Draft of reflections on the Films of Roger Jacoby (no date)

Bill Judson
Beyond their immediately apparent visual appeal and sensuality, Roger Jacoby's films are a breathtaking stream of seeming contradictions: humor and melodrama; the
homemade crudity yet beauty of his images; "abstraction" and narrative; filmic illusion and the concrete presence of the film material; the operatic and the mundane. These diverse threads, however, are woven together into a cohesive personal vision.
If, by some chance, Jacoby was limited to a single film to view for an extended period of time, his choice would in all likelihood be a film by D.W. Griffith — perhaps WAY DOWN EAST or ORPHANS OF THE STORM. His knowledge of and fascination with Griffith is extensive; he has, for instance, taken the pains to elicit from the now ancient heroine of so many Griffith films, Lillian Gish, information which he couldn't find in the literature, and he has improvised piano accompaniment for many Griffith films which he has played at public screenings. One of the aspects of these films which has clearly attracted Jacoby is the gesture, the single momentary rhythm of movement which carries with it a world of meaning. While some of these gestures derive from the melo-dramatic tradition in which the Griffith actors and actresses were working, others are purely filmic rhythms — the blurred movement of the horses' feet in BIRTH OF A NATION or in ORPHANS OF THE STORM, for instance, or even accidents which occur in reprinting the old Griffith films, which appear as brief, soft, stacatto textures on the screen. And certainly he has seen the rhythms of the light and the grain in the reproductions of the old Griffith prints. Griffith's own considerable contribution to film during the 'teens lay largely, of course, in the development of narrative film, finding the means of structuring and conveying — of "imaging" — a story both clearly and touchingly. Jacoby's films are certainly not "narrative" in any conventional sense of that word — in fact they explicitly deny conventional narrativity. Yet Jacoby establishes for his own work the possibility — the implication — of narrative by appropriating moments of film akin to the most privileged visual moments of Griffith, and by linking these moments in sequences reminiscent of traditional narrative editing. An association with the work of Griffith when viewing a Jacoby film, then, is often very profitable, even though Jacoby's work is by no means "derivative" of Griffith.
It is also useful to realize that Jacoby has a strong, eclectic interest in what was once termed the "avant-garde" of twentieth century art, particularly in film. His early short animated film, FUTURIST SONG, has an acknowleged debt to the abstract films of Europeans like Hans Richter in the 1920s. As a youth he was also aware of the nascent movement of experimental filmmaking in the United States during the 1940s and 50s. During the 1950s, a period when he was painting and studying to become a concert pianist, Jacoby knew Marie Menken and Willard Mass, at a time when their Brooklyn apartment was a rallying center and source of spiritual support for many New York artists, and before the considerable contributions of these two to independent film was recognized outside of a very limited number of people. This was also a period when Jacoby's aunt, the art dealer Rose Fried,
toward an awareness that painting was painting — paint applied to canvas — as opposed to the traditional illusionism (deceit) in which painting was a surrogate for some other reality. Film, too, had been for the large part gravitating toward illusionism for half a century, and one task of independent film since the 1920s had been to demystify this aspect of film. That spirit of endeavour was already a part of the conceptual process of Jacoby's first films in the late 1960s.
Since then, Jacoby has become increasingly involved in the chemical processes by which his images are achieved. This concern, too, has a history. When Eastman Kodak first introduced their box camera for still photographers in the late 19th century, their newspaper and magazine advertisements read: "You push the button, we do the rest." And indeed, one needed only to send the exposed film in to the company for them to develop it and send back positive black & white prints of the images looking just like the "real" (i.e. material) world. Current Kodak advertisements for color processes are virtually unchanged from the claims of a century ago: "just like the real thing." In fact, for
an entire culture, Kodak has become the yardstick of reality (rather than the other way around) not only for color, but by implication for more substantial considerations as well; Kodak became for life as we see it what Howard Johnson's is for food. Kodak's stranglehold on the "look" — aesthetics?! — of film has recently begun to be challenged in a serious fashion by a few independent filmmakers. (This challenge has nothing to do with a mercantile imitation of Kodak by other competing corporations). Paul Sharits, for example, in AXIOMATIC GRANULARITY, has magnified many times — through extreme close-up film rephotography in carefully controlled studies — the grain of film frames, exposing the intrinsic dancing energy of the dots of pigment which, in conventional frames seen in rapid sequence, we "read" as an illusion or representation of movement. Jon Rubin has chemically assaulted the emulsion of Kodak film stock with processes that would curl the collective hair of Kodak's tunnel-vision chemists, whose jobs depend in part upon not giving out the formulas or tolerance levels of their products, i.e. upon mystifying the process. Jacoby too has taken up this challenge during the past eight years, but he has done so without giving up his movie camera and the images it can record.
In 1972, for financial as well as aesthetic reasons, Jacoby began developing his own film footage in the bathtub of his darkened bathroom. The results were unpredictable, to say the least, but the images which came out of that experiment were sufficiently intriguing for him to acquire a simple developing machine in 1974. Further trials gradually led to Jacoby's characteristic balance between recognizable camera images and a chemical infringement, only partially controllable, on those images. These moments, these events on the film, with their complex interplay of seemingly 3-dimensional camera image and clearly 2-dimensional texture and pattern, have formed the basis of the last 6 years of Jacoby's work. The results have been further enriched by Jacoby's purchase, in 1975, of a used Auricon camera which employs the "obsolete" process of recording an optical sound track directly on the edge of the film at the same time that the image is being recorded on the emulsion; therefore, in working with film exposed in this piece of equipment, Jacoby's unorthodox (as "unscientific" as cooking is ) chemical procedures develop the sound at the same time as the image. All chemical distortions of the film emulsion are thus heard on the sound track one second after the same distortions are seen on the screen, wedding the two perceptually and intellectually, and subverting the deceits of synchronized sound and image in conventional cinema. In KUNST LIFE, for example, there is a passage which begins with a swirling energy of grain texture out of which there emerge two men dressed in elaborate brocade bathrobes. One of these two is recognizable as Ondine, one of the "super-stars" of such Andy Warhol films as VINYL, LOVES OF ONDINE, and CHELSEA GIRLS. The hiss on the sound track gradually clears to the extent that voices are audible; an opera is being reenacted. Are these characters following prerecorded sound (we see their mouths move)? Are they themselves the source of the sound? In fact they are, but added later and out of synch. Yet one senses that the entire sound is self-generated simply as an ineluctable correllary to the presence of these two persons.
And have these images been photographed in black & white, or does that flood and ebb of green (which our memory does so much to enhance) suggest a color process? By the time one has begun to discover the nature of this sequence, the screen images and sound track are subsumed again by shimmering film grain and by hiss.
This relationship of sound and image in Jacoby's more recent Auricon films is an aspect of a larger concern in his films, a concern with reflexive, or self-referential, strategies. For example, actors who at one moment, oblivious to the camera, are engaged in what appears to be a fragment of some operatic melodrama, will suddenly recognize the camera presence — sometimes by direct glance or confrontation, sometimes by obviously performing for the camera. References on the sound track to the filmmaking process are common in Jacoby's films. While this concern with reflexivity can be found in the work of many recent independent filmmakers, Jacoby's films are unique in the use they make of the strategies. This use involves the wedding of two seemingly opposed film entities: on the one hand, an informal diary or home-movie process related to "direct cinema"
("cinema verite"), and on the other hand an extravagently melodramatic posturing and "acting out." The synthesis of these two characteristics is achieved in a variety of ways in Jacoby's films, and often involves the textures and colors of the film emulsion as catalysts for the process. No text will adequately describe this particular function of image texture — it must be seen in the films themselves, in those moments when "dramatic" color or grain coincides with mundane imagery, and vice versa. However, the way in which Jacoby's camerawork also serves this synthesis of the mundane and the melodramatic might be suggested by description: A plump woman perhaps in her 50s (does it
help to know that she is the filmmaker's sister's mother-in-law?) is modeling and commenting on what appears to be a plain white off-the-rack department store dress and a grotesque pendant lion brooch; this woman's "acting out" of the role of an urbane model is parodic — but conscious (melodramatic), or unintentional (mundane)? Other voices, encouraging and questioning her, are audible. During this sequence, the camera wanders away — looks at her feet, passes at floor level behind a chair, seems
momentarily discarded as the voices continue. Who is this woman? Are these other people (whom we briefly glimpse, sometimes shoving a cumbersome microphone toward her face) sympathetic in their encouragement to her, or are they leading her on, exposing her?
Or both? And therefore, are the misdirections of the camera intentional and perverse obfuscations of the image we want to see, or are they a humane reflex to an embarrasing situation?
Jacoby's films are far richer than these few comments might suggest. They are objects of exquisite and subtle beauty, which bathe the eye as they probe the psyche.
They are not always "easy" films, but for anyone willing to look, the rewards are great.
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