Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son. 1971. USA. Directed by Ken Jacobs. Preserved by The Museum of Modern Art with support from the Celeste Bartos Fund for Film Preservation. 35mm. 105 min.
Presented here in a new 35mm MoMA preservation, Ken Jacobs’s 1971 structuralist masterpiece, which transfigures a 1905 Biograph short, endures as a radical, essential cinematic experience four decades hence. In Jacobs’ work of re-photography, recording opens up new ways of seeing, foregrounding latent surface texture, intricate structure, and depth—a concern the artist cites from studying painting with Hans Hoffman—in the stripped-down image. Jacobs draws out the actors’ energetic performance (in a silent-film style that predates even D. W. Griffith) adding to their resonance as ethereal figures whose lives have long since passed. While the viewer primarily experiences an altered sense of perception the second time the original film is seen in its entirety, Jacobs indicates that the symphonic coda is a final homage and goodbye to Tom, Tom, complete with white leader and a visible splice. When Jacobs presented a 70-minute version of the work in the second season of Cineprobe, it was the series’ first all-silent program. Among the material added after that presentation—a testament to Jacobs’s lifelong reworking of his filmography—are color sequences that make the screen from which the film is being re-filmed visible in a soft play of shadows.