Forensic Cinema (That Has Nothing to Do With Jerry Bruckheimer, Thank Goodness!)

In 1969 Ken Jacobs reinvented himself and the experimental cinema when he made “Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son,” a reworking of a 1905 Edison short by an unnamed director, based on the famous nursery rhyme. It was one of his first explorations of the possibilities of screen space and time to be found in early cinema as chopped and changed under his careful eye. Now, 39 years later, Jacobs has returned to the Edison film, this time using only one shot from it, to take another look at those fundamentals of cinema and the felonious Tom, with his amusingly titled “Return to the Scene of the Crime.” The film will be playing for a week at the Museum of Modern Art, along with a program of other recent Jacobs efforts.

Earlier this year, I described Jacobs’s method in his use of found film footage as Talmudic, with his own version of the “text” being a commentary erected on the grounds of the original film. “Return,” which he amusingly calls “forensic cinema” in a title card midway through the film, is a gemara to his earlier film’s mishnah, a reexamination of the space and time of both the Edison “Tom, Tom” and the 1969 Jacobs reworking of that short. (If you have forgotten the nursery rhyme, the key element is that Tom “stole a pig and away he run,” hence the playful title of Jacobs’s new version.)

If the fabric of the Talmud is the text of the Tanakh, the actual letters themselves, the material with which all filmmakers work are space and time. Hence, when Jacobs offers commentary on the 1905 short, he does so by altering our perception of those two elements of the film, and the rich dialectical relationship between them. Even a seemingly extraneous element like his introduction of color into the frames of the new film alters our perception of the screen space, and his wildly variegated editorial strategies – stroboscopic flicker effects, multiple superimpositions, rapid, repetitive cutting – expand our experience of film-time turning a brief nursery rhyme into a 92-minute meditation on the ways in which we understand time. Like Achilles chasing the hare in Zeno’s paradox, the characters in the original “Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son” are fated never to catch the miscreant in “Return,” trapped in the engaging and witty amber of Ken Jacobs’s palimpsestic “remake.”

“Return to the Scene of the Crime” and a program of five other recent works by Ken Jacobs will both be playing at the Museum of Modern Art (11 W. 53rd St.), October 16-22. As I pointed out earlier this month, is offering most of Jacobs's films on-line in conjunction with a season of his work all over London (see here). And Anthology Film Archives will be showing several of his films on December 19 and 20.


I blow hot and cold on Barry Levinson. As you will see momentarily, I like the Baltimore films quite a lot, but the rest of his work leaves me very unimpressed, to say the least. However, his latest film, What Just Happened, while flawed is quite amusing and, if you are a serious student of the psychopathology of the film industry, you will probably find much to laugh at. My review is in next week's issue of Jewish Week and can be found here.

Finally, this bizarre tidbit from France, via the BBC:

A French court has rejected an attempt by a group of people with the surname, Bougon, which means "grumpy", to change the title of a new TV comedy series. The 60 claimants were upset at the way their name was being associated with a family of scroungers, fraudsters and alcoholics in the series, Les Bougon.

If there's a Mr. Homer Simpson out there somewhere, I recommend that he find a different legal system for his projected mega-buck lawsuit.