Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Return to the Scene of the Crime (2008)

William Hogarth's 1733 etching, "Southwark Fair", was the inspiration for the 1905 film short "Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son", attributed to Billy Bitzer. In 1969, Ken Jacobs re-photographed the short for his structuralist landmark of the same name, shuttling the film backward and forward in a vibrant mass of pure motion, and then slowing it down to isolate the individual movements of the nameless players of this long-forgotten gem. In 2008, after years of tinkering with new computer technology, Jacobs has revisited the film in Return to the Scene of the Crime, which focuses on the representation of the Hogarth etching.

It's a variation on the original film, concerned with the slowness of isolated details while "Tom, Tom" was more concerned with speed. He utilizes a flicker-like effect that repeats the slightest movements of characters, running the minutest gesture back and forth until we have time to scan the entire frame and form our own narrative (there are strobing flashes of black that echo the pure "flicker films" like Peter Kubelka's Arnulf Rainer). He zooms in to capture the passing face of one of the dozens of extras, a lady with a too-big smile arrested my attention: is she acting or just having fun? These actors never thought they'd be seen in close-up, so there's a sense of documentary here, of peeking in on an actor's process that had been hidden for a century. The frame is so packed with small bits of theatrical business - there's a tightrope walker, a juggler, a merchant (who's robbed), and the aforementioned pig - and Jacobs lingers over all of it, breaking down individual sections of the frame, showing us a robbery, an argument, a grimace - all hidden from view in the long shot. Not all of his work riveted me, but I was always sucked back in.

I think RAZZLE DAZZLE: The Lost World is the greater film, and a better example of his use of digital manipulations (the section on WW1 stereoscopes in that one is astonishing), but Return is a worthy extension of Jacobs' recent excavatory work on early cinema, and one of the more playful and delightfully lowbrow, with a closing joke about pig shit.



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