Somewhere in the back of filmmaker Ken Jacobs’ head is a giggling lunatic laughing about what business he’s done onscreen—he’s marking his territory by going scriptless, with a stag crew save for a couple of assistants. Favoring Final Cut Pro’s exacto knife tool, the artist believes he can move mountains and captivate senses to elevate buried backroom ideas that conveniently fit his own ideology. No stranger to the up-yours subgenre of cinema, the film manipulator offers a piece of post-production batched goods that will flicker ever so much in the cranium and thus traumatically tweak perspective. Whether this is enlightenment or a bunch of art-school hooey, for this reviewer, there is something at play that works. Still, the methodology and go-it-alone strategy seems to be too heavy a rock to push uphill. Arthouse sects and teens that would rather skip on buying cafeteria milk and tater tots will head to the movie theatre for some stimulation. The rest will heed the warning to stay clear of the piece as the throbbing light “is not for persons afflicted with epilepsy” whether those viewers have it or not.
In his version of an artist statement, the director rants about his disdain for the Bush Administration and claims that his work is sterilized from “any news of gangsters big-time and small.” While this may be a truism, his ultimate intention is to throw into a crucible shambles and shredded pieces that become their own alternative universe and crack the conventional glass framework of narrative.
The moving image is at first scrambled and tossed into a blender with a black background and washed with heavy reds and oranges. It isn’t for a moment that the original footage is shown untouched by Jacob’s mischievous hand. It’s an old picture show clip of a carousel ride layered over a black scrum-like background while a gramophone plays little sweet songs in rhapsody. Keyed in on riders’ faces, Jacobs zooms in and out, cuts, pastes, layers and alters speeds so that this simple carnival ride is reborn, erasing what significance the original had at the beginning.
The American flag is a tattered rag hoisting the riders as they swing about in a sea of red with Thomas Edison’s name flickering in black script. All the while, scratchy instrumentals on wax play as this image is looped and manipulated countless times. Music stops at certain points and the stifling effect tips the anxiety meter over the top. Without the sound of music, the silence makes this editing display too disconcerting to train the eyes on for too long. Things flash and flicker and shout in emphasis as a result. When the music fades, the mood becomes sort of threatening because the ride is no longer a predictable exercise. You’re now wondering if the overexposed whiteness is swallowing the carbon-colored spots supposed to be life forms. Purposefully, Jacobs keeps pushing the sequence as far as it can go.
In a sense, Jacobs is curating his own world with choice grabs that, when squished together, have a wounding effect: Each image is another bullet that’s hit its target. See a female swimmer in vintage suit in mid-flight jumping ship, two men come to blows after a spilling a barrel of apples, a family arguing over dinner as a little boy covers his eyes with his fists, slaves picking cotton, gals picking wild flowers, two women fancying a man’s derrière as he bends over by the lake. Soon the images are paired with captions to emphasize an anti-war campaign that cracks America’s apple pie crust.
In the film, there is no place to sit and collect—it’s a marathon at a lightspeed sprint pace of go-go-go. Red means run. White means holler for help. And grey and black are constantly deciding whether one is death, the other life.
Tangentially, an orchestra’s percussion plays for half a second, as does its strings section pluck here and there. By now, the carnival riders are murky alien forms swimming on a negative space concocted by a computer. But it again is the image of the ride, this time pouring out of the middle are gooey innards to disco-ball tunes. Yee-ha! It’s like a kid’s first attempt to make grilled cheese; the orange stuff spilling all out, turning into something that no longer resembles cheese but an element all its own. Through it all, the director and the viewer are in unison as the collective voyeur—there’s no space left untouched.
The effort is equal to making a cat’s cradle from moving and still frames. Jacobs wanders into this playful realm where he sees a shape and then fixates on that for a little while until a fold or crease sticks out and then he tosses some gravy into that exposed wiring and stares at the awesome sparks and explosions as the machine slowly goes kaput.
Conceptually frightening and visually haunting, the editing is trying so hard to hammer home a point that this is going to shake the realm of the ordinary or as Jacobs puts it, “F--k them, f--k them, f--k them.” Wouldn’t be so bad to have a beginning and end, but that is not in the cards here. It’s just a long experiment that discombobulates rules of form and structure to such degrees. He zooms in on a frame, creating obscenely extreme close-ups in which the pixels themselves are characters. For what gain? To serve his own appetite for destruction or to simply do it for f--k’s sake? The affair is quite effective, as my eyes will not be able to erase the red-stained disaster they absorbed for an hour and a half. For Jacobs, this alone is sheer victory.
Director/Producer: Ken Jacobs
Genre: Art Installation
Running time: 91 min.
Release date: June 27 ltd.