Tom, Tom, All Grown Up

05/15/2009 4:00 AM |

When, in 1969, Ken Jacobs created Tom, Tom the Piper’s Son out of a 1905 Biograph short of the same name, he had no idea it was going to become a landmark of avant-garde cinema — it was just one of many experiments the Brooklyn-born pioneer worked on with the meticulous curiosity of a man mesmerized but skeptical of the ensnaring power of movies. Yet years later this looped, enlarged and exploded deconstructionist masterpiece still lives on not just on the imaginations of those who have experienced and been influenced by it, but in Jacobs’ intermittent tinkering with the original material: first in a slight 1971 revision, then last year in Return to the Scene of the Crime, and now, just in time for Tom, Tom‘s 40th anniversary and Hollywood’s current rediscovery of 3-D, Anaglyph Tom (Tom With Puffy Cheeks), which requires its audience to don old-fashioned red-and-blue-lensed paper glasses to watch a classic of a classic expand in yet one more way. Though he’s spent more than six decades salvaging and reworking material — most famously in his seven hour-long, several-Presidential-administrations-in-the-making found footage epic Star Spangled to DeathTom, Tom remains for both Jacobs and his audience a lasting obsession.

Why so much time and celluloid devoted to examining a single-reel “primitive” silent film about a boy who swipes a pig? Precisely because of the ontological mysteries lying behind its antiquated artlessness, Jacobs, who turns 76 next week, explained at a Chambers Street café where we shared breakfast on a drizzly May morning. Describing his initial response to the original Tom, Tom as “fascinated confusion,” Jacobs says he sought to figure out just what was happening in the film’s static-framed replication of a chaotic 18th Century street fair and subsequent chase through a village — featuring elaborately costumed acrobats, musicians, jugglers, and hunchbacks. Innocent of the cinematic storytelling techniques that would reach maturation with the later work of D.W. Griffith, the 1905 Tom, Tom (which lacks a director’s credit but is often tentatively attributed to Griffith’s cameraman, Billy Bitzer) forces modern viewers to understand its narrative without the aid of logically edited camera angles and positions. “It was the exact opposite approach of telling a story cleanly — the moment Tom steals the pig is invisible! — and that’s what intrigued me”, Jacobs says. “I didn’t think it through, exactly, but I was literally intrigued. This thing was somehow sexy.”

Jacobs began exploring the strange movements and obscure details of Tom, Tom‘s bustling action in live performances, using an old projector that could run film backward and frame by frame as well as freeze it. The results were incredible: phantasmagorical strobings of frenzied motion, microscope-like magnifications of grainy emulsion, prolongations and abstractions and tableaux of the cine-play’s tucked-away secrets and theatrical gestures, all in order for Jacobs “to get it all, to savor it.” Eventually the deconstruction of Tom, Tom, with the original shown in its entirety at the beginning and end, was made into a film itself, and became a trailblazing illustration of a movie “studied not theoretically, but physically.” And though Tom, Tom is now preserved and reproducible, that physicality has as much to do with the movie apparatus as it has to do with the movie itself. “Part of really seeing this thing,” says Jacobs, “was seeing what happens when a particular print of a film gets scratched. Each print has a real-life screening, and that means you not only get the film but the character of the projector, how the projector is presenting the movie.”

Recently Jacobs has revisited Tom, Tom with 2008’s Return to the Scene of the Crime, which concentrates on the original’s opening scene. In making it he learned even more about the film’s artistic roots, but that doesn’t mean Jacobs, who came armed to Return with an immaculate restoration of the Biograph film and infinitely more complex digital capabilities – “entering a digital world, there’s no end to the possibilities” — left anything intact. “Just going into a close-up is a big violation of the film. You’re enjoying the film for its pell-mell activity” — and here he mischievously laughs — “and I do just the wrong thing, I invade it.” Is the film’s title then a pun on Jacobs’ cinematic crime of violation and invasion? “Very smart,” he grins.

Jacobs is not so amused, however, when, in bringing up Anaglyph Tom (Tom With Puffy Cheeks), I call the 3-D process it employs a novelty. “2-D’s the novelty,” he corrects. “The world falling flat onto one non-dimensional plane? That’s crazy. 3-D is the world we live in.” Where in his revolutionary “Nervous System” films Jacobs uses the projector to pause the film, freeing it from normal, sequential procession to explore strobing optical illusions — “a mixture of film and painting,” as he puts it — in Anaglyph Tom he’s working within a slightly more traditional, if digitally abetted, three-dimensional format.

“What I wanted to do in Return“, he says, “was create bridges between separate frames, and in Anaglyph Tom I take advantage of the discrete images of the original film the same way we create through two flat-visioned eyes a three-dimensional vision in the mind.” Thus Anaglyph Tom‘s combining of discrete images, lifted from different points in the original film, mimics the typical 3-D process, in which images are captured from two strategically positioned cameras and imitate ocular vision when combined and viewed through specially provided glasses. Where the Tom, Tom of forty years ago zoomed into the frame, Anaglyph Tom pops delightfully out, allowing the viewer to swim among its familiar but ghostly inhabitants. “In two dimensions the characters are crowded and squeezed on the emulsion, it’s worse than an elevator. Here, with the depth, with the background separating out — holy cow.” But when asked about comparisons between Anaglyph Tom and the reemergence of 3-D in Hollywood films — in Coraline, for example, which he enjoyed — Jacobs formulates a clear distinction: “I’m penetrating the illusion; they’re promoting it.”

While Jacobs insists taking apart Tom, Tom is unrelated to his work over the years as a film professor, he consciously wants his viewers to rethink the act of watching film by “demystifying” cinematic illusions. And though these films aren’t often explicitly political — at least not in the same way as Star Spangled to Death‘s nightmare tour through the propagandistic detritus of 20th Century American media — they’re meant to sharpen viewing faculties that for Jacobs are inseparable from political consciousness. “The focus I bring to Tom, Tom is the same I bring to the world around me: how does this society work, where does authority stem from?” Perhaps this is why Anaglyph Tom incorporates a headline of a newspaper about the economic crisis, footage of a hearing in which Alan Greenspan explains his faulty assumptions about capitalist enterprise, and a dedication to the Iraqi journalist who threw his shoe at former President Bush. They once again expose illusion while situating the film in the near-present tense, a link to the political implications of the 1969 Tom, Tom: “The situation I was embedded in in America at that time was definitely brought to bear on this little bit of film, even if it’s ultimately about film itself, the imagination, our deep internal need to take in cinema, to take in these dreams that money can buy.”

But an even more revelatory meaning lies in Tom, Tom‘s evocation of the possible origin and future of the universe. Referring to the big bang theory, Jacobs sees existence as slowly organizing itself only to eventually contract and return to its initial state: “Expansion and its counter-movement recreate the whatever-it-was that exploded,” he explains, “and that’s intrinsic to everything I do.” Beyond the experimental film scholar P. Adams Sitney’s assertion that Jacobs “has been obsessed with the notion of a form that breaks down and starts up again falteringly,” Tom, Tom, Return to the Scene and now Anaglyph Tom all take part in and metaphorically stand for a cosmologic burgeoning and entropy, working according to nature’s patterns and cyclically returning to distorted but revealing scenes that may very well refer to the ephemeral universe’s greatest, most intractable crime. “There’s a passing moment of wakefulness that we’re here for and it’s so sad that most of it’s used so badly,” Jacobs laments. “But art takes place. Art is awareness.”

Anaglyph Tom (Tom With Puffy Cheeks) plays May 15-21 at Anthology Film Archives.