Jacobs Transcends 2-D

With his avant-garde films, Ken Jacobs has tapped into the power of 3-D

It is a rare treat when audience members can exit an avant-garde film screening without thinking, “What the hell was that?” At best, one might appreciate the film’s aesthetics, while never fully grasping the artist’s intentions. However, this past weekend at the Harvard Film Archive, avant-garde cinema pioneer Ken Jacobs screened film after film, answering questions to help clarify his artistic objectives. The evening was an unexpected trip into the visionary brilliance, or insanity, of Jacobs.

Jacobs, who has paved the way for avant-garde cinema since the early 1950s, backs up an abstract way of thinking with knowledge of and experience with the mediums of film, digital video, and even 3-D. His groundbreaking use of overlapping footage from an early 20th century film in his 1969 film “Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son” marked him as a genius in the world of avant-garde cinema.

“I am a creature of impulse,” Jacobs said. “I believe in the subconscious—I think of things in my sleep, and, in keeping with what I want, I go for it.” Delivering on that promise, the films screened last weekend reflected an appreciation for spontaneity and innovation.

“I was amused by making a kind of ‘jazz’ film,” Jacobs said in reference to his 1964 work “Window.” “A film that was made in the camera. No editing—a truthful film.”

The short film is 16 minutes of pure silence, made with an 8mm camera that shifts dramatically, zooms in and out, and never focuses on its subject, a window that overlooks the Brooklyn Bridge.

While this film might normally leave viewers perplexed, the audience last weekend received full enlightenment from the artist himself. Jacobs identified “Window” as an example of the unedited “jazz” thinking, which results in a film based solely on its aesthetic qualities.

Jacobs explained this focus on his vision, citing 20th century artists such as Picasso and Warhol as part of his inspiration. The 8mm used in “Window” flattens the screen and makes the image look like a grainy, flat canvas. He believes this piece emulates the medium of painting.

“This film is supposed to be like an abstract impressionist painting,” Jacobs said. “Yet, it doesn’t superficially imitate it.”

Another inspiration is his wife, Flo, who also appeared with him at Harvard last weekend. Flo is Jacobs’ creative partner, and he accredited much of his current success to her help.

“She’s my star—even when she doesn’t appear,” mused Jacobs with a smile. “She substantiates me—I work because she’s around.”

However, one day in 1964, when Jacobs brought home a pair of “See TV in 3-D” glasses that he had purchased for one dollar at a local drugstore, Flo’s confidence in her husband wavered for a moment. “More magic beans, Ken?” she asked.

But those glasses unlocked a whole new world of cinema for Jacobs, leading to the next masterpiece he revealed to the audience, a 1990 film entitled “Opening the 19th Century: 1896.” In this film, Jacobs manipulated a collection of footage that had been filmed from a moving train by the Lumière brothers in 1896, constructing an entirely different visual experience. By asking the audience to cover their right (and then left) eyes with a light filter, the world of 1896 transformed into 3-D.

“Most films feel they need to tell stories, but almost in every case I feel disappointed,” Jacobs explained. “The power of 3-D is usually squandered.” The non-narrative discovery that Jacobs made in “Opening the 19th Century: 1896” ignited a new mission for him: creating the impression of a 3-D film without actually using the standard light filters.

With this objective in mind, Jacobs designed what he calls his Nervous Magic Lantern. The lantern is comprised of two projectors with identical film strips shown out of sync by one or more frames. This allows the filmmaker to hold and manipulate one frame for as long as he wishes. With the addition of a spinning shutter before and between the projectors, there is a constant flicker that reveals an unclear image in the middle of a strobe-light blur.

For the 2005 movie “Krypton is Doomed,” the final film screened, Jacobs explained that the Nervous Magic Lantern and a 3x3 inch photograph of a painting were his only tools in creating the 34-minute film. Although there was no computer-processing, the image on-screen clearly transcended both the second and third dimensions, just as the artist intended.

Through his film, Jacobs strives to create new territory, new inventions. More than just an avant-garde filmmaker, he has defied expectations and created worlds from little pieces of reality. “This is a calling,” Jacobs said. “And one has an obligation to fulfill that gift.”

—Staff writer Noël D. Barlow can be reached at nbarlow@fas.harvard.edu.