Who Is Ken Jacobs? (written and researched by Erik Olson)
“Part of what I do is explode film,” Ken Jacobs says in an interview. Jacobs has been making experimental films since the late 1950s. His style has certainly evolved over the decades, finding new ways to explode and explore the boundaries of cinema. Along the way he has received the AFI’s Maya Deren Award, the Stan Brakhage Vision Award, a Guggenheim fellowship and countless other marks of distinction.
One of his earliest films, LITTLE STABS AT HAPPINESS (1959-1963), is part of a section of experimental films that were “anecdotal, almost home-movie, narratives cultivated by filmmakers influenced by the Beat and hipster milieus”. The fifteen minute vignette film feels like someone looking back at the past, especially from minutes three to six, where Jacobs, years later, recorded a voice over narration talking about the people in the film and how they are no longer in his life.
TOM, TOM, THE PIPER'S SON (1969) is one of Jacobs’ more well known works, having been admitted to the National Film Registry in 2007. It takes a short film from 1905 of the same name and is then “rephotographed” by slowing down the film, freezing frames, zooming in on images. Really anything you can do, he does it. Jacobs then repeats the short as seen before, allowing us to be more active in the images we are seeing. It’s a “film about watching movies.” The whole almost two hour film cannot be viewed online, but an eight minute excerpt can be watched below.
In 2004, Jacobs made STAR SPANGLED TO DEATH (2004), a nearly seven-hour film reflecting on the dangers of capitalism in America. The film is combined with found-films and footage shot by Jacobs featuring Jack Smith (from LITTLE STABS AT HAPPINESS above). The film looks at a sold-out culture, racial and religious insanity, addiction to war, and other subjects harmed by capitalism. Stylistically, the film looks like a combination of the “home-movie” aesthetic of LITTLE STABS AT HAPPINESS and the found-footage experimentation of TOM, TOM, THE PIPER'S SON. Below is a three-minute clip of the film.