An Interview with Ken Jacobs

This interview was conducted by Brian Price & Michelle Dent on March 24, 2003 at Cantor Film Center, NYU. It has been edited for purposes of integrity & continuity.

On the night following the 75th Academy Awards ceremony in Hollywood, where Michael Moore denounced George W. Bush for starting an unjust war in Iraq, and Adrien Brody melodramatically accepted his award in the name of American patriotism, a smaller ceremony — an anti-Oscars — honoring the work of avant-garde filmmaker Ken Jacobs unfolded in an interview at the Cantor Film Center at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. Jacobs’ decision to begin the interview by screening an excerpt from his epic-length Star Spangled to Death — whose soundtrack for the night was a bite from the previous night’s Academy Awards, featuring mindless commentary on Catherine Zeta-Jones — surprised the audience and captured perfectly the prevailing mood of protest and dissent. The week before, Brian Price and Michelle Dent had spent several hours in conversation with Jacobs that often careened into apocalyptic despair over the looming war and the increased threat of new terrorist attacks on New York City. This mood is evident in the interview itself.

KJ: We’re going to look at the very last section of a six hour film. We’re going to look at about twelve minutes of Star Spangled to Death, which I began shooting in 1957, and pretty much completed the shooting in ’59. And it’s like I say, a six hour work. It’s not all my own shooting. I began incorporating found films.

I got out of the Coast Guard, and I had thoughts of making American films like The Bicycle Thief, and things, in some cases, more fantastic, more fantasy-ideas. And I did think in terms of working with actors and telling stories. Italian neo-realism was enormously impressive upon me, impressive to me, and so was World War II combat footage, where, for the first time,in the local movie theater and the newsreels, one began seeing hand-held images on the screen; cameras going out and moving in space, free of dollies and all these other things that meant weight and rootedness to the ground. It was amazing. Sometimes the world would tilt to the side. You know, a camera would move in another direction and the whole world that was presented to you in this vertical/horizontal way would be awry in an astounding way. So these were some of the things that excited me, and also I was political from the very beginning; a leftist from my teenage years. I wanted to do things that were going to expose and instruct, and try and better the world.

When I got out of the Coast Guard, it was the first time I’d been able to save some money since I was stationed in isolated duty in Alaska, and I had the money now to buy a camera and to buy a projector, which is a whole other story. But I wanted a camera that was like a… it was actually designed as a World War II combat camera, and I wanted to shoot on the streets of New York, and be ready for anything.It was this chunk of metal that could push film through no matter what happened.

One of the things I first got together was a film on Orchard Street, which was very, very Jewish at the time. In a certain way it was like a primitive mall. You walked up and down the street, and it was all these stores and bins, and I did this thing. I did it because it attracted me, but also because I thought, “Well I could make something that’s kind of palatable. This is a documentary that very likely there will be interest in.” People would see it, and they would say, “Okay, let’s put some money in this guy, and let him make a movie.” At the end of shooting it, I realized I wasn’t going to get this money. I didn’t have to compromise myself. I could just say, “The hell with it, I’m doomed to be poor, I’m doomed to struggle against the character of the society, I’ll make what I want.” And what I wanted to make was Star Spangled to Death, which I thought was imminent in this time of the very, very volatile Cold War-America and communist Russia.

There was no scene, no film scene, that I knew of, and it was not until the early sixties that isolated independent filmmakers like myself — which was not many, maybe a dozen at most, two dozen maybe — began to become aware of each other’s existence. So one was making a 16 millimeter film with no place to show it, just out of the need to do it, just blind will — I’m gonna do it. Nothing’s there, there’s no reception for it. Whatever. To hell with it, I want to do it, work on it now — do it.

The sad part to this thing is, I did keep plowing through. Whenever I could get some money I would buy some film, whatever kind of film was available cheap, and so I shot this thing on reversal and I shot it on black and white, color, and negative; really, whatever was available cheap. Unfortunately, I got to the end of it, sort of — the shooting — and I needed this enormous amount of money to do the marrying of sound to image for a six hour movie. I had to have an angel, and the angel didn’t come, it didn’t happen. I did get some money to finish two other works, Little Stabs at Happiness and Blonde Cobra, which was filmed by Bob Fleischner, abandoned by him as just camera rolls, and put together by myself, with the addition of sound and everything else.

Unfortunately, even when there was finally a recognition of an underground cinema, the money for this project still didn’t materialize. There were very, very few grants around. There were just one or two things that were available, and I didn’t get them, and in 1962, 1963, there began this recognition, and I would sometimes show parts of this film, or show shortened versions of it, trying to raise money, and didn’t succeed in doing it. At a certain point, I was just too bitter, and I felt dragged by the film, and I had to do other things. I had to go on to other cinematic ventures.

I know from speaking with Brian and Michelle that the issue of art and politics, of social responsibility and doing your thing comes up as a problem, and I think we should probably continue the conversation we’ve been having a little bit here. So after you see this bit of Star Spangled to Death… and, I’m going to say something about it, in that it was not meant to be didactic and dry; as you will see, it was in the spirit of fun. I saw the struggle really as life against death: the death-prone. Right now in Iraq, this is death-prone. There’s been nothing to win except a world war. We’re going towards the end. The notes that went around to you just now, I actually put together from some writings of mine because I spoke on a panel at the Socialist Scholars’ Conference at Cooper Union about a week ago. So these are all my baleful musings, they’re really gloomy. It was just before the war — the so-called war — the massacre began. The war is going to begin, is going to be initiated from this thing. This is not the war yet. So you’re getting some of my drift from these little storyettes, whatever they’re called — prose poems.

You’ll see in the end of this thing there’s no way you can really make sense of it. This long six hour film does have a logic to it, which you are going to be deprived of. I hope you come back and see the movie some day. Here’s the end of it.

One more thing: in this twenty-first century, that’s when I’m beginning to actually completely finish this long, impossible work. The one thing I didn’t quite finish saying was I did see the struggle as life against death. And I meant for this work to be alive, above all, alive — okay? That’s what I was going to preach, being alive.

Screen: Star Spangled to Death

KJ: The next work is 1999, and it’s my first video piece, my first electronics piece. Let’s go to that. Six minutes long. Kind of a contrast.

Screen: Flo Rounds the Corner

KJ: [commenting on audience response] Who’s the one with the laugh? I want her.

BP: A couple of weeks ago, Michelle and I heard Ken at the Millennium Film Center, and one of the things that Ken was talking about that day was that his work had become increasingly formalist, while there was still this very strong political dimension in the writing. And I think that’s really clear. You’re [the audience] in a great position to see this; which is to say, have a look at any one of those paragraphs that you have sitting on your lap, and think about what you just saw. [To Jacobs] It’s interesting to me to think about the justified anger that’s in your writing on the one hand, and this really beautiful lyrical film about Flo rounding a corner on the other. How do you explain those two poles? Are they poles?

KJ: You know, Stan Brakhage just died recently, and he had a long terrible experience with cancer. Very, very painful. His wife Marilyn says that just before he died he said, “I’ve had a wonderful life, life is great.” Okay? We would complain to each other all the time. If tragedy is taking place in the world, it is because something really valuable is being destroyed. I’m thinking, conscious life is valuable, and that’s what this work should be: it should be a concentration of conscious life — of human, passionate intelligence. That’s something. That’s making something. That’s salvaging something from these stupid societies we’ve created, okay? Our stupid religions, our piracy.

You know, I’m a reformed academic. I did a work, maybe seven or eight months ago, at the last New York Film Festival called A Place Where There is no Trouble, and I want to read part of my notes, and it will help explain how I work. So, in the first part I explain what I’m doing aesthetically. There’s no trace, I think, excepting maybe mood, the mood I’m in, seeing impending disaster, seeing terrible things about to happen; and then I talk about trouble. So the first part talks about the work, and the second part talks about a place where there is no trouble. The second part is called “trouble,” and here I write,

I’ve enjoyed performing my discoveries and city-seeing these many years; I thank you — the audience — for the attention you’ve accorded these demanding and intentionally problematic works. I could do more. From where I see, it’s nothing but scratched surfaces. But it seems reasonable to suspect that New York and New Yorkers, unloved by this administration, are one of the easier tradeoffs in its gamble for control of Earth’s oil deposits. When most Democrats betray us, including our own Schumer and Clinton, it’s time to finish the kitchen cabinet, as Jack Smith was determined to do in his Lower East Side apartment before yielding to AIDS. I apologize now for the part I played as simp tax payer, and in fulfillment of this manly CEO dream of further pillage. Another reasonable thought in insane circumstances.
While I understand that New York can’t be protected, and that its leveling would be a real estate bonanza, should something called America survive with a new New York, and up from the ashes triumph with music by Aaron Copland, is it too much to expect from this government some minimizing of the pain of chemical and biological and explosive destruction?
I heard of cops, buried alive in the Twin Towers rubble, that enviably were able to turn their guns on themselves. Shouldn’t we, for instance, be sending our kids off to school with something to cut pain and terror short?
This performance is dedicated to Robert C. Byrd and to Edward Kennedy and to those others in congress and the senate that heeded their constituencies and the warnings of the CIA, and voted no to dismissal of the constitution and to a criminal war of aggression.

So what I’ve done here, is make this inviolate work, okay? Which has, like, a mathematical formula, a structure of energies. Separate from that, in the same way I have with many of the other things that I do in my life — eat, all kinds of other things —is my “political” expression, my social expression, other than the work itself. They don’t always mix together— sometimes they do, and sometimes they don’t. The first thing to do is to make something that’s vital, to get it out there, and to get it out right. And so I use my notes to the audience to make these other statements.

MD: It seems to me that you’re creating a world, a world that you live in, that you want us to live in, that you see as a viable space.

KJ: Well, the world. I guess each of us has a quality. So you see a Fellini film, or a film by somebody that you care for, and in a certain way, it’s their world, it’s their perception of the world, their feelings about things. You’ll see it, and you’ll become imbued with it. You step out seeing the world through their sensibilities. So I think that as one of these artists that’s able to get something together and convey it, I create a world. But I don’t consciously go about doing that, I’m simply responding to being alive, and to playing with these sensory factors in cinema.

MD: I’ve screened your work to friends and students from whom I often find a tremendous amount of resistance. I’ve heard you speak elsewhere about the role of confusion and the role of boredom, and I’d like to know what work we have to do to understand this world that you’ve created. I feel like you’re problematizing a sort of commonsensical knowledge that we all share: we look at Hollywood film, and we say, “Of course, this is a representation of the world.” You’re pushing against that in very particular ways and the response that it often generates is a kind of boredom or radical confusion.

KJ: The world of most Hollywood movies is seamless from movie to movie. You could just pass from movie to movie like subway stations, and it’s very consistent. There’s very, very few of those movies that evince a personality, a creator’s personality, like the great artists of history: Picasso, Matisse — their works are manifestations of personality, distinct personalities. Hollywood, for the most part, produces what people expect, a consistent Hollywood movie. It’s going to vary in the story, it’s going to vary in many different ways, but it is an agreed upon idea of the world that’s actually very arbitrary. It becomes natural to us at a particular time and place in space and history. But then you see things that are “dated” and you see how really arbitrary this idea of normalcy is. I don’t really believe in that norm, I don’t believe in that idea that Hollywood proposes and maintains from movie to movie, so I’m going for my own norm.

Your question had a lot of moving parts in it. Oh, yes — you know, I came up during Abstract Expressionism, and that was hard stuff. You look at it and it’s bewildering: what are these people doing? Are they nuts? We were told by the popular media that they’re crazy, they’re slobs, that poetry that you didn’t immediately understand was effete, you know, intellectual, out-of-this-world garbage. But somehow it began to get to me, and it was really a struggle, to make sense of Cubism especially, and Abstract Expressionism. But what it was, it was pain, it was growing pains.

When you really respect the audience, you don’t pitch to them. You do your very, very best, and give them the problem of coming to where you’ve gone. In the same way that somebody goes into space, somebody goes in a bathysphere into the depths of the ocean — we are extending consciousness, each in our own way. We’re offshoots this way and that way, and that’s how we create a greater mindfulness. The artist does her or his utmost, and creates a path to that new place.

BP: I wonder if we could reframe that question and take it back to where it began. One of the things that we’ve been talking about with our students is the relation between art for art’s sake and art for society’s sake, or political art. Listening to what you’re saying, it seems to me as though people think that either means you can go and make Abstract Expressionist art, or you can make Socialist posters. I can think of something like Flo Rounds a Corner as restoring the sovereignty of the imagination, which has a political consequence.

In terms of what you’re saying, it teaches us new ways to see, seeing outside of the ways of Hollywood film. We looked at Tom, Tom the Piper’s Son in my class today, and it’s feature length but the film that you’re stretching is ten minutes long, and so it asks us to see things totally differently. Would that be one way of thinking about something like Flo Rounds a Corner, as political in that sense?

KJ: Ten minutes time, for the original, is horizontal reckoning, okay? But, each of those things is penetrable —or at least I discovered they were penetrable — and up for further, deeper seeing and transformation. Deeper revealing than what zips by in ten minutes. So to me that really isn’t seeing, it’s storytelling. So you’ve got this story, and you think you’ve got this whole phenomena, but you don’t at all. That takes some love-making, you have to really get embroiled with it. You have to tango with it. Then you begin to see — wow, that’s a lot of stuff. A lot of stuff is going on.

BP: Is that…

KJ: What point did I leave out?

BP: I was just wondering about the art for art’s sake versus art for society’s sake question.

KJ: Well, for me, it’s art for art’s sake. Art for the mind’s sake, as I said before, to me the mind is always in the making, and this is the most extraordinary thing about we humans. This consciousness, and this sense, among other things, of the comic and the tragic, this ability to feel something about existence. So we look at Baghdad right now and say, my god, these are kids, half the population is children, what are we doing? We’re killing children, children we understand as young life, full of potential for life. Life is what we care about. We don’t want to see heedless destruction, stupid destruction, cruel destruction of life — dismissal of life.

So a work of art, for me, is… like in Star Spangled to Death — which by the way, in my mind is very, very form-conscious — is the greatest intensification of this quality we consider life, the most vital essence of this life. And you save the world, you save the kids of Baghdad by making a work that is — I can’t say it better than this — vital. Now it might not be vital to social issues, but it’s vital in itself. It’s an achievement of vitality. It’s alive.

MD: I think that there’s something that happens in the more formal work: it elicits a similar kind of volatility from audiences as a piece of art that would feel more, let’s say, overtly political.

KJ: First of all, everything I’ve worked on has been form-conscious, in its different ways, its different characters of energy, so, I’m very, very form-conscious. In Star Spangled to Death, you’re seeing a party on the set, you’re seeing people who had participated in this long movie, with these crazy, semi-surreal scenes, and… you know, the dog is running around, the camera’s swishing around. I’m always formally conscious.

MD: I don’t mean to imply that you’re not, I’m sorry. It’s just that there’s a way that a work like Tom, Tom the Piper’s Son unhinges from story and narrative. There’s sort of a story that happens in the beginning with the first ten minutes of Tom, Tom and then it becomes very, very abstract, and that’s provocative because as a society, I feel like there’s a way in which we’re always looking and needing to know what the story is.

KJ: Okay. Stories are bedtime stories, they’re simplicities, they’re comfortable to the mind. In real life, there’s no stories. Everything is unending, confusing. Nothing starts and concludes. There’s no beginning, middle and end in the actual experience of our lives, and we want this kind of neat little package, and we make them for ourselves in our stories. Stories are comprehensible, but the world we live in, and our actual experience from moment to moment is incomprehensible. What’s comprehensible are simplistics, simplistic ideas about what life is.

I’ve only experienced LSD once, but I loved it. The little pill took me to a place that was familiar to me since my teenage years, but I was allowed to stay in that place a lot longer than I could before. I didn’t keep going back to it, for one thing because I didn’t feel — I could have been mistaken — I didn’t feel the need for it that much, and there had been a big scare campaign about the effects on kids of people who were taking LSD and we were beginning to have kids. So I was scared off it, and probably lost out on that. Quite possible, I don’t know. I haven’t missed it, but, maybe. But what LSD does is snap you out of this simplemindedness, it’s an easy way, a store-bought way, of snapping you out of this easy idea about what things are. Suddenly, the words don’t hold things in place. The categories explode, and you’re in a truly awe-full awareness of existence. And that’s the awareness that I think many artists get into, and groove in and work in. That’s where I am most of the time when I’m working. Otherwise, I’m riding the subway like the rest of you.

BP: One of the things that Michelle described at the very beginning was Ken’s Nervous System performances, and I think that you all [the audience] need to know a little bit more about them because you want to hear what Ken has to say about this; that is, Ken performs. He is the first filmmaker, the first artist to do this — to move from simply capturing images with a camera to using the projector as his primary means of art making. It’s a total reconfiguration of what it means to be a filmmaker and also comes at a moment when projected art itself, the projected image, has moved into the art gallery. What Ken has done is to actually take the work out into live spaces. [To Jacobs] What is it about film that makes you want to perform it live? We’re used to thinking of it as dead images, something that’s gone, manufactured, and standard….

KJ: I think of it as very poignantly both: an extraordinary record — in many cases — of the alive, of the alive that was back in time, in front of that camera — it’s really one hell of a record; and at the same time it taunts us, it tantalizes us with this seeming presence. So it both rubs it in that this was there and that it’s gone. It seems to be there, but it’s not there. That’s a crazy-making thing that fascinates me about film’s ability to record, or video’s ability to record, and yet, very inadequately record one two-dimensional image from the front. It’s crazy, it’s really absurd.

The performance: back in the fifties (yeah, I really go back that far in time), when I got out of the coast guard, besides getting this chunk of metal as a camera, I got a projector that was designed for film analysis. Money was very… I had very little of it, and this projector, made for the specialized purpose of examining short pieces of silent film — back and forth, slower, faster — was actually more expensive than a sensible sound projector. But for some reason, I wanted to get into, I was fascinated by, the phenomena of these single frames merging into the illusion of ongoing time: the movies. I just had to get into that territory, and that’s what I did.

I had no idea of being a “performance artist” or whatever, but I was performing, at home, and sometimes for friends, girlfriends. Oh yes, performance. I envied the jazz players because they had a social life. As a painter, and a filmmaker, it was very lonely. But if you played jazz, and you played with other people — you met girls! And here I am, performing, and married.

A lot of these things I haven’t thought through, they’re impulses. I want to play with these things and now I do it in public, and I guess it also comes from the deep realization that you want to get something right. I want it to have a vitality, and at the same time, I understand it’s transient, the way we are transient. But I don’t want to push that transiency. I want to linger as long as possible, I want the work to linger and hang on as long as possible.

This whole thing, the whole phenomena of life is transient. It’s humiliating that it should be debased while we’re given this long, wonderful moment to look around, and for the world to be aware of itself through us. Because as far as we know, there’s no other awareness out there. It’s just machine parts scattered in space.

Michelle Dent (© 2004)