The Parallax View
Jackson Arn on Reichstag 9/11 and other new films by Ken Jacobs
One of the few aspects of Ken Jacobs’s body of work that hasn’t yet been exhaustively praised, analyzed, and imitated is his knack for a catchy title. Leave it to lesser avant-gardists to name their creations after numbers and letters—a good Jacobs title (Blonde Cobra, Seeking the Monkey King, The Pushcarts Leave Eternity Street) is nothing less than a poem, oozing rich imagery and striking contrasts. Like the greatest poets, Jacobs can make a singsong-y cliché feel brand-new (Razzle Dazzle, Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son), or else twist it into something sardonically original (Disorient Express, Star Spangled to Death)—all in all, not a bad analogy for the way his films transform ordinary-seeming found footage into art.
Cyclops Observes the Celestial Bodies—one of four Jacobs shorts playing at Museum of the Moving Image on January 14—confirms the 83-year-old’s status as a namer par excellence; its title could even be said to sum up his career. Jacobs has spent a sizeable portion of the last six decades researching radical new ways to produce illusions of depth on a flat screen, tailored to the conditions of human vision. Arguably his greatest invention is the procedure he dubbed Eternalism, which U.S. Patent 7030902 B2 characterizes, less lyrically, as “a method for creating an appearance of sustained three-dimensional motion-direction of unlimited duration, using a finite number of pictures.” Though the concept of parallax view dates back to ancient times (as Cyclops’s title reminds us, some of its earliest applications were astronomical), it was Jacobs who discovered that, by interspersing two near-identical images with a monochrome screen, he could create the illusion of fluid, three-dimensional movement. Eternalism is dazzling, even dizzying (something like getting the spins), and yet, insofar as it doesn’t require projectors, special glasses, or multiple eyes, so accessible that even Greek monsters could enjoy it.
All four of the Jacobs films playing at the Museum employ Eternalism throughout their running time, and three of the four seem to exist primarily as vehicles for it. At the start of the 20-minute Popeye Sees 3D, an intertitle helpfully defines Eternalism for the uninitiated, labeling the footage of midtown Manhattan that follows. In the crisp, black-and-white Cyclops, it’s never made clear if we’re gazing at subatomic particles, bacteria, drops of water, or, as the name might imply, wisps of stardust—so that, in effect, the true subject of the film is Eternalism itself. It’s a mark of Jacobs’s radicalness (or maybe just the squareness of American cinema) that he should need to define and demonstrate his invention a full fifteen years after its patenting, and decades after he began tinkering with it; however, in spite of his perpetual investigations into the idiosyncrasies of human vision, Jacobs remains an educator, patiently teaching the same curriculum to classrooms conditioned to think 3D is merely an excuse for studios to charge more for a ticket.
The program’s most intriguing draw is Reichstag 9/11, a 38-minute Eternalist collage of footage taken by New Yorkers on the day of the World Trade Center attack. In light of the implied comparison between September 11, 2001 and the 1933 Reichstag fire in Berlin—a disaster some historians have suggested was an inside job, designed to scapegoat the German Communist party and strengthen the newly established Third Reich—it’s the most provocatively and perplexingly named film Jacobs has directed. In interviews, he’s expressed his suspicions that 9/11 was “a Saudi-Bush maneuver to instill [sic] a New American Century,” but, thankfully, his film omits any mention of conspiracy, Saudi-Bush or otherwise. Totally absent, for that matter, are establishing shots, intertitles, or voiceovers that could situate the footage into a broader narrative, either the one the title evokes (and Jacobs, it would seem, believes) or another. Instead, Jacobs offers a stream of silent, digitally simplified shots of the collapsing towers and the surrounding metropolitan area—a far cry from the counterpointing sound clips in his previous treatment of September 11, Circling Zero: We See Absence (Part 1), let alone the pages of paranoid vitriol yielded by a Google search of the title.
It could be argued that by declining to provide explicit commentary about the tragedy, Jacobs is pushing viewers to see past layers of state-sponsored spin, but one could argue just as easily, and unpersuasively, that the absence of commentary leaves viewers to default to the mainstream narrative about the attacks, which they’re likely to know already (a point Slavoj Žižek made in a Guardian article about Hollywood representations of terrorism). Reichstag is, to be sure, a highly political work, but not in the usual sense of sketching out an ideological position and strengthening that position with real-world evidence. If anything, Jacobs gives the sense of an inverse relationship between evidence and ideology; the more footage we see of the huge, smoking hole that American Airlines Flight 11 ripped in the North Twin Tower, the more inadequate a confident interpretation of the wreckage becomes.
Many of the essays on Ken Jacobs’s life and work (including those anthologized in the recent Optic Antics: The Cinema of Ken Jacobs, the first full-length book on its subject) connect his creative process with his passion for education. Like any good professor, Jacobs lectures on his pet subjects without dogmatically imposing his own beliefs upon his students. At his best (Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son and, by all accounts, his nearly half-century tenure at Binghamton University), Jacobs finds a way to make his cinematic obsessions our own. Elsewhere, his obsessions don’t entirely catch on, and come across as indulgent or solipsistic. Reichstag falls into the former category because Jacobs finds ways of expressing some of his own political and aesthetic personality while leaving room for his viewers’ vivid associations with the events of September 11, 2001. The film isn’t so much a restaging of the terrorist attacks as it is a reinterpretation of our memories of watching the attacks—of straining to make sense out of grainy, underpixelated images on a screen and inevitably coming up short. At the same time, these images, with their chunky, overlapping squares of blue and orange, bear an undeniable resemblance to the AbEx canvasses of Jacobs’s great mentor, the painter Hans Hoffman—making Reichstag, unlikely as it sounds, a collective time capsule doubling as an extended artistic homage.
Jacobs’s work is refreshing because he rarely makes the mistake of presenting himself as an infallible arbiter; instead, he comes across as an enthusiastic student, with his own weaknesses and bad habits. Speaking about 9/11 last fall, he said, “The terrible thing is that it’s beautiful. Looming clouds of debris, people’s patterns of escape. We’re a whacked-out people to be eating this stuff up.” Unlike a conspiracy theorist, Jacobs doesn’t present himself as immune to the problem he’s diagnosing; in interviews and, implicitly, in his films, there is always an implied “we,” who are conditioned and in some ways hard-wired to enjoy images, no matter what they show. Treating the deadliest terrorist attack on American soil as an occasion for some eye-popping visuals might strike some as morally reprehensible, but in Reichstag, he persuades us that this is an ethically honest response to the tragedy, particularly considering that the politico-media complex already presented it as spectacle. Eternalizing the attack forces viewers, and Jacobs himself, to accept responsibility for their own voyeurism—the source of the spectacle is, quite literally, their own minds.
The Dubyah-Cheney regime made kooks out of a number of American creative geniuses, including Kurt Vonnegut, Norman Mailer, and Gore Vidal. In interviews, Jacobs’s ramblings about the New American Century seem no more coherent than those of his fellow Truthers, but his four films at MoMI sacrifice none of the nuance or insight that make him a cinematic giant. Cyclops Observes the Celestial Bodies may be an apter title than he realizes: even if his view of the political landscape lacks much depth, his observations on the loftier themes of art and education continue to razzle-dazzle.