R. Emmet Sweeney
An interview with avant-garde cinema legend Ken Jacobs.
The Shorts of Ken Jacobs plays in theater with Q&As with Ken Jacobs on October 28 and October 30, and are currently available to stream on Metrograph At Home.
Entering his 90th year, Ken Jacobs continues to expand the possibilities of cinema. In the ’late 50s, he began filming boundary-pushing underground street theater with camp icon Jack Smith (Little Stabs at Happiness, Star Spangled to Death). He turned to more structuralist concerns at the end of the ’60s and on into the ’70s with works like Tom, Tom the Piper’s Son, in which he rephotographs a Billy Bitzer silent film, treating the film surface to an archeological dig. Then there are his multi-projector “Nervous System” performances and digital experiments in 3D that explore his fascination with depth—something that has obsessed him since his classes with Abstract Expressionist Hans Hofmann. He continues these experiments in his ongoing Eternalisms, which use still images and rapid flicker to create a malleable depth as enveloping as Avatar (of which he is a fan).
R. EMMET SWEENEY: Metrograph is showing some of your early work, including Orchard Street (1955). You still live in the area—and so, talk about the activity on the street then as compared to now…
KEN JACOBS: Oddly, it seems the same. You know, whenever crowds of people on the poor side gather it seems like what it was. Kids seem like what they were, old people seem what they were. It doesn’t seem that different. But it was different. It was another time.
RES: Can you talk about the circumstances of how you started Orchard Street?
KJ: I began shooting a film about pigeons in a city. And they became meaningful to me. But then, I didn’t have the carfare to keep up with them. I couldn’t afford traveling around a city even by subway, you know? And I said I need one locale, one place to film. Orchard Street. It was perfect. I moved a block away in a very inexpensive room and began working. And the street was very friendly to me. I never had any problems with anyone. They saw me as the kid with the camera, and I saw them living their lives and trying to catch it, yeah.
RES: Was the Helen Levitt film In the Street (1948) an influence on your approach?
KJ: Absolutely, yeah. A beautiful film. And I think a lot of other films besides hers at The Museum of Modern Art. And at Cinema 16, if anyone remembers this wonderful pioneering club that was showing films… People [on the street] appear monumental to me, and the camera was a very trusty Bell & Howell. You wound it and then it went, you know?
Orchard Street (1955)
the first thing I did was go to a camera store. I didn’t compare stores or prices, I was very foolish. I just said I want a camera that I can depend on.
RES: How much experience did you have with that camera before you started shooting?
KJ: It was the camera I got when I got out of the Coast Guard. I had the money from the government at the end of my three years, mostly in Alaska. The first thing I did was go to a camera store. I didn’t compare stores or prices, I was very foolish. I just said I want a camera that I can depend on. Other than the Bell + Howell, there was this exquisite Bolex. It could do all kinds of things. But I only wanted a camera that recorded, and I took the homely, basic Bell + Howell—until it was stolen. It was stolen by another filmmaker.
RES: Can you name names?
KJ: It was fucking Ron Rice. I left it with another filmmaker, Paul Morrisey, who later on worked with Warhol. Paul was very good about paying me off for this camera that he had borrowed and was stolen by Ron Rice.
RES: Oh wow.
KJ: What a jerk. Terrible movies.
RES: The Whirled (1956-1961) contains a remarkable clip of you and artist Carolee Schneemann on the NBC gameshow Play Your Hunch. How did that happen?
KJ: I was invited to this dopey quiz show, daytime, you know, a quiz show for stay-at-homes. And oh, I mention in the film [the prize] was for $20. And we had nothing. I don’t think any of the contestants had any money. Pathetic. And there was the beautiful Carolee Schneemann. We met there for the first time. It was ludicrous. I filmed it off the television afterwards and said, “This is funny, this is good.” Let’s put it in the movie.
RES: And it was amazing to see you. I think they ask what you are working on and you start to say how you are working on Star Spangled to Death, but they cut out when you say “to Death.”
KJ: They just cut it off. And you hear me laughing, so you know, what else would happen? Of course I would do this, you know? And then our guy [host Robert Q. Lewis] comes on and he doesn’t know what he’s saying. And he keeps repeating it until I stop describing my film… And just to assure the audience, things were just as shitty then as they are now.
RES: Talking about how shitty things can get, I just remembered I went to SUNY Binghamton when you were teaching there, and the class I took was all about stupidity.
KJ: Oh yes, right.
RES: I was just thinking about how much more material has accumulated since then that you could have used.
KJ: Oceans of stupidity. What could you do? One little teacher building a class confronting stupidity, I mean, it was heroic, heroic of me.
RES: Yeah, it was such a broad mandate to rethink things.
KJ: A really important subject. Besides chicanery, stupidity is the big helper of chicanery.
RES: Returning to The Whirled, it is a transition in your work from the observational approach of Orchard Street to the street theater you put on with Jack Smith. You bring in the kids from the neighborhood, and it has this whole community DIY spirit. Can you talk about that period of your life and work?
KJ: Jack and I really amused ourselves with the street theater. And then at some point someone said I should film it. How did I not think of that before? So I began filming the things we were doing. But it was extemporaneous street theater. And Jack was defiantly wild, okay? There’s nothing I could imagine that he wouldn’t do on-screen; if there was a camera there, he would do it. And so, that was a little bit of the street theater that was preserved, a street theater with no audience. Except for ourselves.
One day, we’re next to Rapoport’s, a restaurant on the Lower East Side, where they displayed a strawberry cake in the window. I’m thinking, you know, I am starving. I am really hungry and this thing has been pushed in my face, this strawberry cake. Fuck ’em. You know? I walked inside, went to the window and scooped a bunch, and went out eating it.
Jack Smith in Blonde Cobra (1963)
RES: Was it good?
KJ: To me, it was! It saved my life. But people were just aghast. They were frozen. They couldn’t respond. Unthinkable. I thought of it.
RES: And how did you first meet Jack, how did that friendship start?
KJ: I got in the Coast Guard, and they were paying for me to attend school. And CUNY had a film program… Hans Richter, famous avant-garde filmmaker, an old man now, he was in charge of it. So I went there. I liked his work. He interviewed each applicant, he sat in a high chair looking down at us. And he individually spoke to us. I don’t think he refused any applicant. The class, there were very good people that had been mostly ex-GIs on the same kind of funding program I was. They were looking for jobs in the film industry, a lot of which was in New York, and still is. In the class, I met Bob Fleischner, who had also just come out of the military. He was a bit goofy, but very knowledgeable. He was full of dates and names… impressive. His conversation could be witless, but he actually had very good taste. He also had a malformed education, like I did. At some point he says to me, he has met one other guy [Jack Smith] in this program who is really interested in film. And one time he’s talking to him on the subway. Bob is laughing, he’s having a good time. Meanwhile, the guy is smiling. He’s nodding his head, showing that he’s intently listening and he’s very amused and interested in all of Bob’s stories… And they get to a stop, and the guy steps backwards out of the train and onto the platform, still smiling back and nodding. The doors close, and Bob is left on the moving train. [Laughs]. I think, “That’s style, I love that, that’s good.” So then, [Jack and I] met.
Jack Smith was trying too hard the very first time we met. I wasn’t taken by him. My girlfriend at the time said, “No, he’s very clever. He really is something.” And on her urging, I tried Jack again. We only lived a block away from each other on the Lower East Side… Jack came around, and I heard this voice from outside of my first floor window, “Kenny, Kenny, can you come out and play?” That was the very next day. He had me. His knowledge was very strange. It was a little cesspool of knowledge about film. He had fallen in love with a wretched actress.
RES: Maria Montez?
KJ: Maria Montez. And he was faithful to her for the rest of his life. He saw qualities in—I think he saw life qualities in her confusion. And he was very touched by it, and he was, as he said, in love. But other than that, [Sergei] Eisenstein, he didn’t know nothing. It was just this period of stupid movies that he was taken with, seized with. I would be unhappy if my students would emerge with just a very localized knowledge, but it served him well. He’s a great artist. Although a pretty terrible person. He could be really terrible.
RES: Yeah, because in Little Stabs at Happiness (1960) you talk about how you’ve gone through splits, and you had these arguments. So it was a very argumentative relationship?
KJ: Oh yes. [Laughs.]
RES: What was it like when you were going into shooting a film with him—like Little Stabs at Happiness or Star Spangled to Death (1959-2004)?
KJ: I thought at the time that I would go into professional filmmaking. But they were specific things I wanted to deal with. I wanted to deal with America, American racism. I was very taken with the book Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison. I would’ve loved to have filmed that, which still hasn’t been filmed, a great book, Invisible Man. And Moby Dick… I had thought of doing some kind of modernized version of that. So there were specific—I didn’t want to be a filmmaker, I wanted to make specific films.
Then I had a chance to make Star Spangled to Death, which was not a film for the theaters, but I think there was already some emergence of what was called the underground filmmakers. So even with that, it was very tough. It’s a film of actual poverty. I’m working as a janitor and have access to the backyard. And my work as a janitor of this brownstone in uptown on the 80s, the West Side, afforded me a place in the basement to live for no money. So money, money, money. You don’t have it, it preoccupies you. Yeah, how can you get some money? Money is food, money is warmth in the winter.
Jonas Mekas lifted a number of these disparaged filmmakers out of the worst of poverty, you know? I’d be working at the theater that was showing underground films, and I think I was getting paid $10 a night. Is that right, Flo? [Ken calls his wife and producer/collaborator Florence Jacobs over.]
Ken and Florence Jacobs
RES: How did you two meet, you and Flo?
KJ: I began studying art formally. I had very bad teachers. And then, I met a friend, Alan Becker, at the Whitney—and I see a painting by Hans Hofmann. I don’t know who he is and I don’t understand the painting, but I feel this energy. And I say, “That’s really good.” And Alan says he teaches here in New York and he will sometimes take impecunious filmmakers and painters as monitors, and study with him, maybe for free. So I find out studying with him for a few years was necessary because he, for some reason, doesn’t take the government’s stipends. He doesn’t take attendance. He doesn’t think that artists should be punching a clock. So I can only study with him without the support of the government. He looked at my work and he said he would send me as a monitor. I studied with him, I think two years. It was on Eighth Street. And I still have a lot of feeling when I step onto Eighth Street. I have coffee [there] every so often. Those years of studying come back, and I am very grateful for them. I didn’t become a painter, I became a drawer. But I simultaneously had this interest in doing film.
In 1965 I met Hoffmann in the park near NYU. He asked what I’m doing, and I described miserable poverty. But I also told him I’m working a lot in film, when I could afford a roll of film, I shoot it, you know? And he says, “Ah, when you’re young, you can do anything.” When you’re young, you can do everything. I remember that.
Summer of 1961, I hitchhiked up to the mountains trying to find some work. And I don’t succeed. And so, I say, what the hell? If I can’t find a job here, let me go back to Provincetown where Hoffman has a summer home and was teaching for many years summer classes. He allowed the students to use his old teaching studio. And then he would sometimes walk around and give a critique. So I had to do that. I found a job, my first job in Provincetown was spearing cigarette butts on the beach. I’d pick up the butts. And then, I graduated to dishwashing.
In Boston, I knew people who ran a museum, Paul Revere’s house. They were able to give me a job washing the windows. That is poverty. You know? Also hitchhiking across the country, sometimes someone would offer me a sandwich. That’s how young artists were expected to live in those days. My mother’s family rejected me for being poor, for not thinking in practical terms. And an uncle, who was sometimes a cab driver, would come around and leave some food or maybe a $10 bill for me. That was a big thing. So I get to Provincetown, these beautiful beaches there. I sit down on the beach and I have these stiff cardboards to paint on—these little boards, from my landlord in New York, a nice guy who had a printing business. He let me take material that I needed from his business, so I had these little boards and I had paints with me, and I sat on the beach and painted. It took a long time for the paint to dry. So I’d spread them out.
I was sitting on the sidewalk and I looked up and saw two girls talking to each other. I go to the girls, deciding which one I liked the most, which was the pretties, if they knew where it was possible to sleep for a dollar, to rent a place for the night for one dollar. I said I knew of a place on the edge of town. One of the girls said, “I have a car, I’ll take you there.” So here’s the other chick [points to Flo]. And the one who had this wonderful little car, what was it? A Triumph… Alice Meyer-Wallace was the very friendly one, very open to this day, a wonderful artist. And she’s very funny. So Alice wanted to drive me to my dollar a night room. We were ready to go, and I said I had to pick up my drawings, they’re drying on the beach. We walked down the beach, the three of us, and my drawings brought me my bride. Until that moment she figured I was an Italian jerk, an Italian punk with crazy ideas of being a painter. But she saw the drawings and said, “Yep, I’ll take him.”
Hitchhiking across the country, sometimes someone would offer me a sandwich. That’s how young artists were expected to live in those days.
RES: Amazing. Could you talk about what you’re working on now? Are you still working on those Eternalisms or is there something new that you’re going after?
KJ: I have two assistants on the computer working remotely, Viktor Timofeev and Antoine Ketala. And we’ve been in prison here for two and a half years with COVID, but these guys are great. I’ve got a lot of work done. People can go to Vimeo Ken Jacobs and see some of it.
A lot of Eternalisms. And also recently, I discovered some other crazy impossibility, which is depth in flux. I draw these lines, and one looks at the screen and it’s a little drawing. And one slightly crosses the eyes, the eyes which are meant to do that, they do it all the time. I’m doing it right now looking at the screen in front of me; it’s perfectly comfortable. And when your eyes move towards each other, the drawings double. You see? And some of the lines shift over and join each other. When they join each other, they appear in 3D.
RES: Oh wow. So it’s a different way to get the 3D effect?
KJ: Yeah. Hoffman made me so depth-conscious. He was always talking about depth. And at the same time, said you have to respect the surface. So what he’s after, I am finally understanding, is depictions of depth. But how do you depict depth without achieving depth? Depth is a sin. You know, it’s a two-dimensional canvas. You don’t want to lie. You don’t want it to do anything it doesn’t naturally do. But the concentration on depth made me want to see the illusion. So in my filmmaking, very often I was immersed in an illusion. And then of course, it was already 3D, these mostly terrible 3D movies are available. And I didn’t see them as vital anyway. They’re junk, you know?
RES: Did you see Avatar (2009)? There’s another one coming out. Did you see the first one?
KJ: That was good. I liked that. There is another?
RES: Yeah, there’s a sequel coming out in December. You know more about 3D than anybody, so I was just curious. And while he recently passed, what you thought of the Godard film Goodbye to Language (2014), if you were able to see that in 3D?
KJ: I was able to see it in 3D, and I thought it was very sad. I thought he went bananas. At some point he showed two separate images on each screen. Someone who feels what depth will do wouldn’t do a thing like that, that’s a dumb joke. I don’t know what, Godard is blind. I don’t like that film at all.
RES: Could you describe how the Eternalisms work?
KJ: Well, Viktor works on them and with me in very small ways. I take the pictures, he shapes them to a stereo image and two pictures. He puts them together. So he dumbfounds me. He’s really so ingenious.
You asked me about the Eternalisms. The name probably sounds silly, or I’m sure it does sound silly, but it’ll have to do. A 3D shot is reduced to one image, both left and right have joined the other. And somehow, the space comes through, even for one-eyed people. Two eyes, of course, you see something approaching a normal scene. But I’m assuming for one-eyed persons, they actually see 3D. I do think that one-eyed persons see 3D when they’re in motion. I haven’t asked anybody, but I’m assuming depth is not unfamiliar to them normally.
Depth, I’m seeing consciously in depth right now, so depth is such a factor in my living days, coming from Hans Hoffmann, and his stress on depth.
R. Emmet Sweeney is the Director of Media Production at Kino Lorber, Inc., and produced the Ken Jacobs Collection on Blu-ray, which is available now.
Things to Come (2019)