As those little white flakes of instant nostalgia and poignancy blow through New York City the weekend before both Chanukah and that other winter holiday, Anthology Film Archives offers — only half-intentionally, I presume — avant-garde cheer for Jews and gentiles alike. The annual solstice showing of Joseph Cornell shorts covers the Christmas front with the appropriately initialed surrealist’s toys-in-the-attic found footage chronicles of childlike wonder and whimsy and also originally shot (with the help of Stan Brakhage and Rudy Burckhardt) documents of ephemeral 50s NYC, from the Third Avenue El to an old world Mulberry Street. It’s snow globe cinema I’d write about in length if I hadn’t already: Learn more.
So, yes, Cornell = Christmas. But did Anthology realize it was giving a shout-out to the Festival of Lights by capping an extraordinary year for Ken Jacobs (whose Razzle Dazzle: The Lost World is one of 2008’s best) with a well-timed celebration of the work of one of the Chosen People’s greatest cinematic representatives? Starting tonight there will be a two day screening of a quartet of updated and compiled Jacobs, including Blonde Cobra and The Whirled, the two with which I’m familiar. Neither are “new,” but then rarely are Jacobs’ films new to begin with. Blonde Cobra can be seen in a restored 35mm blow-up of the original 16mm print, but the thing was a salvage job in the first place, with “composer” Jacobs performing a rescue mission from 1959 to 1963 of original color and black and white footage Bob Fleischner shot of legendary underground troubadour and Flaming Creatures director Jack Smith, thus transforming it into one of the great avant-garde freak-outs. Cobra is what Parker Tyler would call a “pad” “philm” (the latter Jacobs’ designation), with the action more or less consisting of the irrepressible Smith (and others, including Jack Sims) cavorting in a bathtub, kissing his mirrored reflection, and donning white face and drag as “Madame Nescience” before dressing as a gangster to enact a stabbing.
Such playtime would only be as fun as one’s appreciation of Smith if it weren’t for the intervention of Jacobs, who abandons visuality altogether with long, black leader passages that flicker on during soundtrack recordings of bizarre Smith monologues and even, at one point, “turns off” the soundtrack in favor of in-theater sound provided by the management’s boom box radio (making every “performance” of Cobra unique). The mania of Smith needed a channel, and Jacobs is that channel, at moments giving full reign to Smith’s psychosexual nightmares (“I burnt the little boy’s penis with a match” Smith’s warbled tenor intones as maudlin music buoys the sentiment) and at moments counterpointing Smith’s flamboyance with editorial commentary (a haunting silence accompanies a series of close-ups of Smith half-handsome/half-childlike countenance just before a typical gallows humor JS voice-over: “Horoscope: I think you’d be better off dead”)
Over the course of several decades Jacobs’ project, whether in the form of found footage films or Nervous Magic Lantern flicker projections, has been to unleash or reveal the hidden, usually Thanatotic stories threading through popular culture. His magnum opus in this regard is Star Spangled to Death — a sort of American avant-garde Histoire(s) du Cinema that’s been continually edited for fifty years — but one can see Jacobs’ sensibility applied to Cobra, one of his first efforts. Smith’s natural proclivity for both despair and the absurd (“Why shave, when I can’t even find a reason for living”) was a perfect foil for Jacobs, the kind of filmmaker who genuinely loved seeing images of Smith joined to “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” even though his idea of “the whole thing” is much more morbid than the song’s intended meaning. Sensing his subject’s death-obsessed wildness (Smith would eventually alienate himself from most of his friends, including Jacobs, and live a dissolute lifestyle before dying of AIDS in 1989), Jacobs structures the film to become itself constantly in danger of self-destructing. Never truly conceived, never quite pulled together (image and sound separating and colliding like reckless bumper cars), Blonde Cobra is a marvel falling apart at the seams, chaotic, uncaged and announcing a personal apocalypse from the top of a marauded junkyard.
The Whirled groups four failed projects, including a recording of a 1963 guessing game TV quiz show on which Jacobs appeared (! and with Carolee Schneeman!) presenting a moment of his Smith-starring romp Saturday Afternoon Blood Sacrifice (also compiled in The Whirled). But the highlight (once one gets over the utter strangeness of that occurrence) is the outtake from Death of P’town, “one last stab at friendship and filmmaking in Provincetown, Summer ‘61” between Smith and Jacobs that takes place, appropriately enough, in a graveyard with the former playing the “Fairy Vampire,” wielding a skull club with stones. It might not exactly provide holiday warmth, but “should old acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind?”
Blonde Cobra and The Whirled play tonight and tomorrow at 7:30pm at Anthology Film Archives.