(born 1933)is an American experimental filmmaker. A pioneer of the American film avant-garde of the 1960s and ’70s, Ken Jacobs is a central figure in post-war experimental cinema. From his first films of the late 1950s to his recent experiments with digital video, his investigations and innovations have influenced countless artists. He taught at the Cinema department at Harpur College at Binghamton University and retired in 2003. He is a recipient of the American Film Institute’s Maya Deren Award. Jacobs currently lives in New York City.
Kristin M. Jones
is a writer and editor living in New York. She covers film and art for magazines and newspapers including Film Comment, Frieze, and The Wall Street Journal. She has also contributed to Artforum, Millennium Film Journal, and Travel + Leisure, among other publications.
Last fall I took a walk by the New York harbor with the brilliant underground film artist Ken Jacobs, not far from the loft he has long shared with his wife, Flo. He talked about his freshly completed reedit (on digital video) of his sparkling yet searing social critique Star Spangled to Death, a collage of mass-cultural detritus and guerrilla theater with which he has wrestled for over four decades. It is, he said, an expression of real anguish, in which hearty doses of humor and antic energy highlight what is eclipsed by the forces of death. On our way back, as we passed the colossal scar that marks the site of the former World Trade Center, he gestured disconsolately toward Stuyvesant High School and said, “Can you believe what those kids had to see?” And things, he insisted, were only getting worse. He said that after the invasion of Iraq he’d considered adding an intertitle to Star Spangled reading, “Now they’ve done it.” When I asked him recently about the remark, he couldn’t remember using those exact words but pointed out that his fears over the aftermath of 9/11 are reflected in the film in the line—an allusion to Von Stroheim’s Greed—“We’re dead men…and dead everything else.”
A passionate fixture in New York’s noncommercial film community for years, Jacobs has followed an uncompromising trajectory. Many of his radically inventive works defy categorization: Blonde Cobra (1958–63) reworked an abandoned film by his friend Bob Fleischner of the late performer, filmmaker, and photographer Jack Smith; Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son (1969–71) closely examined a 1905 nursery rhyme one-reeler through rephotography (one of its mysterious frames graced the cover of Artforum’s 1971 special film issue); The Sky Socialist (1965–67) evoked young love, political consciousness, and the Brooklyn Bridge; and Perfect Film (1985) was a found reel of news outtakes on the Malcolm X assassination. He is also admired for a string of revelatory ephemeral works—shadow plays, and numerous found-footage performances deploying a patented system of altered stop-motion projectors that create flickering depth effects. Jacobs himself may have been the first to use the term “underground film.” As a professor at SUNY Binghamton for thirty-two years, he left an indelible mark on many in his classes. In a 1989 review, one of these students, Village Voice senior critic J. Hoberman, dubbed him “one of the most extraordinary unknown personalities in the history of American movies.”
Inevitably, Ken and Flo found themselves in the front lines of the cinematic underground. Against considerable odds, in the mid-sixties they launched New York’s Millennium Film Workshop, where they provided classes and equipment free of charge. More dramatically, along with the filmmaker and poet Jonas Mekas, they were tried and convicted of obscenity charges after screening Flaming Creatures—an archly voluptuous orgy fantasy featuring an array of downtown angels—by a fellow avant-garde meteorite Jack Smith, in an East Village theater in 1964. (The case, which reached the U.S. Supreme Court, became a cause célèbre, with such luminaries as Susan Sontag rushing to defend Creatures in print.)
The heart of Star Spangled is footage Jacobs shot of Smith, whom he met in 1956, and Ken’s personal find, the unemployed eccentric Jerry Sims. (Smith died of AIDS in 1989; Sims’ trail vanished in El Paso some years back.) Filmed in black-and-white and color 16mm. stock between 1957 and 1960, this delirious stream of theatrical provocations “stars” Smith and Sims, though it features other friends/collaborators. Playing The Spirit Not of Life But of Living, Smith prances around Sims’ character, Suffering, and celebrates him as an unavoidable ingredient of life. Cast as the ultimate outsider—sensitive, artistic, whiny, broke, unphotogenic—Sims mopes, mugs, kvetches to Jacobs, and wrings his hands. Armed with accessories like bowler hats, a pope’s miter, and broken umbrellas, art stubbornly collides with life. The pair’s clowning has a Happening-like messiness, sharpened by Jacobs’ political convictions and obsession with the notions of failure and incompletion. At one point Smith, festooned with junk, cavorts on a sidewalk near a nervous-looking woman waiting for a bus; when the bus arrives he tries and fails to dance on to it. In his vivid program notes for a screening of Star Spangled at the American Museum of the Moving Image, Jacobs wrote, “Its proto-Beat sensibility refuses to keep moving ahead, so at odds with the lemming drift of the 1950’s when chauvinist anti-Communism threatened us all with a final star spangling to death.”
He doesn’t see today’s situation as less dire, however.