“Warning: Throbbing light … not for persons afflicted with epilepsy” flashed on the big screen in the Whitney Humanities Center Sunday night. No, this was not a psychology experiment but the film screening of a notable avant-garde filmmaker.
“I hope people learn something tonight,” experimental film director Ken Jacobs said. “I’m so disappointed with American society. These are very grim times.”
Jacobs screened the films “Saturday Afternoon Blood Sacrifice” and “Little Cobra Dance,” featuring filmmaker and actor Jack Smith, and then spoke at length about his relationship with Smith, who was a pioneer of underground cinema and a key figure in the 1960s gay movement.
The screening and symposium were part of the Yale Research Initiative on the history of sexualities film series, co-sponsored by film studies professor Ronald Gregg as part of his postwar queer avant-garde film class.
Jacobs’ past and present works shown at the screening reflect his belief that film form can be used to communicate philosophical and political statements, he said during the symposium.
Gregg said Jacobs is especially relevant to his class because of his close collaborations with Smith. Smith and Andy Warhol were both entrenched in the New York art scene in this era, but Warhol only exploited those around him, while Smith was the more genuine artist, Jacobs said.
“It is interesting to see the shift from a radical political critique of class, exploitation of the working classes and the forgotten poor and outcasts in the early work of Jacobs and Smith to a cinema about Hollywood glamour, fantasy and pan sexuality in Smith’s work after working with Jacobs,” Gregg said in an e-mail.
Throughout the symposium, Jacobs reminded audience members that art and visual material can create powerful social statements — a sentiment that Jacobs conveys through films such as “Capitalism: Child Labor” and “Capitalism: Slavery.”
In “Child Labor,” Jacobs uses a stereo card as the only visual material. An image of shoeless children with weary faces standing in a factory is filmed using a flicker effect that alternates between 2-D and 3-D.
Jacobs filmed “Slavery” in the same fashion — with a stereo card portraying black slaves picking cotton with a white overseer in the background. The camera remains focused on the same image for the entirety of both short films.
“What I find most remarkable about Jacobs’ work is the way he uses carefully modulated iterations and repetitions of his imagery to draw attention to latent ideas and meanings that would otherwise remain invisible,” Richard Suchenski GRD ’11, a graduate student in film studies, said.
When asked why he chose to use antiquated materials such as a stereo card, Jacobs recalled the origins of film production.
“Its radical, and it gets down to film’s roots and sees where else it could have gone,” he said.
The use of primitive materials in Jacobs’ films will symbolically portray his belief that humans must investigate the roots of politics in order to see what other directions America could have gone, he said.
During the symposium, he addressed the need for a strong relationship between form and political elements in order to create art. While he admitted that he can appreciate documentaries that lack form, such as those of Michael Moore, he feels that the filmmakers who make them have not yet made works of art.
Some audience members left with a lasting impression of Jacobs’ work.
“I think the event tonight is one of the one or two best discussions I’ve been to here at Yale,” David Pratt-Robson ’08 said. “There are times watching Jacobs’ stuff that I’m positive I’m asleep before I realize that I’m actually completely awake.”
Inevitably, this effect is exactly what Jacobs strives for. Through his art, he attempts to wake up audience members and teach them — although, with a film speed of 18 frames per second, it may be difficult to fall asleep anyway.