Untold Depths:
Ken Jacobs’s 3D films The Guests and Wire Fence
By Max Nelson

The Guests and Wire Fence play Saturday, January 10, at Museum of the Moving Image as part of First Look 2015.

Of the many cryptic sayings scattered throughout Jean-Luc Godard’s latest film Goodbye to Language, one of the most striking is the narrator’s suggestion that, in cinema, “the difficult thing is to fit flatness into depth.” Nestled as the line is within the movie’s constant shiftings of perspective, slippages of meaning, and layerings of frames within frames (the film is Godard’s first in 3D), it’s unclear for whom this difficulty is supposed to come up. Filmmaking, one might want to say, has always involved creating the illusion of depth within what is, essentially, a flattened-out reproduction of three-dimensional space. The difficult thing, you’d think, would be “fitting” the depth of this space into flatness—not, as Godard suggests, the other way around.

Suppose now that the difficulty in question isn’t on the filmmaker’s side, but rather on that of an audience confronted with a series of flat images and asked to infer depth out of them, to expand them on sight from two dimensions into three. Taken this way, Godard’s line becomes about something else. In the course of watching a movie, what sort of ocular work—scanning the frame, racking focus, aligning bodies in space, slotting them into different visual planes—are we supposed to be doing? And how, if at all, can that work be taught?

In Wire Fence, one of his two new films screening at this year’s edition of the Museum of the Moving Image’s annual “First Look” series, Ken Jacobs tries quite literally to fit flatness into depth. The movie, which runs twenty-two minutes, consists of a series of 3D still frames depicting fenced-in construction sites, each photographed through the fence’s orange mesh from the sidewalk or the street. Seen with the film’s required 3D glasses, each image becomes a kind of exercise in perceptual dexterity. As long as we fix our eyes on the subjects of each shot—the workers, their construction equipment, the passersby who glance at them with varying degrees of interest or indifference—the fence in the extreme foreground comes off as a dizzying, incoherent mess of ill-matched lines. It takes a distinct physical effort—what Jacobs, in the film’s program notes, calls “force of mind”—to focus on the fence itself, which keeps slipping back into a tangle as the figures behind it reclaim our attention. Sometimes, when the camera is at an angle, it’s possible to focus independently on multiple points of the fence itself; occasionally, bottles or wrappers lodged in the mesh give us footholds on which to zero in.

Jacobs, who has been working in and out of 3D since the late sixties, has claimed that Wire Fence is “the first movie in which things actually move” within a single frame, rather than only “appearing to move in a succession of frames.” It’s a neat, if hyperbolic, description of the sort of eye-play that goes on in each frame of the movie. What moves, of course, isn’t the image on the screen but an image of that image—the one each viewer takes in and re-constructs for herself. This, in part, is what gives Wire Fence its didactic edge; each image, you start to sense, is meant to give your eyes a workout. The exercise—the “difficulty,” in Godard’s way of speaking—consists of cycling from one spatial plane to the other, but the goal is something like a sharpening of attention, or, conversely, a raised awareness on our part of the extent to which our own attentiveness can fail us. Looking at one thing means blurring something else; distances expand and contract between planes; lines tangle; faces smudge. The concept for the movie, Jacobs suggests in the program notes, came from a moment of failure along these lines, “when I reached for a strand of film . . . and pinched air.”

The conceit of The Guests, a 73-minute 3D frame-by-frame exposition of a single, thirty-second fragment of the Lumière brothers’ Entrée d'une noce à l'église (1897), recalls both one of Jacobs’s best-known films—his monumental Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son (1969-71), a two-hour riff on a 1905 Biograph short by Billy Bitzer—and one of his most notable recent works, Razzle Dazzle: The Lost World (2008), a stroboscopic video built out of a one-minute Edison short. For the forty years separating those two works, the making of individual, finished films wasn’t at the heart of Jacobs’ artistic practice. In 1975, Jacobs developed the first of what would become a series of “Nervous System” live performances: improvisatory dual-projector screenings in which two prints of the same early silent film would be projected one frame at a time on two slightly staggered or asynchronous channels, both placed in front of a rapid, adjustable shutter. The flickering, pulsating three-dimensional effects Jacobs coaxed out of this setup have become the stuff of legend. (Having never seen one, I have read of them as, variably, “twisting, warping whirligigs of volumetric protuberance”; “paradoxical experiences of motion” in which “the screen itself seems to rotate slightly or its surface become convulsed by sudden ripples”; and spectacles in whose “ceaselessly reforming shapes” audience members “are apt to discover . . . spectral images of monsters and other horrors coming straight from their own subconscious storehouse of anxieties.”)

The “Nervous System” performances were essentially incomplete; part of their power, I gather, came from their constantly being unstable, in flux, lacking any fixed or predetermined end. (In this respect, they perhaps also recall Jacobs’s marathon lectures at SUNY, where he taught for over thirty years.) It was only once sophisticated digital video technology came on the market that Jacobs found a cinematic vocabulary with which he could make something like film versions of the shows. Since then, he has been strikingly prolific. It’s perhaps best, then, to take The Guests—the second of Jacobs’s films included in the festival—as one installment in a single, ongoing exploration of what it might look like for a close-reading to take the form of a spectacle or magic show.

The clip around which The Guests is based shows the rear half of a wedding train entering a church in backlogged double-file. In Jacobs’s reconstruction of the movie, each frame is frozen and superimposed over its immediate successor; every five seconds or so, the film advances one frame, so that the original B-frame is then superimposed over the one immediately after it. The result is supposed to be that, in Jacobs’s words, “similarities and differences between the two images create illusions of deep space . . . with solids appearing as voids and vice-versa.” But The Guests is not, like Wire Fence, an engine for frustration or eye-straining perceptual work. Instead, it’s a sort of cinematic equivalent of a literary explication de texte—an exercise in which a single, brief work is made to expand, undulate, deepen, and shift shape simply by virtue of being looked at unblinkingly and at length.

What emerges first are the moods and personalities of individual people: the little girl who pokes her head peevishly and impatiently out from behind the wall of another, unseen woman’s coat; the unsmiling, slightly pained-looking woman advancing slowly in an elaborate frilled dress whose ruffles mesmerizingly catch the light; the nervous, frail, wispy-haired young woman who gets in line late, anxiously peers into the church, then retreats back into her place clutching her purse in what looks like fear. The space within the frame, too, undergoes a sort of change. Looking at the image for an extended period of time, the distance between the carriages and shops in the distant background—the church is situated on one side of a courtyard-like town square—and the figures in the extreme foreground starts to widen and collapse, especially during the few brief moments when Jacobs jarringly inverts or re-colors the image itself.

Then there are the figures inside the frame, which seem alternately to project out of and recede back into the surface of the screen. This particular effect, unlike others in Jacobs’s repertoire, isn’t an innovation. One of the draws of 3D, from its early uses in midcentury creature features to its resurrection in the 1980s at immersive theme park rides, has been the way it makes onscreen objects protrude threateningly or seductively from the surface of the frame. But its use here, in the recalling and contemplation of a turn-of-the-century wedding, is telling. One of Jacobs’s central concerns in both these movies—and, for that matter, in much of his life’s work—is to find (or create) roiling, unstable motive forces in seemingly placid moments; to suggest that any single image, carefully enough regarded, will over-spill its own boundaries, force the creation of new images and texts. Another way of putting this suggestion would be that the work of taking in an image on our part is, in the end, inseparable from the work of producing images—the work of making a static image move, or fitting flatness into depth.

Photo from The Guests, courtesy Ken Jacobs.