified the synchronicity between sound and image.
I had to, yes. I recorded the sound and recorded what images I could but then repeated them to accompany the time of the sound.
Little Stabs at Happiness is credited to a “K. M. Rosenthal”.
Yes, that was my name to age 7, Kenneth Martin Rosenthal. My father wasn’t there, and when I was 7 years old my mother died and this bastard I barely knew who I was told was my father took me into another life. I was able to take a trolley car back to Williamsburg, to my grandmother, very often. And then when I was 16 I left this other life. And I’ve been stuck with the name Jacobs ever since. Every time I hear it, and every time I see it, there’s a moment I don’t know who this “Jacobs” is.
I think what happened was that Joe Jacobs was married to my mother for a short while and then they divorced when she showed an untimely pregnancy.
Are the handwritten credits in your first films, as in Little Stabs at Happiness, your own handwriting? or Jack Smith’s?
The writing in Little Stabs At Happiness is mine. Blonde Cobra is Jack’s writing.
You stopped making films on film in 1998 with the Georgetown Loop.
Ken: I think that’s correct.
Flo: Ken got some money from the New York Public Library to preserve Star Spangled To Death in the year 2000. We started working on a negative or an internegative. He had to separate the black and white negative, the reversal, the color positives and negative, the cartoons, all the found material. As he was working on it the money ran out.
Ken: But we weren’t told the money was running out by the shit entrusted with the job.
Flo: And we had gone only as far as the first big reel of film. But after so much preparation we weren’t going to stop. Everything was then transferred into digital. But the work wasn’t being edited anew, it was more like recollecting where would all the pieces go, like a jigsaw puzzle. He nearly completed everything in 2001, which was during when the towers [the World Trade Center] came down, so there was a big interruption, a big break.
Ken: We lived nearby, less than a 5 minute walk.
Flo: When we were able to get back to our place he continued the work and completed it in 2004. The film itself remains in sections.
Ken: But I like it this way.
Are you happy with the digital quality of the film? Do the transfers work OK?
Absolutely. The main virtue of going digital, besides reconciling all the different film qualities, is that you can pause on the single frames of text, read them and go on. A friend timed how long it takes to look through reading everything and he said 11 hours.
Yes, I know, because I’ve done it.
Oh, wonderful, thank you so much. Did you find it worthwhile?
Yes, sure. We’ll talk about Star Spangled later.
During the festival you projected your Blonde Cobra with a previously recorded live Spanish radio broadcast.
The problem is that I don’t understand Spanish at all, but I specified Spanish commercial radio. Jack smashes the radio tubes and the radio-sound stops. Radio tubes are something of the past, we don’t have them anymore, but people back then recognized them.
The broadcast was about politics and religion, including an advertisement about an insurance company. It matched the images perfectly well.
But it always does, because most radio is a fountain of stupidity and malignancy. When I show the film in different parts of the world, with the radio broadcasting in different languages, people always tell me how well it connected [with the images].
In Blonde Cobra you appropriated footage shot by Bob Fleischner [in 1959] for two different films. Did the black and white footage belong to one of them, and the color footage to the other?
No, the color footage is mine. I had shot it previously. But I never knew what his films were about and I never wanted to know. Once Bob gave the material to me, he stayed out of it. Jack had also given up on it, as to how it could become a film. But I felt that a film was there. Bob photographed scenes Jack devised but Jack was very unhappy with the film. I think it was too confessional. But it is just because of that that the film should exist.
And in 1962 Jack Smith showed his own film Flaming Creatures and Blonde Cobra was the short before the feature. It was the Underground’s first popular hit but then screenings were stopped and the film was confiscated. I was managing the theatre, Flo was selling tickets, and we went to jail, with Jerry Sims and Jonas Mekas. We were all arrested.
In a way, Blonde Cobra is your first found-footage film.
Yes, but as I said, there is some of my own filming in it. And also the film was shot silent, and then, later on after summer ‘61 when Jack and I stopped being friends and working together, we did manage to get together, a truce, and I tape-recorded him for two days. He said these things for the microphone, some lines which were mine but in his style, and some lines that I had heard him say and asked him to say again. And then I put it all together. It’s a Frankenstein. The songs are all one-take improvisations. I would put the phonograph on and he’d listen as the music would begin, nod and I’d start again and he’d go right into it. Imagine, he’s making all that up in the moment. He wasn’t looking at the film, just making things up. “Life swarms with innocent monsters, Charles Beaudelaire.” Jack had a mind for remembering beautiful statements like that. This film seems, at first seeing, crazy, but you have to take my word for it, after you see it a couple of times it all falls into place.
Why do you keep the black screen for so long?
Because it makes sense. He’s saying things that evoke pictures. I didn’t want the competition of screen pictures. Let people hear what he’s saying and see in their minds what the words produce, because they’re very strong, very clear. “The nun’s coming down millions of millions of winding stairs,” you know, you want to see that in your head. Oh, this is funny language, and very literate.
And burning the little boy’s penis with a match.
Which is probably true.
Blonde Cobra ends with the Spanish word “FIN”. And Jerry Sims uses the same word at the beginning of Star Spangled To Death.
Flo: It is also a French word. Because it’s from Madame Nescience. But it only appears at the end.
Ken: Do you know what the word “nescience” means? Nobody does. Jerry would walk around angry and he would call people directly that, “nescient”, and no one knew what he meant. But it means “mindless”, “know-nothing”. Both Jack and Jerry had big vocabularies. Jerry had a giant vocabulary.
Ken Jacobs and Jerry Sims in Star Spangled to Death.
Was Jerry Sims interested in art?
Ken: He was interested in 19th century classical music, early 20th century popular music, and classic literature.
Flo: He would go to the New York public library on 42nd Street and read every day of the week, abusive of the people working there.
Ken: Oh, he smelled.
In Star Spangled to Death, is the room with the walls covered in images his own room or apartment?
Yes. And the last scene in Blonde Cobra takes place in Jerry’s place.
Nissa Ariana Window and Spaghetti Aza [which is included in the chapter “Limbo Continued” of Star Spangled to Death, under the title “What is this thing called love?”] are kind of home movies. But you are not very prodigal with home movies, as Brakhage could be.
I respect home movies.
After hearing you say A Loft is an Abstract Expressionist film, I saw Window as Abstract Expressionism as well. They are very similar, with all the movement and the abstractions and the whip-pans.
Yes, that’s right.
In Window you place some objects in front of the camera, while filming.
Yes, but they have no symbolic value. They are formal things, shapes activating space.
And you can see a flooded street.
Flo: There were big rains and the drains were probably not working. It was a hide tanning district, very close to the water, two or three blocks from the East River. The Brooklyn Bridge is right there. But I can’t imagine water is coming from the East River. It must be the sewers or the draining system that weren’t working so well.
Was the film made in camera, no editing?
Was it made in one single day?
Ken: Yes, one single day, no editing. It was inspired by jazz and Abstract Expressionism, and that means leaving things as they happened, leaving the mistakes, not making it perfect, capturing the vitality of the moment, not pruning very delicately making everything just right.
Flo: But you had studied the window for months.
Ken: Oh, yes, I did. I was fascinated by the window.
And there are some superimpositions as well. Are they an accident?
Ken: No, purposeful.
Flo: It was Regular 8mm. And so it was your 8mm Bolex, that you could rewind. So you would’ve chosen to rewind for superimpositions. That was originally regular 8mm film, 400 feet.
Stan Brakhage wrote that Window is a metaphor of your mood at the time, and of your childhood. Do you agree?
All I can say is that I’d been studying that window for a long time, delighted that there was no glass interfering with the passage of air. It was a clean and clear rectangle. My interests were formal.
THE PULFRICH FILTER
How does the Pulfrich filter work?
This little plastic, placed over one eye with both eyes open, will transform a two dimensional film into 3D if a horizontal movement takes place. Light reaches the covered eye a little bit later than the naked eye because the filter slows the light that passes through it. The eye without the filter sees an image in real time while the eye with the filter receives the image that was there a moment ago. You see two frames at one time, one eye sees the present and the other the immediate past. And if there’s horizontal movement, your two eyes see two adjacent perspectives simultaneously. You see 3D via two moments in time. It’s amazing.
Place the filter to the side the movement is going to. If to the right, hold the filter in front of the right eye. It works watching TV and it works in life, too: it can distort space in actual life. If you look at things from a moving car, space opens at great distances, but also, and I do this a lot, when you are traveling in an airplane you can see volumes of depth at great distances. After about 25 feet most people can’t see further depth because the distance between the two eyes is not enough to create three dimensions. But with the filter -and horizontal movement- you can see depth much, much further.
In 1922 Carl Pulfrich had a theory. He couldn’t see proof of his theory himself, having lost an eye in WWI, but if you look at a clock-pendulum with one eye seeing through the dark filter, the pendulum, in actuality moving backwards and forwards, will seem to circle. And if you put the filter before the other eye, it will circle the other way. It’s called the Pulfrich Pendulum Effect.
Which was your first 3D film for the Pulfrich filter?
Flo: It was Globe in 1969. First it was called Excerpt from the Russian Revolution.
Are there any other differences between Excerpt From The Russian Revolution and Globe, besides the change of title?
Flo: It originally played with music by Prokofiev.
Ken: The Scythian Suite.
Flo: And then he changed the title.
No voice-over at that time?
Flo: No voice. And then he changed the music to the talk by that woman, taken from an erotic long-play record called The Sensuous Woman.
What made you choose this erotic narration as soundtrack?
I thought the sound was appropriate, to balance divine with profane. Listening to the woman’s voice, you learn a lot. I think that elements bond to each other, the sensual voice on one side and the frigid, frozen, lifeless scene on the other. It is very formal. This combination may seem absurd but these buildings on the top of these hills are also absurd. This is upstate New York, Binghamton, and these houses are the reward for people who made it into the real middle class, working for IBM. The houses lack playfulness, originality, there are no sidewalks, no neighbors! You go straight from the house into your car by way of attached garages.
Are the shots in Globe found-footage, as in Opening The Nineteenth Century: 1896?
Globe is not found footage. I shot it myself.
The Pulfrich effect seems more intense when the footage is upside down.
I agree. Seeing things right-side-up you are accustomed to the gravitational pull holding things in place. But, when the world is upside-down, weights hang and you feel the weight of things hanging here and there in space.
OPENING THE NINETEENTH CENTURY: 1896
Globe, as many of your films, is a palindrome: it could be projected in the right direction and then, without rewinding the rolls, projected again from the end, and the film on the screen would be exactly the same. In this way it is structurally similar to Opening The Nineteenth Century: 1896.
Opening the Nineteenth Century is a collection of Lumière films shot in 1896, believed to be the first films made with the camera itself is in motion. That’s the order in which I got them and that’s the way I used them, but, to keep the movement in the same direction, I spun some shots upside-down. When they’re shown a second time, the shots which were upside-down now are right-side-up and all of them go in the opposite direction so one switches the filter to the other eye. I like to see things upside down, to better feel the weight of things. Follow filter directions and you’ll see the 1800s in 3D. 3D! it’s spoken of as a dumb trick but it’s a miracle. I mean, 2D is what’s weird: the whole world flattened down to one plane, how bizarre that is! Life takes place in depth and this cheap little plastic filter can enable you to see something closer to what life was like in the 1800s.
Opening the Nineteenth Century: 1896
Trains abound in your films.
That’s right. Trains and cinema are very related, very related, especially in the days of chugging projectors.
In many of your analytical films you show the original found material you are about to manipulate, as in Tom Tom…, then you analyze it and then you show it again for a new completely different and richer reading. These films of yours are like didactic lessons. Is that what you do in Disorient Express, when you show the footage in the single screen section [while the other half of the screen is black]?
Flo: Yes, he shows the original film on the right-half of the screen straight, then again on the left but upside-down. And then it restarts again, mirrored, double screen. He’s also said one of the reasons he did that, first screening the original film, was to present a “theme and variations”.
Do you use the same original footage for Disorient Express, The Georgetown Loop and Let There Be Whistle Blowers? The passengers in all of them seem to wave their white handkerchiefs.
Flo: No, but it must have been a fashion of the time. Now they’ve resurrected the original Georgetown Loop in Colorado.
Ken: But you have to go in the summer season to ride it.
Flo: To bring the silver from the top of the mountain down to the bottom, they created that incredible track on stilts, amazing. And then the other film, A Trip Down Mt. Tamalpais, 1906, is near San Francisco. And Let There Be Whistleblowers, that’s originally Sarnia Tunnel [Ontario, Canada, 1903]. So they are three different trains.
We see the tunnel of Let There Be Whistle Blowers again in Loco Motion.
Flo: Yes. In Loco Motion he used the negative of going through the tunnel in Sarnia Tunnel. The work began as a live performance with Steve Reich at a benefit for the Filmmaker’s Co-op, to go with the first section of Drumming, but what happened was that when you got to the theatre to set up…
Ken: The screen was flooded with light.
Flo: Because the musicians needed light to play. And the image was barely visible. But then he went on to make an 18 minute work timed to [the first section of] Drumming, now called Let There Be Whistleblowers.
Was your stepping into found footage film-making a question of cost, or you just got interested in recycling?
Ken: Cost was part of it. But it was fascinating, a wonderful territory to invade and to explore. I had read in The NY Times that an actual detective had discovered these films in the Library Of Congress. They were not films but, instead, paper prints of films, stored in order to copyright them, the practice up to 1912. And this detective, Kemp Niver, began the process of refilming the paper prints so they could be put on a projector. Amazing. Tom Tom, The Piper’s Son was one of the films he discovered.
Flo: That was ‘67 or ‘68 when Ken rented the salvaged films for his class.
Ken: By that time I was teaching at St John’s University, and they had this wonderful thing called a budget, which I used to rent these films. St John’s is in Queens, and it’s a very conservative Catholic university. How I got hired there, they had an adventurous art department and they heard of me, they reached me and offered me the job. We had lost the situation where the government was paying for The Millennium Film Workshop and suddenly I was working at St John’s University. I had about 300 students, all very formally dressed. The girls wore stockings, the boys wore ties and jackets, and they had all gone to Catholic schools. They were so oppressed, so housebroken. And then this animal from the streets of Williamsburg comes in to teach them film [laughs]. I showed a movie from South America called The Given Word, a very Marxist movie about the betrayal of the peasants by the Church. And in my class there sat a priest, an older priest who had worked in South America, and he said after the screening, “It’s worse than this.” And the film is devastating. I showed them Blonde Cobra, I showed them Stan Brakhage’s Window Water Baby Moving. The people of the Art Department were very protective of me, the priests very contemptuous, and I of course was the same towards them. Oh my God. There was a little protest group, some students marching in a small circle against the Vietnam War, and the priests were standing around yelling at them. The art department intended to expand the program with me in charge, and then they got punished, the administration denied the money. By this time I was getting offers from other schools, one from upstate New York, another from Tampa, Florida. When asked “How much money do you want”, I said “11,000”.
Flo: No, “18,000”.
Ken: 18,000? Oh my god. That’s what I had been offered by Tampa, Florida. The job offer came because of Stan Vanderbeek teaching there. We were living on $3500 a year.
You’ve been using found footage for most of your career. Have you ever had to pay any royalties?
Ken: We paid for some music.
Flo: And also for Berth Marks.
Ken: The Laurel and Hardy movie. When we showed it in New York a young woman appeared. She came from the company that had the rights, the ownership of it. She said she had studied film in college and she would get back to me, I would have to pay something. And, how much did we pay?
Flo: One dollar.
Ken: One dollar. We must have angels as Stan would say, what else? Oh, the music from Razzle Dazzle, Mischa Spoliansky, a Jewish musician from Berlin who went to England and then to Hollywood. He used to play for the cabarets. Fantastic musician. And we pursued that music.
Flo: We found his grandson. And then we found out who to contact in England and then from there we found out who to contact in the US, it was Universal. I think most of the films Ken has used have been in public domain, like Tom Tom The Piper’s Son. Actually, when he first used it, I thought Berth Marks would be illegal, but “No”, he said, “this is our 20th century environment, and it’s inescapable. Film is our trees, our landscape. It feeds our minds.”
Ken: We have the right to deal with what is put into our minds. We can’t avoid it.
In Razzle Dazzle we hear a radio speech in praise of the Allies and US troops, with reference to the Star-Spangled Banner. Who’s speaking?
Thomas Alva Edison.
TOM TOM AND SONS
Tom Tom The Piper’s Son
You keep returning to Tom Tom The Piper’s Son in quite a few films and performances: The Impossible: Southwark Fair, Schilling, Hell Breaks Loose; A Tom Tom Chaser; Anaglyph Tom; Return To The Scene Of The Crime… So many remakes of a remake.
I was obsessed with it. I’m in love with those people. I know every frame, every person in the movie, every expression, I love them. There’s such life, there’s such enthusiasm.
Why did you insert the color shots in Tom Tom the Piper’s Son, the rose against the sheet? They remind me of shadow-plays.
That’s what they are. I was alluding to the fact that all movies are shadow plays. Also I wanted a break in the black and white to remind the viewer when the image returned that the image was black and white.
What are the differences between the 1969 and the 1971 versions of Tom Tom the Piper’s Son?
In 1971 I added the section, which I had thought about but not done in 1969, of the entire film going through the gate without the sprocket holes being engaged.
Southwark Fair was your first Nervous System performance. So in a way your expanded performances were born of Tom Tom.
Yes, that’s right. I couldn’t stop. The film just vacuumed my brain.
According to the credits, A Tom Tom Chaser is a Rank Cintel optical scan improvisation. What was your role in the film?
I conceived of it as a film and encouraged the operator to play with it going for those distortions and then edited the results.
MORE FOUND FOOTAGE
The Doctor’s Dream was one of the first experimental films I ever saw, at the London Film-Makers’ Co-op.
Ken: This was an actual experiment, a class exercise, to try this and see what happens. I numbered the original shots, and then we re-ordered them –starting with the middle shot, and then the shot that had originally been before that now followed it, and then the shot that had followed the middle shot came after that, going back and forth until the last two shots, which were the first and the last of the original movie. I’d been impressed by something that Nam June Paik did, a performance we saw a few times, where he would start with the middle key of the piano, and then the key to the right and then the key left of it, spreading out until he pressed the wood on both sides of the piano. And then he leaves the piano and goes as far as the room allows him to go to either side pressing imaginary keys. That was inspirational.
Flo: That was ‘65 or earlier. And, Kenneth, also, don’t forget it also comes from Ernie [Gehr]’s Serene Velocity .
Ken: It doesn’t. It doesn’t. I know exactly where it comes from. Ernie Gehr did something similar, filming forward and back in the basement hall in Binghamton. And he felt that when I did The Doctor’s Dream I had taken it from his film. Ah! But it is such a different interpretation. But he’s forgiven me, for something I never did.
Were you already working at that school, when he made Serene Velocity?
Another film I like is Perfect Film. Is it that “perfect”, or did you change something?
Flo: No, he said it is perfect as it is. He didn’t touch it.
Ken: Oh, no, I’d never do that. That’s the way I found it, without adding anything. It’s amazing. When I looked at the film for the first time, the first thing I said was “Perfect film!” And that became the title.
Even the structure is amazing: same interviewees from different angles, the silent shot of Harlem creating a rhythm… And the impossible flash back of Malcolm X himself in the middle.
Flo: And then the countdown with a target.
Ken: Yes, fantastic. And the end-shot with the police waving passersby into a white screen.
What about the sound?
The sound was lower, it was recorded badly I had to lift the volume of the sound.
It is very similar to Bruce Conner’s Report.
Both are about the assassination of a politician (Kennedy is also mentioned in your Perfect Film), and both use found-footage as a means. In both, we watch death as TV spectacle.
Flo: We should see it. Maybe we did a long time ago.
Ken: I did see it a long time ago, but I wasn’t impressed.
Do you agree with Malcolm X’s dictum of fighting injustice “by any means necessary”?
No. I believe in the statement by Saul Alinsky (American Community Organizer) that “the action is in the reaction”.
NERVOUS MAGIC LANTERN
Jacobs during the premiere of New Paintings by Ken Jacobs. (Photo by María Meseguer)
You stopped doing your Nervous System Performances in 2000…
Ken: Yes, after 25 years. It was heavy labor. That’s the reason. We would be carrying three projectors, one being a spare.
Flo: Because there’s always the chance of something breaking down.
Ken: Each one was at least 40 or 50 pounds [18 or 23 kilos], and I said, “No, that’s enough”. And also, in 1990, I began the Nervous Magic Lantern, and then waited 10 years until 2000 to develop it. I knew it had a lot of potential. Did you see the show last night [world premiere of New Paintings by Ken Jacobs (2015) at the (S8) Mostra de Cinema Periférico]?
Yes, I loved it. I don’t know why, but I preferred last night’s show to the previous one [Time Squared, 2014].
Flo: I have a feeling that it could be because it was after the master-class, and you could see it with new eyes, and see it more as painting than as cinema.
Ken: It is so impossible and so simple.
During Time Squared I saw you move the discs back and forth. Is there any other movement on the plates?
Yes, they can tilt and turn. I shift them so slightly and changes take place beyond expectation. The projector is simple and cheap to make yet forever calls for minor adjustments. There is a light-source, a lens which is a single glass element, and then an empty space to place and move the discs between lamp and lens. The shell is cardboard with small fans pushing out heat. I paint on clear plastic discs not knowing what will take place on-screen. Without the spinning shutter this would be nowhere. The spinning shutter creates these fascinating depth movements, impossible in life, Eternalisms, where scenes are both moving and changing yet staying in place. That’s a lot of explanation and the rest I won’t tell you unless you intend to get into the Nervous Magic Lantern business.
Is the order of discs random, or do you always follow the same order?
For a particular piece, the same or almost the same. What happens on-screen can be very different each time. It is always an improvisation and what is new for the audience is also new for me. I have control to a point. I choose the order of discs but then develop or diminish possibilities that arise.
How do you make the slides?
There’s no photography involved. I play with paints and different material, sometimes microscopic things that will be vastly enlarged on-screen, same as with movies where every frame is smaller than a stamp. Every detail becomes enlarged and every gap between details becomes enlarged. The disc is nothing in itself, not intended to hang on a wall, I paint only for the effect once projected. Flexible but stiff plastic, very cheap. I’ve used dirt, everything, anything that stays fastened to the surface. It’s a simple device that could have happened centuries before the movies; people could have seen 3D abstract cinema way before photographic.
In Time Squared you accompany the images with the sound recorded in the subway, ending with your arriving home and talking to Flo. Did you edit the sound?
When creating your Nervous Magic Lantern performances, when do you get to “know” the title of the work (that’s to say, the “content” of the work)? Do you adapt the images to a title/content you have in mind, or the other way round?
A title can occur at any time, before or after deciding on the image.
MORE DIGITAL CINEMA
Flo Rounds a Corner is your first film on video, but in it you try the same techniques of your Nervous System performances. Are the results on video very different to the film performances?
Flo: We tried to simulate this Nervous System in digital…
Ken: But it’s not quite the same. Now I have a 4K camera at home and we are going to re-stage the Nervous System pieces and record them accurately. No way you could do that before.
Flo: Because the technology wasn’t there before digital. Recordings were transient.
Is the “Bye Molly” phrase in Ontic Antics Starring Laurel and Hardy part of the title?
Flo: It’s two different works now, the original Nervous System performance and the digital work. And the digital work has “Bye Molly” at the end of the title. A background voice on the film’s soundtrack.
Ken: You hear a voice saying “Bye Molly!”
Some scenes of this film, and in some others (as at the end of Capitalism: Child Labor), are very similar to the work of Raphael Montañez Ortiz and Martin Arnold. Do you know their films?
Ken: I don’t know about Ortiz. Martin Arnold, that’s a direct response to things he saw when we visited Germany in the ‘80’s.
In your Nervous Magic Lantern performances there is something that amazes me: there is a strong light that seems to come directly from behind the screen, as in a nebula. How do you do that?
It’s a gift, it’s a gift. I paint the discs on impulse and some slight foretelling of effect, and then I see what happens. Also sometimes I use two discs together.
Do you ever use discs from one work in a different performance?
Yes, sure. It won’t appear the same.
What is the image we see in Mountaineer Spinning?
It’s so much better as a mystery. When people now talk about Seeking the Monkey King the first thing you hear is “aluminum foil”, but I don’t want them to know or to say that it’s aluminum foil. It doesn’t destroy the movie but it robs it of some allure, takes some mystery out of it. Mountaineer Spinning is a small photograph, an ancient hand-painted slide, and then I put it in the Nervous Magic Lantern, and all these strange things happen. It may originally have been a slide for a magic lantern.
Who are the people in the negative photograph (a group of people, the camera panning) in your Magic Lantern rendering Celestial Subway Lines/Salvaging Noise?
It’s a found glass negative from the 19th century. A mysterious group photo.
What about Krypton Is Doomed?
That’s a painted slide. But I think that it uses actual people photographed and then painted over, like a complicated comic book. And the space that happens is a mystery, it all comes from one flat image.
Where did you take the dialogues from? Is it a Superman radio play?
The story, “Krypton is Doomed”, oh God, I don’t want to say it, I don’t want to believe it, but of course Krypton is like this planet, Earth. Last night I couldn’t sleep. At a certain point I woke up and read about the US SEALS, a military group connected with the CIA that is purely involved with murder. What they are doing is insane, 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 the majority. But most of us don’t want people owning guns, machine-guns, assault rifles… but there is no way to stop it. The gun manufacturers control the government. The Navy SEALS kidnap, mutilate and kill all over the world. I think that when a place is invaded, inhabitants have the right to kill whoever invades. SEALS are the invaders, they have nothing in mind but love to kill. They kill women, they kill children, they kill, kill, kill, with all kind of things, including a hatchet, they take pieces of bodies away for lucky keepsakes. They are drunks, they are supermen, masters. And when they’ve served their time in the “service” and come back to society, don’t you think they’ll kill more?
SEEKING THE MONKEY KING
Seeking the Monkey King
This political rage of yours can be seen in many of your films, but not only in the openly anticapitalist films like Capitalism: Slavery or Capitalism: Child Labor. In one of your films you engrave the words “Impeach Bush-Cheney” on an umbrella.
Yes, that’s right, in New York Ghetto Fishmarket. I have been politically concerned since the age of 17. But films allow you, or they don’t allow you, to make political comments. They are obstinate things in a way. The films on program no. 4 [on 5 June 2015], there’s no way they cannot be political. One [Capitalism: Slavery] is about black slavery in America, and the other one [Capitalism: Child Labor] is about child labor all over the world. And the third one is Another Occupation, about soldiers standing around, occupying. It’s a pun, it’s an occupying army.
Where is Another Occupation set? Is it Thailand?
Could be. The film looks like it’s from the 1930’s.
How did you create the images for Seeking the Monkey King?
I used ten or twelve photographs of aluminum foil from the kitchen, and then worked on them at the computer. The computer is my friend. But it’s too complicated. I work with an assistant, usually our daughter.
Films can picture the world but these images of the world are clearly impossible. Hollywood mostly makes films to confirm a complete delusion. This is ideology. With Seeking the Monkey King I want to bring people to the point of questioning what they see. You have the obligation to protect your individual power of perception. I don’t offer delusions, I don’t want the audience to believe what I show. I rather want them to be entertained by illusions that can be recognized as such. That is the fun of it, as well as common decency.
It is a very political film.
Does it do any good? I did not intend Seeking the Monkey King to be political, and yet it’s the most political of all. I don’t really plan very much, I don’t plan at all. Seeking the Monkey King just opened up for political statement.
The last night Occupy Wall Street was allowed to stay in the Wall Street area, Seeking the Monkey King was shown on a screen outdoors, and the next day the cops came. I don’t think they came because of the movie [laughs]. But I’m very happy to have played a part in Occupy. But what can a film do? Well, yes, films can do things. Birth of a Nation intensified lynching of black people in America. That’s very effective. Triumph of the Will showed Hitler as God. They can be really effective.
America has stopped having politics and now has rich people, including presidents who get rich after they cease being presidents. Obama should be getting very rich soon, coming to the end of his presidency, because now he gets paid off. That’s how it works. Politics in America is getting into a position where you do favors and you get paid for those favors. Sometimes you’re stupid and you’re paid the money while still in office and then you may be arrested for corruption. But you usually wait till you end your office and then you get the rewards. Bill Clinton, speaking for a multimillionaire audience, gets paid a million dollars for a speech. What do you think he has to say worth a million dollars? In America you are free to say anything. You can make a movie like Seeking the Monkey King, which says very powerful things but only reaches a tiny fragment of the population. So they figure, “Let them speak, let them say anything. Let them talk, because it doesn’t mean anything.”
After decades of using mainly found footage, why did you decide to use your own home movies and pictures again, as in Cyclopean 3D: Life With a Beautiful Woman or A Loft?
I like the stereo-photographs and decided to animate them. A 3D videocamera, the Fuji W3, got me filming and photographing again. Every day, everywhere.
They are in a sense autobiographical, like Jonas Mekas’ movies, whom you dedicate your Jonas Mekas In Kodachrome Days.
We see friends of many years. Early on you see the playwright Richard Foreman, and Amy Taubin. They were married then and you can see them having problems. You can see Stan Brakhage with his wife Jane and kids, living in the mountains.
There’s no stories, however. These movies do not dwell on human problems. I’m also a painter and this is my way of painting. I’m interested in the existence of things and this is my way of picturing them, animating them, having fun with appearances. I don’t have many stories. Jack Smith had a story, the story of his own suffering, which he was making into a kind of comic opera. And that story demanded to be told.
The films shown on the last session [Capitalism: Slavery, Capitalism: Child Labor, Another Occupation, Seeking the Monkey King] deal with situations in our lives, they deal with war, with greed. But these other films are fascinated by arrangements in sheer existence.
I feel bad when the audience walks away but when I’m seeing a film I’m not interested in human problems. I like to think I’m celebrating the life of the mind. And this celebration has to take place as well as the films that show us problems. This is also real.
When and why do you decide that a film like Cyclopean 3D: Life with a Beautiful Woman should end?
It’s a feeling, not a system. What kind of rhythm would be effective here, what image. The only thing is that the children do get older, that’s the progression of the film.
Many of these stereoscopic photographs are old. Were you thinking of turning them into movies when you took them?
No! An author may write about archeology, or about someone and the material will take on a form, the described life will take on a cohesiveness. But that’s literature. In real life, few of us have what we’d call a cohesive life. A life doesn’t tell a story, unless one surrenders to a wild imagination. Things exist, which is already so powerful and so strange. There’s illusion and there’s delusion. Commercial cinema, with its stories, create and reinforce delusions. People in America are very deluded. Many think the world came into existence 2000 years ago. They are victims of arrested development but they age and they vote. And history is made by their leaders. People in delusion are dangerous. For a long time, paintings were the movies. They would show the anointed king, the pope, Jesus being crucified; you got a story from the painting. Serious painting doesn’t bother about that any more. Most movies are murals of supposed big events. These days there are a lot of movies which lead us to the idea of a dead Earth. And with all these messages of a dead Earth it becomes particularly necessary to celebrate the existence of things.
Teachers of filmmakers often teach how a story works as a psychological mechanism and how to fashion a story that will seize people’s emotions, keep them there and hold them there. Just to learn how the story works out. I hate that. I hate the approach to the human being as a mechanism that can be trapped and tricked into a need to learn how stories end. I don’t want to give orders and I don’t want to follow orders. It we are mechanisms, I prefer us to be unruly, berserk mechanisms – like Jack Smith.
How do you do animate the photographs?
It goes back to when Flo and I were performing with two projectors, The Nervous System, and two prints of the same film maybe one or two frames out of synch. And in this space in embodied time, between frame A on one projector and frame B on the other projector, we discovered that we could create spaces not entirely dissimilar or unrelated to the space you see having a left eye and a right eye. That’s how we see depth. Each eye sees a different flat image and its the brain that interprets similar and dissimilar alignments as depth. We have this spinning shutter that creates the black interval. The black interval is very important. Depth happens in the dark. That’s when the brain works and sees the images together.
But A Loft was not made with stereoscopic photographs…
A Loft was made with stereoscopic video. See, I’m always carrying my stereo video camera [he shows a small pocket camera]. A Loft picks up very much on Abstract Expressionism. Forces exist, living things are forces, force must be contained by counterforce, otherwise anything could explode the world. And much of the excitement about existence is in Abstract Expressionism.
What’s your opinion about commercial 3D?
I’m prejudiced. I don’t like the acting, I don’t like the color, I hate the controlling background music. I don’t think they explore 3D or especially delight in 3D. They make things look real, and that’s not what I’m interested in. Apparent depth is something we can play with. It’s like clay, we can do things with it, invert it, all kinds of changes, but I’ve never seen that in commercial movies.
Your Incendiary Cinema (2005), made for the Viennale, is a brief flicker film in which you insert a live shot. In it we can see a notice on a railing that says things like “he lives”. Where did you film that?
In a city playground. People had left memorial images and flowers for those who went missing on 9/11.
STAR SPANGLED TO DEATH
Let’s talk about Star Spangled to Death, “an array of found footage and found personalities”, as you describe it. But in order to talk about it we should talk about your politics.
I shouldn’t speak about my politics, because for anybody young and willing to take on the fight, I am old and I feel so defeated, so defeated.
More now than in the 60s?
I was pretty defeated then but I would never admit it. Now I have to admit it.
You start Star Spangled to Death with a very long clip on African colonialism, with all its racism and sexism and fascism. Your film is like watching TV, one show after the other, and all them tell us about what a dirty world we live in.
But you also see them in a different light. You can see how crazy it is, how cruel it is, and pompous. I’m sorry I didn’t have the film to show when I taught at the Catholic school.
You started the film in 1957 and you finished it in 2004. Why that long? Weren’t you happy with the first version?
No, I just didn’t have the money. But now I’m quite happy with the results in the video version. I wouldn’t change a thing.
In a way this delay was positive for the film, because you were able to include the anti-Gulf war demonstrations and even a reincarnation of Jack Smith.
I like the film very much the way it is. About the anti-war demonstration, Bush-Cheney would say afterwards “Well, we made a mistake”. The world was telling them this is a mistake, the whole world was saying this is a mistake. Bastards! Absolutely, absolutely.
In the film you mention a visit to the Communist Party headquarters. Have you ever joined the Communist Party, or any other political organization?
No. At the time that was such a mad thing to do. They wanted to exterminate every communist they could. And I go to join the party. And somebody there says: “Come back on Monday. We’re ready to close.” It hit my sense of humor, enormously. And I never again could pull myself together to join. I’d be terrible in an organization. No way I could be obedient.
But then you’ve taken part in the Occupy Wall Street movement, at least with the projection of Seeking the Monkey King.
In my way, yes. And I also have a 3D film which is just coming out on a Blu-ray, which is called Blankets for Indians. You know, meeting with the Indians, the whites would give them blankets with diseases. That’s what we do from a way back. The Spanish came over, the English came over, and then we took over, the Americans. And we are still destroying the Indians, to this day. The Indians are there, living in poverty, and the children suicide; their children, today, are suiciding.
Jerry Sims says in Star Spangled to Death: “I want my photo of Antonin Scalia [Associate Justice appointed by Reagan] burning a candle to Il Duce.” Is that ironic? Did that photo really exist?
I made that up.
And there is a parade and a fake dead man in a coffin I couldn’t identify. What was that?
It was a public stunt in the UK; I used the found footage.
In Star Spangled to Death some of the shots have the same scotch tape we can see in Jack Smith film Scotch Tape. Are they out-takes of that film, or just filmed with the same (your?) camera?
They were filmed with my camera around the same time.
Some of the flash texts are repeated, in some cases in a fragmentary way. Was that intended?
I don’t think they are repeated.
Yes, they are.
Well, I make mistakes.
And then you say: “I hate America”, meaning the USA…
I hate the Spanish that came over, so cruel, so terrible; they invaded a superior civilization. The people were taller, more beautiful, more healthy, and they killed them off. Fuck them! Columbus was a monster. We in America celebrate Columbus day. I don’t think it’s a big deal over here [in Europe], but in America, “Oh, Columbus day”. We have stories about The Pilgrims, and they’re so good to the Indians, oh yes! So we live in a myth.
I’ve always been attracted to the title.
I was a very young person when I titled the movie, 23.
You say “I hate America”, but you don’t say “I hate Israel” as much as I think you should. You say in the film: “I regret Israel ever happened, but don’t see how it was to be avoided.” There is always a ring of justification and understanding of what they do to Palestinians.
Where were they going to go? They couldn’t stay in Europe. They are surrounded by enemies. It is an impossible situation I can’t see lasting.
It’s not a question of where to go, but of why they are doing what they are doing to the Palestinians. The problem is the creation of a “Jewish” state (or a Christian state, or a Muslim state), only for Jews.
Where to go is not a question. You’re right, they tried that. From the final solution to the two-state solution, better, much better. Pity that the refugees that comprise the state of Israel can’t transcend their history. There’s still people who would like to make of America a purely Christian state.
“Only Christians allowed.”
Yes, that’s what it comes down to. But the Jews, what a terrible lesson to have taken into your body, you know, a lesson taught to your body: assembly line murder. When you are a young person you somehow absorb such things and go on, you figure it’s the way things are, but it stays with you. It has always stayed with me. Jews have a right to be crazy, if not the obligation.
You say about the USA in Star Spangled to Death: “When they aren’t allowed to buy a territory they take it, and if they don’t succeed in taking it they make an object lesson of it by destroying it. They like to think of themselves as irresistible.” You could be talking about Israel and the occupation of Palestine.
The nations almost all agreed that unless Jews acquired a nation of their own they would go extinct. Islam also agreed but now acts offended that Israel actually has barged in amongst them. I agree that Jews have been badly conditioned by their experience but just consider the fratricide amongst Islamists. At least as bad as Catholics and Protestants. Here [in Galiza] everything seems very peaceful, I don’t detect a need for expansion. But my country still thinks of itself as growing, in the way it took half of Mexico. It would’ve taken the whole of Mexico except then it’d be stuck with people it didn’t want. Canada. There it was frustrated but it invaded more than once. The movie asks, when the perfidious Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, what was America doing with its fleet so far out in the Pacific? Answer: competing for China.
You said you felt defeated. Have you lost hope?
I’m not going to sign that. There is life and life is possibility. There are more movies now about the end of the world because it’s on people’s minds. There’s now a market for romances about the end of the world. And the movies are still giving us propaganda like this piece of shit I saw flying over here, Interstellar, that there’s angels watching and they give us the information to save us when we need it. Angels are watching over us, so people are still caught up in these fantasy religions. It does seem hopeless.
This country seemed hopeless. But after the last elections, now you even have former squatters participating in town government.
Yes, I know. That’s why I’m here. I’m here in sympathy with that. Austerity is a horror, it is exactly the thing that does not work. And it’s always austerity for us, not for them. The Great Depression in America demonstrated that it does not work. People need money to circulate.