Little Stabs at Happiness

Ken Jacobs (1960)

A film in four parts. In In the Room, a man and a woman in outlandish garb are sitting in a claw-foot bathtub smoking, while the man abuses a doll in various ways. In They Stopped to Think, the filmmaker focuses on a woman trying to position a stool upon which to sit next to a wall. The filmmaker talks in voice-over about filming the scene, and his current relationship with the people shown in the film. The scene shifts to a pier where a man and woman are filmed, playing to the camera. In It Began to Drizzle, a man and woman are lounging in a street-side patio. The scene then shifts to a man and some children doing chalk drawings on the sidewalk, and how others respond to what they are doing. In The Spirit of Listlessness, a man lounging on an urban rooftop is playing with balloons while he plays to the camera.

Outrageous yet tender, the film begins with the skip of a cracked 78 rpm record and a handmade title festooned with streamers and lettered in dripping red. In vignettes continuing in this vein, characters occasionally stumble on glimmers of beauty in their bleak existence: a view from the roof and kids drawing on the sidewalk. The scenes are unsettling in their immediacy. Jacobs embraces the New York City streets as his stage and improvises props and costumes from castoffs. The characters, including Jack Smith and Jerry Sims, are completely at ease with the camera. They cavort, they pose, they affront, and they demand our attention. Like it or not, we are made part of the scene.

For many years Jacobs played 78s at screenings, again transforming poverty into a live-performance asset. A grant from Jerome Hill facilitated by Jonas Mekas enabled Jacobs to add voice-over to the middle section and create a sound print. By this time, his relationship with Smith had soured, and he had lost touch with most of those pictured. Jacob’s narration, presented self-consciously as anything to distract you from talking to each other, acts as a remembrance of things past. The closing vignette, shot on a New York rooftop on a crystalline day, shows Smith clowning with a balloon to the tune of Happy Bird. In Little Stabs at Happiness, moments in the sun do not last.

Ken Jacobs is an experimental filmmaker, who, along with Stan Brakhage, Jonas Mekas, Maya Deren and others, helped spearhead the American avant-garde film movement. His impressive filmography spans more than 60 years and 45 films, utilizing just about every experimental technique imaginable. In the ’60s, he helped redefine the notion of domestic (home) movies, and along with it, domestic space—pioneering work that expanded the parameters of art cinema, and also, coincidentally, the gender expectations of male artists. Jacobs has also experimented with found footage, creating such memorable works as Star Spangled to Death, a nearly seven-hour epic charting an alternative U.S. history. Most recently, he has been reformatting, reworking, and altering silent films to give illusions of depth, creating experimental, heavily stroboscopic abstract cinema, and 3D. At every stage of his career, Jacobs has sought to push the technology as far as it can go and to challenge his audiences to think about politics, gender, class, race, documentary, and movies differently. This series provides a rare opportunity to see the work of one of the greatest living American filmmakers.

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