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Ken Jacobs: New York Ghetto Fishmarket 1903


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Ken Jacobs
New York Ghetto Fishmarket 1903

What elevates New York Ghetto Fishmarket 1903 above the amateur work of young hopefuls with movie-editing software is the fact that Ken Jacobs, a septuagenarian staple of American avant-garde cinema, is a master of deconstruction. His Tom Tom the Piper's Son (1969-71) famously subjects a vintage 10-minute silent film to two hours' worth of dissecting and dismantling, only to have the viewer return to the undoctored original with a deeper level of understanding. Fishmarket combines this approach with the home-video equivalent of the "Nervous System" performance method for which Jacobs is best known, adding a wild musical accompaniment by vocalist Catherine Jaunniaux and the late cellist Tom Cora.

For his source material, Jacobs has selected one of hundreds of "actualities" filmed by Thomas Edison's cameramen at the beginning of the 20th century—an appropriate choice, given that Edison's films were experimental for their time. This film captures a crowd of Jewish Eastern-European immigrants in the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

In a written prologue that echoes the tone of Star Spangled to Death (Jacobs' epic diatribe against American imperialism and capitalist propaganda), the filmmaker implies that Edison's cameraman— and, by extension, the camera—is an intruder in the immigrants' lives. In fact, Jacobs suggests that just as the ghetto populace was being exploited by the American economic system so were they being exploited for the sake of Edison's experiments.

At 74 years old, Jacobs has embraced the possibilities of computer-based image manipulation. In New York Ghetto Fishmarket 1903, he marries the awkwardness of early celluloid cinema to the deficiencies of digital video which, for all its positive attributes, lacks the grandeur of a theatrically screened film. Jacobs proceeds to zoom in on various individuals in the fishmarket, devoting time to the gestures of virtually every merchant and passerby. He slows down footage, reverses the image, fills the screen with color, inserts a hidden message—given the variations on a single visual moment, his approach can be likened to that of a jazz musician improvising on a familiar 32-bar standard.

Permeating the DVD is Jacobs' fascination with false three-dimensionality. Numerous times, he alternates between two mirror images at a breakneck speed, resulting in a startling, kaleidoscopic 3D effect. The rapid oscillation is a wonder to behold, even if you're watching Fishmarket in your living room (it should be noted, however, that Jacobs uses a stroboscopic effect throughout the DVD, making it inadvisable viewing for those afflicted with epilepsy.)

Jaunniaux and Cora's entertainingly odd soundtrack stands on its own; it would seem strange enough if Jacobs had left it alone, but instead he opts for a seemingly random stop-start method. Given such devices, at times Fishmarket feels more like a technical exercise than a cinematic experience. Yet there is an overall sense of playfulness and acerbic humor that betrays Jacobs' Beat background, contextualizing his work within a world as seen through the imaginative lens of a Kerouac, Burroughs or Ginsberg.

Despite the growing number of art houses in the U.S. that screen abstract and experimental films, there are still many parts of the country where the only hope that a curious viewer has of seeing such films is via commercial distribution for home and private use. Many thanks are due to Tzadik for continuing to make the work of Ken Jacobs, one of avant-garde's central figures among filmmakers, available to the masses.

Production notes: 132 minutes. Soundtrack by Catherine Jaunniaux (vocals, toy instruments) and Tom Cora (cello). Extras: Bonus short, The Surging Sea of Humanity.

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