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Ken Jacobs / John Zorn: Celestial Subway Lines / Salvaging Noise


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Ken Jacobs/John Zorn
Celestial Subway Lines/Salvaging Noise

Often the most forward-looking art is that which reaches into the distant past for inspiration. Celestial Subway Lines/Salvaging Noise, recorded in 2004 at New York's Anthology Film Archives, is culled from a set of performances by avant-garde filmmaker Ken Jacobs and musicians John Zorn and Ikue Mori. These performances derive their means of production from an era predating the existence of film, and the effect is startling.

Since the 1950s, Jacobs has demystified the artifices of traditional cinema. His most recent offerings employ a technique that he has dubbed "Nervous Magic Lantern." An early precursor to the slide projector, the magic lantern gives the illusion of movement within a projected image. Jacobs has combined lantern projection with a stroboscopic effect that may prove jarring before the eye grows accustomed to it. The finished product is the appearance of abstract three-dimensional forms in continuous motion; because the images are indistinct, the spectator's imagination is constantly engaged in deciphering the richly layered visuals.

The viewer is guided on a voyage through forests, caverns, and galaxies. Trees transform into cloud formations; craters on the lunar surface become droplets of rain on a windshield—the possibilities for an interpreted narrative framework are limitless.

If Jacobs' work evokes the dream state, then Zorn and Mori's improvised score interprets it as a nightmare; with its pervasive sense of dread, the music imposes inferences on visual phenomena that are, in fact, quite beautiful. Taken on its own terms, the soundtrack is effectively spine chilling. Machine-like drones gradually intensify, threatening to overwhelm the imagery but never doing so. For some, however, the hypnotic spell cast by Jacobs may be broken by the unrelenting industrial sounds and manipulated vocal samples. That Zorn would gravitate toward haunted-house atmospherics comes as little surprise, given the overtly macabre tendencies that characterize much of his output.

Viewers may opt to watch the disc without sound, or with an alternate musical accompaniment. Those who attended the performances, however, were forced to associate Jacobs' organic visuals with Zorn's unsettling soundscape. In this post-Cageian era, it is unfortunate that most audiences still lack the patience to view an abstract film without added sensory stimulation. Granted, it may be unreasonable to grouse about how Jacobs' work is presented—needless to say, when a film carries a warning that it may induce seizures in epileptics, its potential to reach a wide audience is severely limited.

Avant-garde film has been poorly represented on DVD. If nothing else, John Zorn deserves substantial credit simply for making Ken Jacobs' work available to the public. Watching the performance on a television screen is likely the equivalent of listening to an audiophile recording through a transistor radio; nevertheless, for those who have not experienced Jacobs' projections in a live setting, Celestial Subway Lines/Salvaging Noise is a vital release. It captures the emergence of an exciting visual medium, one that may entrance, perplex, or disturb its viewer, but one that refuses to be ignored.

Production Notes: 68 minutes. Recorded in 2004 at the Anthology Film Archives, New York.


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