short takes (1)
As expected, the special showing of Napoleon at New York's Radio City Music Hall was one of the most spectacular movie events in recent memory. Like Tolstoy's "War and Peace," Abel Gance's 1927 film is one of those obligatory masterpieces that succeed on every level, including sheer entertainment. The similarities end there; Gance's views of napoleon -- and war, and peace -- are decidedly un-Tolstoyan. But a more exuberantly romantic fling doesn't exist in the world of cinema. Let's hope Carmine Coppola's rousing new symphonic score is soon recorded directly onto prints of the film (reconstructed to about four hours by motion-picture scholar Kevin Brownlow) so its renewed glory will be readily available in theaters everywhere.
It can be invigorating to find new uses for traditional equipment. The other night I attended a recital by La Monte Young, who has his own way of tuning a piano, based on "rational numbers" instead of the usual tempered scale. As his solo improvisation ("The Well-Tuned Piano") develops for more than four hours, nonstop, the sonic overtones take on whole new configurations. In the most striking and celebrated effect, there are times when you can actually "hear" various instruments of the orchestra, notably horns and flutes.
I suspect a similar instinct motivates filmmaker Ken Jacobs, who also likes to find new vlues in old objects and procedures. Long interested in 3-D, he has invented a method whereby two projectors are aimed at the same screen, showing the same film, and Jacobs operates them in quick alternation. This is called the Ken Jacobs Nervous System, and it's supposed to provide an illusion of depth , even to a spectator watching with one eye.
Jacobs recently brought his gear to the Cineprobe series at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where the projection booth proved inhospitable, and the Nervous System broke down. Prepared for anything, Jacobs immediately flung another film onto the screen, shown in the ordinary way. It turned out to be "Urban Peasants," a randomly edited compilation of home-movie footage shot by a relative of Jacobs, preceded and followed by excerpts from a phonograph record called "Instant Yiddish.
AS Jacobs acknowledges, this stuff is "just barely art," despite the charm and nostalgia of its images. But it casts light on Jacob's perennial preoccupation: Instead of making lots of new films, he wants to "mine" films that already exist, probing them for new "information" by showing them in radically new ways. This can mean showing home movies at the Museum of Modern Art. Or recycling Jacob's favorite raw material -- a 1905 film called "Tom, Tom , the Piper's Son "that may have been shot by the great cameraman Billy Bitzer -- through the two-projector Nervous System.
Is Jacobs a visionary, a mad scientist, or an early clue to the new direction in movie art? At this point, it's hard to say. But his experiment s are uncommonly stimulating.