Heretical Heuristics: J. Hoberman and Ken Jacobs Explain the Movi-verse
In the upcoming issue of Film Comment, Hoberman writes about Joe Dante and Jon Davison’s Movie Orgy, a touring series of screenings where two simultaneously running projectors would “interpolate reedited TV shows, hygiene films, and newsreels.” Ken Jacobs also pioneered the use of multiple projections in his 24-hour long screening/performance A Good Night at the Movies. Hoberman, a former student and projectionist of Jacobs, was in the audience for A Good Night at the Movies 2, and later incorporated this technique into his own classes. Film Comment spoke with Hoberman and Jacobs recently about the movi-verse, double projecting, and more.
What was the original impetus for “A Good Night at the Movies?” Where did you come up with the idea of double and triple projecting?
Ken Jacobs: That came after. First, there was this idea of just throwing films out into space. “We’re here… [knocks on table] Hello?” It’s pathetic to be honest. So I didn’t have any support for that. People thought it was crazy. I’d been doing multiple projections for years. It was the way Eisenstein talks about things happening between shots—let’s see what happens with things between movies. Because I went further afterwards, what happens between the eyes, by working with 3D and 3D shadowplay. One actually opens up a space between the eyes, where you can make very uncanny things happen. You can really misinform the audience. Not that the audience is “informed”.
When did you start doing them?
KJ: In the 50s. Just for fun.
In those first screenings, and maybe it changed over time, how did you decide what to show?
KJ: All these films were meaningful to me in a certain way. I remember concentrating on titles and movies that featured guys with pith helmets, explorers…all this B.S. about the white man going out there and conquering. I have been rather critical of America since I was 17 years old, with the same thoughts and observations. It’s all racism. You know, as Jew, with relatives in Europe, that my grandmother was in touch with before the war and much less afterwards, I was made very aware of what this racism could do.
So was it only colonialist fare? When did you start introducing other things?
KJ: There’s this terrible self-hating black film called . The audience was mostly my students, and they had originally heard me rail about these things and point them out. I really wasn’t inviting the public in. I mean, I literally wasn’t. Art Spiegelman made this sign on the door. I said, “Very nice, Art!”
J. Hoberman: But Ken, I don’t remember doing multiple projections at Binghamton, or at least when I was there projecting for you. I remember because I was the projectionist for a while.
KJ: Yes, that’s true.
JH: So I remember it was mainly stuff with the analytical projector, over and over, creeping through these movies—The Bicycle Thief, Touch of Evil, They Live By Night…
KJ: God, I wish I had taken these classes.
JH: I don’t remember seeing multiple projections until “A Good Night for the Movies.”
JH: It was an analysis course, so it was always looking at the ideas that went into any given shot or scene. But you would get engrossed in certain things purely on a perceptual level and want to see them again. You were just interested by the way that the space developed in a certain shot, and you would want to see them again and again.
KJ: It was just another way of pushing this phenomena. An image is a distillation of a lot of ideas. These guys in the studios did not just make images. They concocted something that was gonna place your mind in a certain place of how to receive an idea in their way. And you wouldn’t even know it. The architectonic quality of a shot is unfathomable. When something has really been done, all you can do is take it in a state of awe.
Why did you co-credit “A Good Night at the Movies” with Charles Ives?
KJ: He was a sublime American composer. His father had been a band leader, but a marching band leader. And his father had done things like this, of having different bands playing different music across fields. It would open up the void. And he went on to make music inspired by this. He brought together different songs being played together at the same time, so the space became very important to me. A real thing. The idea of these unexpected juxtapositions.
JH: Yeah. He was taking off on very corny stuff—you know, that old folk and bucket and turning it into this other thing.
KJ: Like shitty movies!
Do you feel there’s an ideal space for a concert of films? Different spaces have different sound qualities.
KJ: That’s a new thought for me. Just wherever they would let me. Come in, do your damage.
Jim, when did you start doing double projections?
JH: I was inspired by something Ken had said: if you do this, the movies will start talking to each other. That’s what I really got from “A Good Night at the Movies”. I was sitting there watching it with my friend Bob Schneider and he said, “Oh my god, we’re watching new laws of physics!” We were just beside ourselves watching this go on. It was the incredible synchronicity, and the fact that you could just set this stuff in motion and there would be these fantastic correspondences.
KJ: They had their formulas. The formulas sold, and they weren’t going to screw around with them.
JH: Exactly. There was only a certain amount of screening time in a class, so I wanted to be economical. Also I didn’t want to show like six hours of these awful movies. If I could show them together, it would only be two hours.
KJ: Heuristics; self-learning. If you put someone in the position—you don’t vent at them. They have to see this evidence. They have to see it.
JH: That’s right.
KJ: You don’t have to lecture. It will make its own point. These movies will talk to each other and you’ll get it.
JH: Exactly. I don’t remember the first one I did. An early one…well, let me say, I was showing a lot of movies that I wasn’t showing for their aesthetic value, but for other reasons. And I remember I had to show Rocky, a movie that I really hated, to make a point for this course. So I got the department to give me three monitors and then I showed Rocky on the big screen, and then beneath it I had three monitors showing the three sequels to Rocky, so there was a lot for people to look at. And what happened was you realized it was amazingly the same film, four times: four fights in exactly the same place. So that was very exhilarating. And the students also appreciated that. It got some notoriety in the department. And then sometimes I would do things just to see how they worked. I’ve forgotten a lot of them. But a student recently reminded me that I showed E.T., which I was very interested in, because the students at that point would’ve been about five when they first saw it, and for them it would’ve been a life-changing, formative event. But I think I was also involved in the American scene, or suburbia or something. So I had slides made from “The Americans” by Robert Frank, and somehow I was projecting those slides on E.T.
KJ: These are creations. You know, he was a filmmaker. And this is still filmmaking.
JH: And then I got lazy.
KJ: Books, books, books. Who can’t toss off a book?
JH: I’ve used Passion of the Christ a lot, Ken, and I think I would want to spare you from that.
KJ: Well, I just bought it. They sell it for five dollars across the street.
JH: I should get a copy for five dollars…I showed it once with Fahrenheit 9/11, which was very interesting. And then more recently with some zombie movies.
So when you projected Passion of the Christ with Fahrenheit 9/11, how did the two interact?
JH: With Fahrenheit 9/11, I realized that there was all this religious imagery that he just worked into the movie. The most amazing thing is the suffering mother. All of a sudden, you have Mary at the cross, and Michael Moore embracing this suffering mother, and these things were happening around the same time. That was really startling.
KJ: Sad. Someone of the left manipulating you, which is the problem with the right. Tells you things maybe you want to hear, but not that way. Doesn’t trust you to form your own opinion.
Fahrenheit 9/11 is about the interplay between different found footage, too. This of course is related to the idea of video mashups, where two or more videos are edited together to appear as one. Do you see what you were doing with multiple projections as similar to that?
KJ: I haven’t seen any of that stuff. But if they play music over it, they’re losing everything. You’re tampering with the evidence.
Aside from God’s Step Children, were there any favorites you had to play?
KJ: “The Green Mamba” with Lionel Atwill…
JH: It’s not actually called the “The Green Mamba,” but he and Flo [Jacobs] are obsessed with this…Lionel Atwill’s always good! Remember in the third and best Frankenstein where Bela Lugosi is Igor and Atwill gets stabbed or something in his wooden arm?
KJ: I can’t remember, but Jack would’ve—
JH: When I was in high school, people didn’t really know directors. If you were interested in old movies, what you knew were these character actors. That was like a sign of your knowledge—Lionel Atwill being one of those.
KJ: Jerry Sims knew the names of all these people. I just thought, even into my twenties, they’re like filler or something like that in the movies, and then there’s the stars. But they understood that it was really the orchestration.
KJ: And they really did some things—Slim Summerville really did something.
JH: And especially because they’re the same in everything—they hold the whole thing together.
KJ: The cop is always the cop—you can see his face now! The judge is always the judge. And these people used to be stopped in the streets when people had legal problems.
JH: That’s what they do. That’s what their purpose is…You had a great course title. I don’t know what you did after I was there—I was there only a relatively short time. You had a course title that was something like “Movies Are Not Made in Heaven.”
KJ: Yes. And when you’re a kid, they are.
JH: And some people still think so.
KJ: And the idea that stars use a toilet is unbearable.
JH: There’s a fascinating thing going on now—whether to attribute the authorship of “It’s Half-Time in America” to Clint Eastwood. It’s almost Reaganlike in some ways. “Did he write his own dialogue?” As they say in Sunset Boulevard, people think that actors make up their own dialogue, that they’re so witty.
What are some other films you liked to show?
KJ: Cartoons were very important to me. They’re succinct, they’re really sweet in many cases. And pointless.
JH: I learned this too late to include in the upcoming Film Comment article, but somebody remembered that you showed “Sunshine Makers”. That used to be a huge cartoon for kids in the Fifties.
Is that in Star Spangled to Death? It seems like the strategy there is sort of similar to what you’ve described as the goals of your teaching and these screenings. Did any material from either work its way into Star Spangled to Death?
JH: I think Pincushion Man was in that.
I know that Jim had mentioned that you used the CBS piece on the wire monkey test in class a lot.
JH: You used to show that all the time!
KJ: Oh poor you. You know, I’d been living before I was teaching, so this stuff hung on to me. The fact that is the stuff that actually took a lot out of my life. Teaching actually kept stirring up that stuff. And with the completion of Star Spangled, it’s like I’ve said it.
How was Jim as a projectionist?
KJ: Angry. You must admit that.
JH: Resentful? Oh yeah. It was a baptism under fire. Projecting for Andrew Sarris was much easier.
KJ: Oh my god. Oh my god…
Speaking of complex projection setups, The Rocky installation/class sounds great, but you can’t always have that.
JH: It was always determined in my case by what was available, by what I could get the authorities to give me. And what could physically be done. The students at NYU would call it “stunt projecting.”
As the technology has changed, how have your double projections changed? Most screening rooms now only have a single digital projector.
JH: It became harder and harder to do these—well, actually, it became different as they got rid of 16mm and moved toward projected video. I remember showing something called Titanic Armageddon. It was a course about disaster movies. I showed Armageddon, and in the middle projected the disaster part of Titanic on top of it in slower motion.
So how do you adapt or change the screening if things aren’t going well?
JH: If it works, it never fails to be interesting. But if there’s a problem or if I lose a projector and had to make do with monitors or laptops, then I would have to rethink how the presentation. Ideally, it should be big. If it can’t be big, I’ll do it another way.
Aside from using a favorite for the screening [Passion of the Christ], were there any other aesthetic considerations you made for the screening at Walter Reade?
JH: I asked for a late slot in honor of Jack [Smith]. Of Jack’s method of narrowing down the audience to the appreciative few.
KJ: But the trick is to invite them early, and then—
JH: Well, it’s whenever you invite them, you spend an hour at least trying to get it to work. When I saw his stuff, it never occurred to me that he could be in the grip of some neurotic behavior pattern. I thought it was all done on purpose.
KJ: You’re always looking for faith. Now you realize that artists are fuckups.
JH: And now I realize it’s the thing itself, it’s not the person. Ken didn’t like Andy Warhol.
KJ: But I liked the movies.
JH: Yes. People used to say, “Oh, it’s a put on.” And you’d say, “What’s the difference? It’s interesting. Just look at it.”