Blu-ray Review: The Ken Jacobs Collection | Under The Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Thursday, September 16th, 2021  

The Ken Jacobs Collection Vol. 1

Studio: Kino Lorber

Sep 02, 2021 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

New York-based filmmaker and educator Ken Jacobs isn’t quite a household name. He looms large in the history of experimental/underground film, yes, but unlike Maya Deren, Stan Brakhage, or Kenneth Anger, this did not result in a clear influence on mainstream moviemaking. There are certain glimmers of Jacobs’ early work in the margins of that world: the first no-budget features of John Waters, the queer burlesques of Curt McDowell, and the scrappy post-punk forays of now-known names like Jim Jarmusch and Harmony Korine (along with a litany of lesser known, but no less worthy, filmmakers like Sarah Jacobson and Vanessa Renwick) all have a taste of Jacobs’ early work, and even the scruffy collegiate conviviality of an ‘80s K Records music video or the interstitial bits on Kids in the Hall owe a debt in their artfully tossed-off style, whether they’re aware of it or not.

Jacobs’ short collaborations with larger-than-life filmmaker/proto-performance artist Jack Smith, collected on this set, are goofy and fun to watch even as they’re colored with a patina of world-weary melancholy. These raw, vibrant works, especially Little Stabs at Happiness, are an acknowledged bellwether of early underground film. Feature-length works like The Sky Socialist are considerably more expansive, settling into a restless space somewhere between the “city symphony” films of the 1920s and Jonas Mekas’ diaristic films, albeit with a thicker sheen of home movie informality than either of those.

Later, Jacobs would become more formal in his pursuits, if not more conventional. His 1969 film Tom, Tom, The Piper’s Son is an acknowledged classic of “structuralist” film that stretches five minutes of a 1905 film to full feature length, its resulting granularity landing it a vaunted place next to the likes of Michael Snow’s Wavelength and Tony Conrad’s Flicker. In the last three decades, Jacobs has turned to experimenting with stroboscopic effects and digital editing techniques to make hypnotic, politically charged works like Capitalism: Child Labor.

There are holes in this collection, such as the seven hour Star Spangled To Death, but presumably that’s why it’s designated as “Volume 1”. Many of Jacobs’ works, involving shadow plays, live narration, and the like, simply wouldn’t work in this context, which sadly might mean that they will be lost to the sands of time.

Still, this is a set clearly meant to preserve Jacobs’ name for posterity. The transfers are as clean as one can make films like these, a massive step up from the rare, battered film prints and bootleg DVD-Rs (not that I know anything about that) which have been available prior.

For the most part, Jacobs’ films aren’t the kind of thing one casually watches for laughs (though his collaborations with Smith are quite funny, not to mention succinct); for the most part, they’re bittersweet meditations on the ever-changing New York that is his lifelong home, or formal explorations of the very nature of film. As such, this is not a collection one recommends casually. However, if you want to dive headfirst into the world of one of the great, largely unheralded voices of underground and experimental film’s first golden age, this is an essential set.



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