Who's Running That Projector?

Director alters the visual experience

KEN JACOBS belongs to the mad-scientist school of filmmaking. Never content to tell a story in a conventional way, he has devised a number of innovations that stretch the boundaries of cinema.

The most unusual of Jacobs's devices is the Nervous System, a complicated setup involving two projectors aimed at a single screen. His latest show using this system, called ``Two Wrenching Departures,'' took place on two recent weekends at Anthology Film Archives here. It was a stunning, bold, and powerful event that reconfirms Jacobs's reputation as one of the giants in avant-garde cinema today.

Works presented on the Nervous System are closer to live performances than to ordinary film screenings. The heart of the system is a pair of ``analyzing projectors'' that can either run normally or turn a movie into a series of separate freeze-frame images.

They project their pictures onto the same screen, but between them is a rapidly spinning shutter that blocks off one lens and then the other in split-second alternation. Jacobs operates the projectors by hand, inching near-identical prints through them at a slow speed. What spectators see is a pulsating combination of two closely related pictures, throbbing with energy and coagulating into near-stasis at the same time.

Jacobs has created many works for this system, but ``Two Wrenching Departures'' is at once the most daringly abstract and the most profoundly emotional that I've seen. It took shape after two of Jacobs's former associates and friends, performer Jack Smith and filmmaker Bob Fleischner, died a couple of years ago.

Jacobs went back to a respected film he made in the late 1950s, the satirical ``Star Spangled to Death,'' and selected footage of Smith's manically comic performance - full of zany costumes, goofy poses, and bizarre behaviors - as basic material for a sort of Nervous System memorial.

SCRAMBLED and reshaped by the projector-shutter apparatus and accompanied by an eclectic soundtrack, the images from his early film take on astounding new dimensions - sometimes literally, since one product of the Nervous System is a sort of flickering 3-D effect that lends a vague illusion of depth to flat images. Bodies and buildings lose their solidity, their substance, almost their physicality.

From these shifting, often inscrutable shapes emerge love, longing, grief, anger, and above all, awe at the mysteries of life, death, and the ability of art to evoke their enigmas without discovering their essences.

Jacobs calls the Nervous System a maker of ``eternalisms,'' which he defines as ``unfrozen slices of time, sustained movements going nowhere unlike anything in life.'' He describes his work as ``mining existing film, seeing what film remembers, what's missed when it clacks by at normal speed.''

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