Ken Jacobs. Disorient Express. 1995. 35mm (black and white, silent), 30 min. The Museum of Modern Art, New York

On the occasion of MoMA’s recent acquisition of more than 200 works by Ken Jacobs, and the presentation of three of his films in Gallery 411: Ken Jacobs: Deep Cuts, we sat down with one of cinema’s living treasures, joined by his artist son Azazel, to talk about sources of NYC inspiration, from the streets of Brooklyn to the galleries of MoMA to the work of Joan Mitchell.

Ken Jacobs: This is Ken Jacobs. And I’ve made hundreds, if not thousands, of films not realizing I was doing it. I just go from one to the other. I hope you enjoy them. I hope they can be easily available and hang on, hang in.

Azazel Jacobs: My name is Azazel Jacobs and, along with my sister Nisi Ariana, we are the children of Kenneth and Florence Jacobs, and both artists ourselves. When they really didn’t have money to make films anymore for a long period of time, just because the medium and everything had become so expensive, my parents put on 3D shadow plays that myself and my sister were always in as little babies and little kids, so we were incorporated into the work as well.

How did you become interested in art?

KJ: I was a kid in Brooklyn and the high school let us know they had these tickets that would let us get in free to MoMA. And I would get here and there was another world, and I liked it. I saw unexpected films, wonderful films. [Charlie] Chaplin, for instance. This was the only place in New York you could see Chaplin! Greed, by Erich von Stroheim, was an unthinkable film. This was the movies? Wow. This was possible? I also was able to go to Cinema 16. Amos Vogel ran the program, and there were very interesting films from all over, art films and other strange movies. I was all for that.

AJ: Cinema 16 was a film club so that they could avoid a lot of the obscenity laws and show work that was banned; it was a way to dodge censorship laws at that time.

Greed. 1924. USA. Directed by Erich von Stroheim

Greed. 1924. USA. Directed by Erich von Stroheim

How did you decide to study painting and photography?

KJ: I was a young man and I went with a friend who was also interested in painting, and we saw a new show of work by Hans Hofmann. I couldn’t understand it, but I was very attracted to it. [My friend] knew about [Hofmann], and he said he taught and that he sometimes would take on new students without money. I was without money. Hofmann was very nice, and he spoke very bad English, and he substituted some words of his own for more normal American English words, but he was great, a generous person. I studied intensively with him for at least three years. When I stopped, I still would go back occasionally to see what he was doing, what he was saying, but it did mean for me an eventual break from painting. Painting, no matter how it regarded the world in space, it was going to be flat. I needed the illusion. Illusion doesn’t have the same disparaging word for me as it does for other people. What can two eyes see? I needed both eyes to function, and I found that in film.

What was it like growing up in New York City?

KJ: Grubby. New York, when you’re up close to it, is grubby. From a little distance, it becomes astounding. The buildings lift up. The bridges, the water. The people, all kinds of people. It was always fascinating to me. Nice place to be. But mice!

[When I was] 17, I moved over to be close to my high school. I went to Industrial Arts and had a pretty wonderful painting teacher. A crotchety Italian guy. For some reason I didn’t finish high school. I can’t remember why. I got on the Coast Guard, because at that time it was mandatory that young guys go into the military. In the Coast Guard I spent two years, a little more, in Alaska in what’s called isolated duty. Twelve guys and a dog and a little tiny island. When I got out of that, I had become interested in film, and almost the first day that I was out of the Coast Guard back in New York, I bought a moving-picture camera, and set to work.

My first film [in 1955] was about Orchard Street on the Lower East Side. I needed a contained thing to film. I couldn’t afford the car fare to travel around New York and I lived right next to Orchard Street. I shot with 16mm film because I needed a camera that would survive harsh treatment. I got something that was made essentially as a combat camera for World War II, which wasn’t so distant at the time.

[Orchard Street] was a jumble of stores crushed together and a huge crowd of people walking through the streets looking for bargains. And that became my subject. I was already very critical of capitalism, and this was a strange outgrowth of capitalism, but I began to film it. The street was very friendly. It never challenged me, the guy with a camera. People acted for me, and they behaved for me. It was a wonderful experience. I was very poor, very lonely, very isolated. There were cultural things that kept me in the world: this place [MoMA] being one of them, always very important to me, and Cinema 16.

Orchard Street. 1955. USA. Directed by Ken Jacobs

Orchard Street. 1955. USA. Directed by Ken Jacobs

What makes Orchard Street feel personal?

KJ: It’s a portrait. It was very important to me to portray what was there, many instances of one or two people doing something. I was able to get very close to things, right in the midst of things and all kinds of personalities. Also, I should mention, World War II had happened recently. This was a very Jewish street, and what had happened with Nazis during World War II was evident. You could see people who had had close experiences with that. That was always in my mind, that this was a world where terrible things could happen, people could do terrible things to each other, and I had to come to terms with that, which I never have. I still have nightmares.

Is there a moment in Orchard Street that stands out to you?

KJ: I’ve had a chance to look at it more lately, and I’m impressed by my young self. I was pretty good. I saw many stories happening in tiny gestures. It’s a good movie.

AJ: I love the woman selling the pop guns.

KJ: I was thinking about her too. I had her in my mind.

AJ: Waving this pistol around.

KJ: It’s an old lady. She’s not nice. She warns the kids away, and meanwhile she’s demonstrating a pop gun with her hand. It’s very funny.

AJ: I also like the group of the young people that are holding onto each other, trying to make it through the street without getting separated.

KJ: It’s so lovely. Tough Italian girls.

AJ: And they wave to you to say bye, and they’re all holding onto each other.

Can you tell us about Star Spangled to Death?

KJ: By this time [in the mid 1950s] I’d met Jack Smith, and he was really one of the fabulous characters of all time. He made some great films and great shows, but his art was really himself. He was into himself and into his behavior and everything was very conscious and very articulated and usually painful. He enjoyed being a bastard. He was in opposition, a devil, and pretty great. We had fun together for a while.

AJ: And he inspired the film, Star Spangled. Was he the kickoff?

KJ: Yes. He and a creepy young fellow at the time called Jerry Sims, who just was a Lower East Side product of poverty and want all his life, but was very smart, very well read, and very bitter. These two characters kind of drove the film. I began exploring them. They’re condemned to be themselves. Jack is the artistic one who’s very demonstrative, and Jerry is a victim, but a nasty spoken one, and was objecting to his victimization. He cared for Jack. Jack would be very tolerant of him. He would smell bad, he’d be very wrathful, but Jack was amused by him and respected him to a certain degree, and then deplored him past that degree. Jack was tall, Jerry was short. Reese Hare was also important to the film. Reese was a tall Black guy who was very intelligent and very amused by Jack and even by Jerry.

Ken Jacobs. Star Spangled to Death. 2004

Ken Jacobs. Star Spangled to Death. 2004

AJ: My dad began Star Spangled in ’56 and ran out of money. It was definitely growing and becoming a much longer film than normal. I don’t know if he knew it was gonna be seven hours. But as it grew, it became too expensive to continue. At a certain point, I guess in 1960, he had to put it down. And then it really wasn’t until the advent of computers and FinalCut and all these things...and a salary—he wound up teaching film at Binghamton for 31 years or so. The moment that he retired from teaching, the technology had changed so much that he was able to dive back into this film. It was finished in 2004. It’s a collection of things that were shot in the moment, and then interspersed with things that were collected. There’s lots of found footage that builds up the idea of the world that the film began in, or in terms of the country that my father felt that this country has been established as, and then it also goes all the way into video that he was shooting around 2000, as the country was deeply involved in Iraq, and everything that had happened after 9/11. So it’s a reflection of this 40-year gap, being in the present in 1960 and being in the present at the time that he was finally finishing the film. Sometimes it veers into missives and diaries, and they’re all things that are basically a snapshot of this time in his life and the way that he saw the world.

The strangest thing about the film is that it’s unrelentingly about depressing, horrific things, and at the same time, I find it an extremely joyful movie, ultimately. It does seem to be an oddly optimistic film about just being grateful to be alive and to have this time on this world and this planet, regardless of the things that we do to each other.

KJ: True.

Do Star Spangled to Death and Orchard Street have similar themes in terms of working through your reaction to cruelty in the world?

KJ: I fear cruelty, despise it, and it exists. It exists. It’s often called patriotism. So we are crazy people. At a certain point, I discovered something very important. Flo and I were working with two projectors, side by side, as Aza said, giving performances of film. We did a lot of things where we had two strands of the same film, one on each projector, sometimes only one frame out of sync with each other. In front of that I had a spinning propeller, a cut out, so only one frame would mostly show at a time, or sometimes it would be one frame and a little bit of the next one, a black space, and then a little bit of the next one, different cutouts and different combinations. And at some point, we discovered an uncanny thing, that if there was a moment of blackness, there was a lot of film that would go into three dimensions. After a while, I began making things which I called Eternalisms, [which were] supposed be an ongoing special view that could be seen with one eye and would go through turns offering this three-dimensional, smoothly repeating image space. I’ve worked with it ever since.

I work on the computer. I take images out in the world, New York City, with my stereo 3D camera, take two pictures at the same time. And I work with two assistants who understand the computer a lot more than I do, and they were able to put these two pictures together so that a 3D picture appears on screen, deep space, with all kinds of moving forms. It’s very strange and very beautiful, very fascinating to me. That’s how I’m ending up working on this long series of single images of New York City.

AJ: For the Joan Mitchell, did you take a picture of it with your camera?

KJ: I did.

AJ: Here at MoMA. And then you manipulated those two frames.

KJ: Yes, so Joan Mitchell also expands and moves in depth. It’s really wonderful.

Ken Jacobs. Joan Mitchell: Departures. 2018

Ken Jacobs. Joan Mitchell: Departures. 2018

Why did you decide to use Joan Mitchell’s work for this film [Joan Mitchell: Departures]?

KJ: Because it was beautiful. Because it stopped me dead as I was walking through, and I had to snap it, and then I had to do this thing with it. I never met her. I knew she was right next door, literally. Our lives were moving close to each other, and that was true with all these downtown painters. But the painters themselves were very damaged. Almost every one of them was drunk, incoherent. People I admired very much, they were useless as persons you’d want to talk to.

How does painting influence your process?

KJ: When I talk about Flo and I working with film together, it really was as two painters seeing what was possible in showing film in unexpected ways and finding unexpected things happening. We weren’t just telling stories, movies with one shot, next shot, each shot hitting off the other one and making it tell a further element of the story. It was really to see things, to see colored space operating, being vital, moving.

How would you define experimental film?

KJ: Different, it’s different. And I would say usually, very often, more personal. The people who made the film, you can think of them as egotists, but it is their films. Directors, very often the great directors, hide behind these structure of a movie. It’s hard to find them, but here, we were challenging that by making a film as personal as painting could be.

What kind of work did you and Flo make together?

KJ: I guess you’d call it abstract work.

AJ: The work that they made could only have happened in the way that it happened and when it happened. I think the whole idea of being able to have a rent-stabilized apartment, like a place in New York City just to be able to survive as an artist without having to make a lot of money, it seems pretty much impossible [now]. So this work is a testament to a certain moment. How often do you get to see work that’s a time capsule and also something to still aim and strive for?

This is an edited excerpt of an interview conducted by Arlette Hernandez for MoMA’s audioguide.

Ken Jacobs’s Orchard Street, Star Spangled to Death, and Joan Mitchell: Departures are currently on view in Gallery 411: Ken Jacobs: Deep Cuts.