Opening the Nineteenth Century and the Nervous System and Film Forum, at LACE (Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions)
Avant-garde filmmakers are alive and worth remembering. They live in New York but, thank God, sometimes they tour. Ken Jacobs (and his wife Flo, although she refuses the term collaborator) are among their dwindling number. Ken is the nervy, grumpy, dusty and irascible co-inventor of three discernible subgenres within the American avant-garde: trash cinema (with Jack Smith), structuralist film and recycled cinema 1. He is a Modern master who can make us feel the rush of time, the scrape of materiality against image, the glint of the actual as it froths up through the virtual and then subsides. He is not the least cynical about his films and what they do to us. His cynicism, bitterness even, is aimed at those fickle film historians (backstabbing ex-students ) who, having found him canonised before his time have assigned him to some literalist purgatory, while he is still fit and eager to work.
Jacobs included two pieces in his most recent screening at the Los Angeles Film Forum, but since his Nervous System performance defies description I’ll confine my notes to the first. He introduced Opening the Nineteenth Century by hounding his overflowing audience and overwhelmed volunteers into a wedge around the screen, and scowling at latecomers who were forced to squeeze into the periphery. His paternalistic griping might have been both precious and naïve had his work been anything less than miraculous, which it wasn’t. Like any great, late Modernist he knows he can transform us. He just didn’t want anyone to miss (or worse dilute) the effect.
Opening the Nineteenth Century is a montage of footage extracted from a series of travelogues filmed by the brothers Louis and Auguste Lumière in 1896, not long after they had invented cinema itself. Shot from the windows of commuter trains and from the prows of riverboats, these were the first films to be taken with a cinematic camera in motion. Jacobs had spliced together a pan moving unidirectionally to the right (the figures sometimes upright, sometime inverted), which he projected a second time in reverse, so that the scenes swept to the left. Before the screening he handed each member of the audience a grey plastic filter which he asked us to hold over our right eye for the first half of the film and to transfer to our left as he reversed the footage.
The travelogues meander through smoke stacks, backyard laundry lines, stray dogs, wind their way past the commuting men and women of industrialised Victorian Paris, and then drift on up the Nile, past palm trees, floating markets, more stray dogs and ship hands shimmying up the masts of fishing boats. All dust and sun and life, the Lumière’s films were simple spectacles devised to flaunt the phenomenal commercial potential of their newly devised “Cinematograph”. Having emerged in advance of conventional epic cinema (in which multiple cameras and seamless edits coalesced to form a ubiquitous, disembodied and all seeing eye) they accommodate all the rambling scope of natural vision. The camera glides by countless peripheral dramas, peopled by incidental characters necessarily oblivious to their capture by a then unprecedented technology.
And then it happened to us… …
over a few minutes, gradually, in the dark and silence of the theatre so that I couldn’t be sure it wasn’t only me. We were looking at the streets and then we were looking into them, peering around posts, trees, and masts, through plazas as a three dimensional scene gradually unfurled, impossibly 3 out of an ancient and originary piece of cinema. The screen opened up and through a flickering black and white window we travelled through the ancient city.
This was amazing, I’m sure, for everyone in the room, and no amount of foreknowledge or sensory fatigue, brought on by excess DreamWorks or Disney or Playstation or screenings of Jaws 3D, could have dampened its ego splintering effect. Jacobs’ performance shortcircuited the psychical suspension wrought over ninety years of epic filmmaking. It returned us to a condition something akin to cinema’s mythical originary audience 4: those who ran screaming from the theatre during the Lumières’ 1896 screening of Train Arriving at the Ciotat Station, terrified by the advancing engine. Though he employed a kind of technical trickery to achieve his “effect”, Jacobs had no interest in concealing his means. This kind of conjuring only accumulates greater mystery with explanation. As he offered a generous, detailed and gratifyingly complex introduction to the physiology of visual perception he began unwrapping over and again the manifold implications of the simple and bottomless perceptual breach he had laid bare.
But how …
…had a third dimension been drawn out of an ancient piece of celluloid that did not - had never - contained it?
As he began the screening Jacobs had asked us to place a grey filter over one eye: a Pulfrich filter that absorbed a proportion of the light that struck it, while allowing the remainder to pass through to the eye. As my filtered eye was deprived of light it slipped slowly into night vision, the retina storing stimuli for a fraction of a second in order to gather an image of sufficient intensity before releasing its stock to the brain. This induced a delay between my eyes sufficient to accommodate the passage of a single cinematic frame.
The human brain deciphers depth by triangulation - deriving a composite image from two distinct “frames” offset by the distance between our two eyes. As we move toward an object it reflects a larger image to the retina of our leading eye, a slightly smaller image to our following eye. Stereoscopic films combine the perspective’s of two cameras a nose breadth apart, while coloured filters feed light selectively to each eye. Jacobs had no such stereoscopic resource. Instead he inserted a distance within the perceptive mechanism itself: between eye and mind. Within the neural fabric of the darkened retina an image was held latent, so that we “saw”, simultaneously but distinctly, the cinematic frame of the moment and the frame which had just preceded it: a looming smokestack and its ghost, approaching incrementally further behind. In their recombination Jacobs contrived that we should witness precisely that which, had we sat in place of the Lumières’ camera on a commuter train touring Paris in 1896, we would there and then have seen.
Diagram 2. (M&M pp)
Everything then, must happen as if an independent memory gathered images as they successively occur along the source of time; and as if our body, together with its surroundings, was never more than one of these images, the last is that which we obtain at any moment by making an instantaneous section in the general stream of becoming. In this section our body occupies the centre. The things which surround it act upon it, and it reacts to them. Its reactions are more or less complex, more or less vary, according to the number and nature of the apparatus which experience has set up within it.5
The shooting of the travelogues was the first instance in which a cinematic camera moved through space recording what it passed: the first instance in which a machine took the place of an active conscious subject in the process of gathering memory images. It was the making of the first unnatural, cinematic memory, and it occurred in 1896, the year that Henri Bergson published Matter and Memory. It was then that he announced his invention of the “memory image”: that vital interface where received sensations meet and mingle with our personal cache of pure memory to complete the act of recognition.
Bergson was concerned with re-establishing a place for free will within an account of mind. He was not concerned with theorising the emergence of cinema at the time, and later wrote that the medium was inherently limited, incapable of rendering time as invention 6. Gilles Deleuze disregarded Bergson’s objections and, in Cinema One and Cinema Two7, built an entire taxonomy of thought and film around the powerful and mutually enriching analogy that arcs between Bergson’s memory image and the Lumières’ cinematograph. Opening the Nineteenth Century amalgamated the poles of that analogy by returning us to 1896; the moment when its paired elements first emerged.
Now the immediate past, in so far as it is perceived, is, as we shall see, sensation, since every sensation traces a very long succession of vibrations, and the immediate future, in so far as it is being determined, is action or movement. My present, then, is both sensation and movement; since my present forms an undivided whole, then movement must be linked with the sensation, must prolong it into action. Whence I conclude that my present consists in a joint system of sensations and movements. My present is, in essence, sensori-motor.
The present is that section within a stream of conscious life where memory blends with perception and perception flows into action in an expanding circuit of association, decision and action. This circulation takes time, but time of which we are necessarily unconscious, as we are compelled at every moment to act in the present. When perception is opened up and revealed as a product of duration, we are left staring into the mechanisms of our own consciousness. That Opening to which Jacobs referred was not a beginning (the footage documented the close of the 19th Century). Nor was it simply a drawing out into three-dimensional space. It was a prying apart of my present. That perceptual pause, or breach, or latency which he planted between eye and mind was also a break in the subjectivity of everyone who experienced it. A grey plastic filter had separated the synonymous acts of perception and action and revealed the mechanisms of consciousness as halting, piecemeal, time consuming and indirect.
Whenever we are trying to recover a recollection, to call up some period of our history, we become conscious of an act sui generis by which we detach ourselves from the present in order to replace ourselves, first in the past in general, then in a certain region of the past - a work of adjustment like the focusing of a camera. But our recollection still remains virtual; we simply prepare ourselves to receive it by appropriating the approximate attitude. Little by little it comes into view like a condensing cloud; from the virtual state it passes into the actual; and its outlines become more distinct and its surface takes on colour, it tends to imitate perception. But it remains attached to the past by its deepest roots, and if, once realised, it did not retain something of its original virtuality, if, being a present state, it were not also something which stands out distinct from the present, we should never know it for a memory. (Henri Bergson, Matter and Memory, 1896)
By Bergson’s account matter and movement are identical: our world is not wrought of things, but rather of images in constant state of movement, our body among them. We know the present as the plane within which those images - be they smells, colours, sounds, the temperature or resistance of touch - concur with each other and marry with a reservoir of memories, simultaneously confirming and augmenting our expanding picture of the world.
Ken Jacobs squeezed another dimension out of a stream of two dimensional images, not by adding something more, but by slowing something down. He caused two perceptual channels to concur where there had been only one. He reactivated a movement from the past so that a voyage up the Nile by steamboat might cut its roots in history and unfolded itself in my present. It was amazing. It was a time machine and while I’ve certainly tried to understand it, I can’t explain it away for myself…
Joyce Campbell is an artist presently living in California.
3. The first screening by the Lumières actually took place on March 22, 1895, at a conference of the Society for the Encouragement of National Industry in Paris and showed workers leaving the Lumière factory in Lyon.