The Socialist Cinema of Ken Jacobs: An Interview with Ken Jacobs

Max Bienstock talks to Ken Jacobs about his six-decade filmmaking career.

The Socialist Cinema of Ken Jacobs: An Interview with Ken Jacobs

KEN JACOBS’S ARTISTIC LIFE has been devoted to discovering a form of cinema that is up to the task of redeeming our corrupted world. Over 65 years of filmmaking, he has experimented with polemic and portraiture, found footage and home movies, 3D video and multi-projector film performance. His work seeks to teach us new ways of seeing the world, not just in its beauty, but in its horrors and its radical potential for transformation. An avowed socialist born in Yiddish Williamsburg in 1933, Jacobs makes films that are deeply impacted by poverty and deprivation. As a younger man, he scavenged for discarded fish from the Fulton Fish Market, “food just lying on the sidewalk,” he says. Using whatever materials he could scrape together, Jacobs has created a massive and diverse body of work attuned both to formal experimentation and to social and historical realities. His raucous and overflowing films do not merely interpret society but instruct us to see it without a constrained consciousness because, in the end, the point is to change it. 

The evening after our interview, Jacobs was at MoMA to present a new restoration of Urban Peasants (1975), his masterful film composed almost entirely of home movies taken by his wife Flo’s aunt of her middle-class family clowning for the camera safely in Brooklyn as the Nazis rose to power across the Atlantic. But the knockout of the program was the premiere of Things to Come. After digitally manipulating footage of New York from 1911 as if it were projected through melting glass, Jacobs replaces this eerie unreality with his preferred mode of late: “eternalism.” Now, the moving black-and-white images flicker with their negative to create the illusion of three-dimensional depth. Jacobs first trains this effect on the fashions and technology of the day. The movements of the figures appear more real, but their context remains alien. One could be forgiven for wondering if Jacobs was merely testing out this formal experiment on any old footage. But Jacobs concludes with a shot of a black chauffeur driving a well-heeled white family. The unreality of the flickering black-and-white paradoxically heightens the social reality of the scene, so when Jacobs replays it without effect, we see it better: even in two dimensions, in black-and-white and over one hundred years removed, racial capitalism orders our lives.


MAX BIENSTOCK: How did you get involved in radical politics?

KEN JACOBS: Living, observing, being horrified. I think I was about 16, as soon as I had a few ideas. This is the way things are? What?! The so-called Holocaust was pretty jarring. My grandmother, who came over years earlier, after the war, would get letters from surviving relatives and would often be in tears. And one time she showed me a photograph of relatives who did survive. A man and his young daughter, maybe 10, 12 years old. Human skeletons. They were posing, all dressed up and sitting on a bench in front of painted swans in a lake. I’ll never forget that photograph.

And the Holocaust became a preoccupation for you in many of your films.

You mean, something else is going on. Something else happens. It permeates.

In Urban Peasants [1975], the Holocaust is present by its absence. This is a family that is spared.

Yes. At the end, “I am an American, everything is alright.” And good reason to say that then.

When the Korean War started, you attempted to file to be a conscientious objector. Did you see that as an act of self-preservation or as a political act?

Political. I was able to see through all the shit then. Yeah, we had enemies in Korea. They were doing so much damage in Brooklyn.

After the war when you began making films, you used the term “Underground,” but you meant it politically. Like the French Resistance.

Yes, I did. For me, it was political.

What did you feel like you were resisting?

Everything that came my way. It wasn’t easy going.

Do you think the political impulse behind “Underground” film distinguished the films that you and your generation made from “experimental” films of earlier decades?

It was hard to believe we were real, not being persons of substance. We were nobodies! Even Maya Deren had slipped into the galaxy of greats and hadn’t she been familiar with poverty! I can’t speak for everyone Underground but considering my economic prospects, casting a shadow seemed as much as I might ever do. Poverty must figure in any reckoning of Underground Cinema. We went on a mix of desire and presumption. We were Underground, grateful for any release into the breathing world. 

Often when critics speak about your films, they divide them as either political statements or formal statements. But that division doesn’t seem so clear.

I’m attentive to the material. And whatever happens formally comes from the best way of presenting the material.

And is it possible for you to make a split between those two?

I can. But today there are things that just sort of float away from reality. I’m beat. It’s too much. I’d like to do something based on David Nirenberg’s book Anti-Judaism, or make a new soundtrack to Going My Way, starring Bing Crosby from the end of the war, this lousy propaganda piece. It’s about a poor parish and all the concern the Church has with these poor kids. I want to learn how the film got made, who pushed it, who rewarded it, how it became so popular. I see the mass murders happening because of Christianity, both Lutheran and Catholic. Yeah, the Ustashe didn’t happen. So that’s such a perfect vehicle for Bing Crosby, regular guy supreme.

And like much of your work, you’re interested in revealing something new about this old material.

Yes. I like looking through and looking at it.

You speak a lot in those terms about how your films attempt to open up perception and create new modes of thinking and perceiving.

Which is amazing. Amazing that these new ways are there. And usually you look past, look through, ignoring so much. And now to bring them into consciousness!

It seems like those words could as easily apply to visual perception as to political imagination.

Absolutely yes. That’s my fundamental interest. Which is expansion of consciousness with all the taken-for-granted or ignored ways of the world. And that’s what I’m still looking for. That’s my function as an artist. I can’t only function as an artist. A movie like Star Spangled to Death [1956–2004] has to be corrupted in its effort to see things freshly, by what’s happened, what we live with, and what we bear and stupidly put up with. It can’t operate by formal considerations alone.

Do you think that only in a utopia could you make films that could be purely formal?

Order two tickets tonight to that place! Yeah, that would be ahistorical and that’s being a bit unreal. I don’t really like ahistorical art. It’s a kind of sadomasochism.

This makes me think of the few times when audiences have criticized your films when they perceived them as apolitical. I’m thinking of the first time you screened Orchard Street [1955].

I was attacked by somebody who imagined I had no attitude regarding the scene. Orchard Street was a film of what’s to be seen in the streets. And it wasn’t terrible. I was getting blamed for not showing how terrible these people were, for not mocking them.

It seems symptomatic of an old-fashioned, vulgar left-wing attack on ordinary people for taking part in society, in consumer culture.

I don’t even think it was left wing anymore. I think it was snobbery. These common people. We are artists, refined, complicated. 

And then when you helped organize the For Life, Against the War screening and you showed your film Airshaft [1967], you got booed for that.

[Laughs.] Yes, I got booed for that. And Jonas [Mekas] got booed for a line-by-line filming of the beginning of the Constitution. Well, them’s the ironies.

But you believed Airshaft was a political film?

Yeah. I thought it was showing peace. A bubble of peace. Nice, a cat is resting. No turmoil.

What do you think the audience wanted?

They didn’t want peace. They wanted something exciting. Something to actually just contemplate, a cat resting, that was just too calm. People want their movies exciting.

But that’s an expectation of Hollywood that you’re rejecting.

It’s premised on that. People go to the movies to live. Life is taken up with obligations. We go to have prepared experiences like going to a restaurant for a good meal. We go to be carefully conducted through an artificial experience. The movies are far more vivid in people’s lives than the actual world. So to resist the movies we have to develop a way to interpret the world for ourselves, and I don’t know how many of us do that. And now things are changed all together with the invasion of movies in our life via the web. Almost everything is a movie. Trump is certainly seen as a movie hero.

And the fictions that Trump is able to spin …

It’s a good story. [Laughs.] We are fucked.

Do you think of yourself as generally pessimistic about the future?

Yes, I do. [Laughs.] I wish it wasn’t so. We don’t have any grandchildren. We love other people’s kids. I’m just torn to pieces. How are they going to be allowed to live a life? This world’s coming to an end in front of us. 

As an artist who grapples with the horrors of the world, you’ve made clear your views about how to appropriately deal with horrific material. For example, when Stan Brakhage made his film 23rd Psalm Branch [1966–’67] in response to Vietnam, to the Holocaust.

Stan was a personal filmmaker. His response to the historical murder of Jews and others was to feel his suffering at the sight of it. But I don’t want to feel his suffering at what he’s seeing. I told him I thought it was obscene. 

And what’s the alternative?

Not to complain about how you feel learning about what you’ve learned, but rather putting it all out there for others. Feel it! But don’t let that become the event.

In your early films, there’s trash strewn everywhere.

I was strewn in the trash. It was all around us and permeated us. Trash is history. Something that has passed through collisions with other things, is marked by it. Trash has a story. Shiny new things, something that doesn’t age, that’s scary. 

Is there any relation between this and your criticisms of Pop Art for being superficially beautiful but not dealing with …

No, it’s not beautiful. I can’t imagine Pop Art that isn’t dumb, that isn’t shallow crap. I guess I prefer art that’s convulsive, that allows itself to be impacted upon. It’s complicated because I’ve seen some art that’s stepped away from history and it’s wonderful. Flo loves Mondrian. I don’t know what he thought about the history going on around him but he pulled something out that was a huge contribution to human consciousness. How could I not value that? Despite the history going on around him. Unless he was somebody who never gave it a thought.

You weren’t content to just make your own films, you also helped to make alternative institutions for art outside of the mainstream. I’m thinking of the Millennium Film Workshop.

At a meeting at The Film-Maker’s Cooperative in the early ’60s, Stan Vanderbeek suggested we rent an editing room to be available to any of us in shifts. That stuck with me, and I built on the concept when government money made The Millennium Film Workshop become a possibility under the St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery.

And when you were founding Millennium, trying to make filmmaking equipment, work space, and classes all available for free …

It was my contribution toward World Socialism, just as the name implies.

Your film The Sky Socialist [1963–’64/2019], which you recently restored, features the demolition of downtown Manhattan for new development, which eventually become buildings like the World Trade Center. And then that area turns back to destruction again in some of your later works about 9/11.

I’ve thought a lot about this. Maybe because I grew up among those buildings that were from the late 1800s, and we live in one now. I find those life-sized and I find the glass towers forbidding, unfriendly. They weigh heavily on me. What kind of people grow up with them, people looking at their iPhones, not looking where they are. When I was a kid, I played in the streets. The streets were real. Streets now, I don’t see anyone playing in the streets. And maybe because I got used to that, it was comfortable. We love Chinatown, which is a preserved old. That’s what it is, it’s old. And it’s preserved because it still makes money. Are the glass towers good? They’re good if perhaps the people living in them have internal lives.

Do you ascribe the change mainly to capitalism?

It’s not just capitalism. It’s coming from good things in people’s makeup: to conceive of and build. Like the World Wide Web, I compare it to humankind standing up on two legs, it’s that momentous. It changes everything. So part of my complaint is with a departing world. And I think the art and the literature of the departing world is very strange to the new generations. But I don’t know how long the generations will generate.

Do you feel like the new films you’ve been working on are elegies to this departing world?

Without saying that, yes. Without even implying it. I feel a lot of that. Of course, I’m leaving the world. They’re both confused.


Max Bienstock is a founder and programmer of Nightletter, a screening series and venue for moving image art in Philadelphia.

LARB Contributor

Max Bienstock is a founder and programmer of Nightletter, a screening series and venue for moving image art in Philadelphia.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!