TWO WRENCHING DEPARTURES
2006, 90 minutes, video, b&w, sound
This is playing through January 23, 2007 at Anthology Film Archives in New York. At the January 17, 2007 showing Ken Jacobs was in attendance. He introduced the video briefly and answered some questions afterward.
The video mostly consists of digitally edited 16 mm black and white film that Jacobs shot in New York in the 1950s. The film is manipulated in such a way that we see just a few frames over and over again with some black frames in between. Most of the shots are of Jack Smith dancing, and creating a spectacle of himself on the sidewalks of New York. Had the original 16mm film footage been shown straight through at 24fps normal running time, we would see perhaps five minutes, more or less, of film. This 5 minutes of film is used to construct the 90 minute video. Jacobs has done this sort of thing before with "Tom, Tom, The Piper's Son"(1969). That film uses a 5 minute Biograph film from 1905 and runs it through the projector in a number of ways. It is a much more successful film than TWO WRENCHING DEPARTURES.
Jacobs does not show any of the scenes of the film straight through. He goes over and over the smallest movement. What it feels like is having several flip books of only a few pages and looking at them again and again.
This video presentation of the material is a way to preserve what was once done as a live "Nervous System" performance with two projectors. Jacobs described the use of some sort of shutter to alternate between the projectors, which along with short segments of film provided the effect he was looking for. In the discussion after the film he said that he found the effect somewhat three dimensional. The black spaces in between helped to augment the three dimensionality. He said that no one commenting on the film mentioned the three dimensionally effect, but only the stroboscopic. Perhaps the three dimensionality is only visible to Ken Jacobs.
There is the repeated observation of the smallest of movements. Unfortunately, aside from the very first segment in which a man dances on a deserted street, the movements themselves are not that interesting. The most interesting thing about the images now is the fact that they were shot fifty years ago on New York streets and some of it in a familiar neighborhood. We see a shot with the old St. Marks movie theater which used to be on 2nd Ave at St Marks Place until the 1980s. Some of the automobiles and cigarette ads of the sides of building are interesting as well as the bystanders, some of whom are drawn into the action. Shoeshine boys observe and interact with Smith in one scene. Jack Smith is the least interesting and most familiar type of character in the film. Except for one shot where he is in close-up, he just appears as a flamboyant drag type performer acting up in the streets and sidewalks and drawing attention to himself for no particular reason. This might have been unusual in the 1950s but not 2007.
The facility of digital editing makes the piece far less remarkable that it once might have been performed live with two projectors and the shutter mechanism. With two projectors performed live it would have been technically impressive. This digital version almost anyone could do with the simple computer editing software so readily at hand.
Ken Jacobs was asked following the screening if he would be performing using the two projector "Nervous System" live again. He basically said that it was too much work and that he found it unsatisfying for the effort involved because it was just over and done after with nothing substantial left. Perhaps this is the only way the work should have been performed and there is nothing substantial in this digital shadow of a cinema performance that once was. We are sort of left with a video document of a performance. This might be more satisfying for Jacobs in that he has something that he can leave behind, a record of what he once did, but perhaps it would have been better to let it all go and remain the stuff of legend in the world of avant-garde cinema. Jacobs said after the screening that the point of the video was to leave something behind for whatever future we have in light of George Bush.
Is it like looking at an online digital image of the Mona Lisa, or a video document of a play or dance performance. OK enough as a historical artifact, but pale in itself.