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Brakhage Symposium To Showcase The Avant-Garde Ken Jacobs

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Courtesy Ken Jacobs Films
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A still from Ken Jacobs' 'Razzle Dazzle: The Lost World.'

By its very nature, the avant-garde is not mainstream. Its purpose is to be unfamiliar, to challenge, to upset the apple cart. The avant-garde wants to perplex, to stymie, and most of all, it sets out to destroy complacency. Because film in particular is so pervasive and we're so settled in terms of how we look at it, the avant-garde has a particularly hard task.

This weekend on the CU-Boulder campus, March 6-8, 2015, there's a chance to meet one of the greatest avant-garde filmmakers and see a good selection of his work. The program is the annual Brakhage Center Symposium, named for monumental filmmaker Stan Brakhage, who spent much of his career in this area. The filmmaker is Ken Jacobs, who has been shaking up the world of cinema since 1955 and is still going strong.

In a few minutes, it's hard to give a sense of the extent and power of Jacobs' work. His famous 1960 short film Little Stabs at Happiness has its roots in New York street theater with vignettes of people stuck in their lives finding only tidbits of beauty. The 1969 feature-length Tom, Tom the Piper's Son begins with a 1905 short based on the nursery rhyme, which Jacobs then re-films and repeatedly re-shapes until you realize the tremendous complexities of your own ways of seeing.

For the 1975 Urban Peasants, Jacobs spliced together reels of home movies in the order in which they came out of the box. So, people are old then young, alive then dead and then alive – and again you find your ways of seeing readjusted. Unlike typical narrative film, you have no idea what's coming next and you become alert to the film as you haven't been since you saw your first movies.

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Credit Courtesy of Brakhage Center
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Courtesy of Brakhage Center
Ken Jacobs

Jacobs often reorganizes and re-shoots found footage to show both how the old footage may have been presented originally and how you see it now. You get multiple perspectives simultaneously, and it's a unique experience. Star-Spangled to Death from 2004 is a ferocious picture more than 400 minutes long that starts with Jacob's Michael Moore-like rage about the attacks on 9-11. He prints written text about the Bush family and the Saudis over 1960s footage of street theater in New York, then cuts to documentary film about Martin and Osa Johnson who made films in Africa, Borneo and other places considered exotic by Americans in the 1920s and '30s.

With no irony, the narrator of that original film claims the Johnsons have spent three years bringing to Africans the blessings of civilization. That original material is vicious and smug, and it drives you to think about the history of how we have pictured other people on the Earth. Then comes a jokey song about dunking bagels in coffee and eating gefilte fish – these things come from Jacobs' traditions – and the more Jacobs piles on the cultural contradictions, the more you start seeing things in many different ways all at once.

The film sizzles with this range of attitudes bouncing around until your jaw just drops. Another moment pops in of 1960s street theater – Jacobs and friends over 50 years ago undulating on the pavement. The mélange of the film is funny and horrifying and simply weird. And it's brilliant.

Jacobs has taken a documentary about one thing, and completely shifted its meaning so that now it documents not just two people and their assumptions in Africa in the '30s, but a state of mind in America in the 2000s – and a lot in between.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.
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