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Cinema gurus: Ken Jacobs and more

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While reading an excellent article by Manohla Dargis in the New York Times about experimental filmmaker Ken Jacobs and his upcoming show in Los Angeles, I was struck by the fact that we take cinema for granted. Cinematic language has been developing at breakneck speed since Edison arrived on the scene, yet rarely do we acknowledge that we “speak” cinema, an ever evolving, ever changing complex language of shots and cuts. And it’s even more unusual these days to look at the material of cinema itself, the light and shadows, the grain of the celluloid (or pixels of the video image). That’s why filmmakers like Ken Jacobs, who have spent their life devoted to just that, slowing down the experience of cinema and embarking on penetrating explorations of the basic primary experience of it, are like film gurus. They remind us of the magic, the invention, the wonder of what has become at times over commercialized and mundane. One look at images coming from Ken Jacob’s Nervous Magic Lantern and as Dargis explained, we have no idea what we are watching…

Dargis explains that Jacobs inspiration came from just loving film, from “Wow, look at that, wow! The film proceeded from wow.” Reading about Jacobs’ style as a teacher (at SUNY Binghamton) reminded me of my own experience with a film guru of sorts… San Francisco experimental filmmaker Nathaniel Dorsky. Dorsky’s approach to filmmaking is meditative. Stephen Holden wrote that his films “…are about as close as movies can come to evoking the experience of lying on your back in the grass on a summer day, gazing through leaves at the clouds and letting your mind drift into the cosmos.”

I lucked into Dorsky’s class at UC Berkeley one semester many years ago. I recall hours spent projecting footage of the charred remains of the Oakland fire as we tried to figure out where to cut. We weren’t making a narrative decision. We weren’t cutting for suspense or even for theme. We, his temporary disciples, were looking for something that was elusive… a feeling, an innocence, a moment. We were all a bit lost (which was perhaps the point) but he seemed to really know what he was looking for… and that was inspiring. A testament to that is his beautiful and engaging work which has shown regularly at the New York Film Festival. I couldn’t find a YouTube link for him and it would have probably been sacrilegious to see his work on a tiny screen but here are images from his film SARABANDE…

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…and a little shout out of thanks to Film Gurus everywhere.

-LR