Cinema and Critical Reflection:
A Conversation with Ken Jacobs and Family
with Gregory Zucker
Ken Jacobs has been making avant-garde and experimental films for over forty years. Along with Stan Brakhage, Jonas Mekas, and Peter Kubelka, Jacobs’ films represent the most provocative and innovative spirit in experimental cinema. Over the years he has developed a unique technique distinct from other filmmakers of the genre. Yet, he has also engaged American politics in a way uncharacteristic of avant garde artists. Forty years in the on-and-off making, the recently completed Star Spangled to Death is Jacobs’ magnum opus. Logos sat down with Ken Jacobs and long-time collaborators wife Flo, daughter Nisi, and son Azazel to discuss the new film, but also to explore the function of cinema and art. Learn more about Star Spangled to Death by visiting www.starspangledtodeath.com. Nisi Jacobs’ site is www.thefieldprocess.com. Azazel Jacobs: www.nobodyneedstoknow.com.
All of the following images are taken from the film Star Spangled to Death.
Gregory Zucker: Let’s talk about your aesthetic. What is the over-riding theme that comes through in the body of your work?
Ken Jacobs: I think the best way to explain what I am trying to do is through an article I recently read in the Sunday Times about a video game based on the Coppola film The Godfather. Essentially, you play as a mafia henchman. Throughout the game you are given options. You determine the course your character takes. The game crafts an experience. The player has total control over the choices made within the game. Yet, the game designer explained in the article that it was his job to make sure that whatever path the player chose to take it would still make the story progress forward. So, the designer has to craft all the elements that make the story progress while still allowing the player to make various choices throughout. Now, first of all, this is cinema; it has been from the beginning. This is what I would call “indeterminate cinema.” From the beginning that is what has interested me, indeterminate cinema. Now, because film is linear, because things take place from moment to moment on the screen, cinema is determinate, but I feel that when one reflects on cinema and interprets what has just been seen one can determine the experience for him or her self.
GZ: So it seems from what you are saying, and from how I understand your work, that you try to give the viewer the freedom to constitute his or her own aesthetic experience.
KJ: Well, yes, I try to explode cinema. Now, this video game is not what I had in mind when I first started thinking about a kind of aesthetic engagement in which the viewer is able to determine his or her own aesthetic experience. Nevertheless, this is the latest development in cinematic experience. I see fewer and fewer people at movie theatres and, from what I understand, more and more people are buying these video games where they can craft their own reality within the context of the game.
GZ: Whereas you were hoping an indeterminate cinema, an explosion of cinematic images presented to the viewer, would allow the viewer through reflection and interpretation to take an active role in the aesthetic experience, you see that this idea of indeterminacy is being used to reify viewers.
KJ: Ironically, when I first got started making films, in a vague sense this is what I hoped for – a cinema by which, through interpretation and reflection, the viewer could constitute his or her own aesthetic experience. Yet, experiences like the one manufactured by this game have no place for interpretative or reflective capacities of the human mind. They merely give the illusion of choice, while turning people into automatons. It lends no real freedom to the viewer, or in this case, player. Here it’s just training and triggering in violence. It’s just a matter of choosing who to kill. You are taken deeper and deeper into this fake reality, which gives you a false sense that you are making decisions. In a sense, games like this one are just continuing a trend amongst many films. I hoped that an indeterminate cinema would force the viewer to actively reflect on what they saw on the screen and not just be a passive receiver of images, but make decisions and judgments. I want to give the viewer as much freedom as possible to reflect on what they have seen.
Nisi Jacobs: No one makes any choices. I think that saying that these games are anything like what Ken calls “indeterminate cinema” is a misnomer. It’s all very predetermined within the context of the game. It does not challenge you in anyway to be active. It does not encourage anyone to be creative. I think that discouraging creativity and an active reflective viewer makes people less critical in their everyday lives, which ultimately takes a toll on people’s political engagement.
GZ: I’m interested in this idea of an active versus a passive viewer. How do you promote an active viewer?
KJ: Well, you want to pose questions to your viewer. Cinema creates an experience for its viewers and many people come to depend on the experiences provided them by the movies. Most movies are coherent. They are fairy tales that lead to something. Movies have resolutions. Many people live at the movies and tolerate fumbling through their real lives. Life is different; it does not seem to lead to anything. It’s diffuse, yet infinitely penetrable. So, the difference is between a cinema that is a cooked, or organized experience, and one that encourages viewers to reflect and have their own experiences. The difference is between living through the movies and using the movies to enrich your critical engagement with life and the real world. One is an experience that dominates while the other condemns you to be free.
GZ: In the case of your film, Tom, Tom, The Piper’s Son, you took a film that had already been made in the early part of the twentieth century and re-edited in such a way that you took the film apart. You dissected the film, freezing certain frames, replaying certain sequences over and over, etc. The film lost its narrative structure and was presented to the viewer in an entirely other way. You force the viewer to look at film in a new way. It’s not a packaged story.
KJ: Yes, very few people analyze their experience of film. When they walk out of a theatre, they do not talk about what they have experienced. If they like what they see, they will usually say something like, “wow, that was a good movie, it was exciting,” and that will be it. They are not critical of their experience. Many movies just try to excite passions and tap mechanisms in people - their sexual and violent urges. It feeds thrills to the viewer. That’s what makes money and discourages critical thought. When people are given an aesthetic experience that allows them to move beyond saying “that was an exciting movie” and analyze what they saw.
NJ: The film industry tries to feed a product that they know will sell. They know how to unlock people and sell them an experience that appeals to people’s passions.
KJ: The point behind the indeterminate cinema was to move away from that kind of cinema. It was supposed to make people think and not just be passive riders on a roller coaster. Now this idea of the indeterminate cinema has been usurped and become something marketable.
Azazel Jacobs: I do not think that things are that hopeless. Just because an indeterminate cinema style is being used by these video games, that does not mean it cannot be used to convey radical ideas. With Star Spangled to Death, Ken has created a film that speaks to the current political situation. It still has an impact on the audience and promotes reflection. Even though these video games are employing a similar technique, they do not have the same effect on its audience.
Flo Jacobs: The work seems very improvised. As the film was made over thirty years, Ken was constantly searching for new things to add to the film and responding to what was going on at the time. So, you were constantly shooting new scenes or finding new “found footage” to add.
GZ: Much of the footage you include deals with American political controversies or views that were perhaps common at the time that they were expressed, but from the standpoint of today are considered scandalous. For example, you include footage from Richard Nixon’s famous Checkers speech, films of animal testing, and footage from explicitly racist and orientalist documentaries and narrative films. The film was released a little bit before Fahrenheit 9/11; do you think there was a similar impulse to expose the problems with American political culture and society in general in the way that Moore tried to expose the true nature of Bush’s “war on terror”?
KJ: I could not make a film like Fahrenheit 9/11. I respect Moore for what he did. That film was urgently needed. I made an art film. I’m a child of the 30s and the Great Depression. I grew up in New York during World War 2 and watched McCarthyism take hold, so I heard the rhetoric about the war against fascism or the war against Communism. For a while, I believed the rhetoric about patriotism and all the other lies that were fed to me, that we were the good guys. For example, it was hard to come to understand that even during the war against fascism this country did horrible things like bombing civilians or neglecting Jews. Also, coming to understand the extermination of Native Americans or the hundreds of years of slavery was important to me. I had to come to terms with the glowing propaganda I was fed about America’s greatness. Especially with what is happening today under Bush, it seemed like the proper time to let all these thoughts out. The film is not nihilistic. The footage I shot that is in the film includes two protagonists played by Jack Smith and Jerry Sims. Jerry represents the idea that America is basically good, corrupt, but good. Jack represents a hatred for American society, almost a death wish for it.
NJ: Most films about American history manipulate and misrepresent what has happened in this country or what it has done. This film urges people to look at America’s past and present for what it really is. At the same time it straddles a love/hate relationship to America and its history. In a sense the film tries to end denial and help people to reject the fabrications they have been fed.
FJ: At first, I was sad that the film was not completed in 1962-63 when you first started working on it. Yet, by waiting all this time, I think it was able to step back and take a look at the course of American history and pick up on trends in society.
GZ: Having spoken about your aesthetic and Star Spangled to Death it seems that the notion that our reality has been packaged and manufactured for us, whether it be in the arts or in politics, is a recurring theme throughout your films.
KJ: Most people do not question their world. They think that the world that exists today is the only one that has ever existed and that what they are shown is all that exists. Artwork shows other possibilities, it is another language. It is an enigma. The art that I make is not about messages. It is about presenting enigmas. I think that that is a sane stance for the artist to take in the world. The role of the artist is to show other possibilities, which helps to bring a little sanity to the world that is imposed on us.
Logos 4.3 - Summer 2005