NEW YORK — IN film circles, the word ``experimental'' is often tossed about as a synonym for ``avant-garde'' or ``unorthodox,'' meaning that the work in question is somehow out of the mainstream. This obscures the fact that some filmmakers really are experimental in their outlook - always tinkering with the meanings, the methods, and even the raw material of cinema. Ken Jacobs is one of these not-so-mad scientists. He's a full-fledged maverick who regards challenging the mainstream as one of his primary purposes. Yet he has earned a solid reputation as a fiercely independent filmmaker and university teacher. The latest recognition to come his way is a major retrospective called ``Films That Tell Time'' at the American Museum of the Moving Image here. It runs through Nov. 14 and includes many films as well as an illustrated lecture on ``The Wizard of Oz'' and several 3-D shows using a two-projector device that Jacobs, who invented it, calls the ``Nervous System.''
What does a Jacobs film look like? It's hard to characterize his work, except to say that he rarely deals in storytelling. He believes in films that open up the world for their audience, instead of closing it off by wrapping plots and characters in tidy, carefully mapped-out packages. Instead of ``actors acting'' he likes to fill his movies with friends and family members ``caught between who they are and their fantasy aspirations.''
Beyond this, his movies are quite varied. They range from four minutes to about two hours in length, and make use of pre-existing ``found footage'' as well as material shot by Jacobs himself. He has also probed extensively into 3-D cinema.
I visited Jacobs recently in his lower Manhattan loft, a crowded workspace overflowing with books, records, artifacts, and equipment. Yet it clearly makes a warm and comfortable home for him, his wife, and their two children, as well as a combination studio, library, and laboratory.
``I definitely am inquiring,'' Jacobs says, answering a question about the energy behind his work. ``I'm interested in a number of fronts. Some of them have to do with history, and an understanding of how we work. ... I've invested in kids, and I want them to live. I've invested my feelings in the world, and I want it to continue.''
His other interests include ``time and movement,'' and the discoveries that can be made by examining ``strange caricatures of the past'' in old movies. He's fascinated by the possibility of finding truth and beauty in old film footage - or if not truth and beauty, at least ``some kind of genuine commotion going on, something happening.'' This is not a stony-faced quest for solemn verities, however. ``I'm amused by this,'' Jacobs says. ``Everything tickles me. I get a big kick out of it.''
Early influences on Jacobs included such great movies as ``City Lights,'' by Charles Chaplin, and ``The Bicycle Thief,'' by Vittorio De Sica, as well as classic Melville and Cervantes novels. When still a teen-ager, he was also deeply impressed by an ``art photograph'' he saw in Life magazine, showing people whimsically draped in sheets but with ordinary trouser legs, shoes, and socks visible down below. Jacobs was fascinated by this ``contradiction between fantasy and reality,'' and what it suggested about ``where the mind can go while the body remains.'' His life was never the same after this vision of what it might be like ``to be [living] in the seedy reality of the '40s and '50s, and yet to have a head full of dreams!''
Jacobs decided to express his ideas in an ambitious movie, but soon realized that Hollywood wasn't about to knock on his door. So he filmed a more modest project called ``Star Spangled to Death,'' starring actor Jack Smith and shot ``for pennies, with leftover [film] scraps.'' The result became an ``experimental'' classic that is still revived and admired.
Ever since that experience some 30 years ago, Jacobs has positioned his art outside the movie establishment. At the beginning of his career, he hoped for a large mainstream audience. But he soon decided he had been ``dreaming and idealizing `the People' in a kind of '30s left-wing way,'' and that mass audiences would probably not take an interest in his offbeat sensibility. Instead of catering to such audiences, which prefer neat Hollywood-type films, he followed his own nonconforming path - reaching a small number of spectators, but putting a special value on them since they share his disdain for mass-produced ``art'' that cares more about packaging than content.
Jacobs feels mass-marketed films do a lot of harm to people who mindlessly and continuously feed on them, since such films cancel out the ideals and dreams their audience might otherwise have. ``It could well be that romance is in people until it's beaten out of them ... or bored out of them,'' he says. The roots of today's mass-audience culture are in the 1950s, he continues, a time when ``you were supposed to adjust and conform to `reality' ..., and you were `sick' and `out of it' unless you acknowledged and adapted to this.'' Jacobs warns that ``the coercive pressure to `adapt to reality' means to give up and fall in line. Maturity is defined as acquiescence. ... It's the same value orientation as the late '70s and '80s yuppies have.''
To counter this mentality, Jacobs asks his audience to participate in the creative process - by thinking actively about what's on-screen, instead of letting it simply wash over them. ``This is keeping the mind alive,'' he says. ``Otherwise we just have habits; we're mechanistic.''
Using cinema to its fullest potential, according to Jacobs, means concentrating on the act of discovery rather than churning out polished productions. Asked to define the aesthetic ``gold'' he's digging for in his work, Jacobs answers, ``Pleasure. Amusement. Pain. Realization. ... To see where [my mind] will take me, and where this technology will take me. ... And to exercise this power in a way that doesn't mean enslavement or subjugation to others.''