Anthology Film Archives


A mystery is that The Nervous Magic Lantern wasn't invented centuries ago, way before movies, as soon as a lamp could safely contain fire as light-source and there existed a glass lens for focusing on a surface.  Decorative patterns on glass could've been projected or any small object that could take the heat. The spinning shutter before the lens could've been cranked by hand.  The projected image would have immediately shown continuous motion while remaining in place (The Eternalism), moving but not moving anywhere (it can’t be  imagined) in unquestionable deep space.  It would’ve been terrifying. It would’ve made the history books.   The mystifying shifts in position and perspective, things hovering or plummeting and masses becoming empty volumes and vice versa, all would’ve been immediately apparent.  But no doubt we first needed Cubism and Abstract Expressionism to prepare for such a refutation of common experience, common sense.  Picasso purposely contradicted himself, inferring more than one depth-reading to his so-called still-lifes, rarefied jokes of near and far; think the optical illusion.  One had only to confer a consistency of size to Pollack’s splatters and implied gravity placed them hurtling in a dramatic void.

There was no precedent of anything coming of such a contraption and no-one thought of it.  I certainly didn’t, it came to me in a dream and I tend to obey my subconscious even when an idea seems nuts.  The early 20th century might have welcomed it after the Lumières showed what surprises there could be and when very quickly there were experiments to achieve a cinematic 3D (people loved their hand-held stereopticons) as well as a beginning in some circles to valuing the non-representational.  I came along when Abstract Expressionism was happening and studied with its fount of learning, Hans Hofmann.

I don’t know how he’d feel about Abstract Expressionist Cinema, especially the 3D aspect, but he is responsible for setting depth-configuration fires in his students' minds.  True, he insisted on indicating depth without illusion of any sort but when I answered his post-teaching inquiry as to what I was up to and stupidly blurted, “Mostly film; I think it’s the art of the century”, he generously (as was his way) answered, “Wonderful.  When you’re young you can do everything!”  (I was dead broke and a girlfriend had just given me the air.  I could not have felt more beaten but, young, I was now learning I could do everything.  The point is he was totally okay regarding exploration into film.)  The Nervous Magic Lantern is the culmination of a long life of indulging illogical urges with mind set on seeing mutable deep space.  The shift from paint on canvas to plasticity by other means meant that convincing illusion of depth might eventually come about, maybe conventionally with separate left and right images one to each eye, or by less expected means like The Pulfrich Effect (wherein a delay of light via a dark filter before one eye enables two frames with two perspectives from a moving camera-shot to reach the mind simultaneously; see my OPENING THE 19TH CENTURY: 1896).  

Unexpected was The Black Interval.  The Nervous System (1975-2000), our contrivance using two identical prints of a film on two 16mm analytic projectors capable of single-frame advance and freeze, made bizarre spatial miracles take place when a spinning shutter between them, interjecting The Black Interval, cycled and melded the slightly out-of-sync and superimposed screen-images.  Made a molten 3D happen that could not only be seen without spectacles but could be seen by one eye.  One eye alone! 3D!  This is also true of The Nervous Magic Lantern since all information is going to both eyes.

I remember dreaming of a movie showing depth-perspectives from above, below, from everywhere and when I awoke it was with the glowing idea of a single analytic projector with spinning shutter in mind.  It didn’t work! until the film was shown out of focus.  This was 1990 when Flo and I were performing NEW YORK GHETTO FISHMARKET, 1903 and I discovered that interference with the edges of the image using my hands and body in front of the slowed-down projector made odd spatial events take place.  We were thrilled; audiences, confused.  It made the show too long and we had to give up on it.

10 years later.  Forget screening film.  It occurred to me to place a transparent object -just possibly painted, by hand, with emphasis (Hofmann-like) on paint texture- between a standard theater-light and a single concave lens and let the spinning shutter do its stuff.  The dream of transformative vistas was realized! and Flo and I are choosing to relinquish new Nervous System productions in order to follow up on The Nervous Magic Lantern.  I tell audiences they’re better off not knowing how it’s done and then imagining it’s explained but some insist on looking into the empty projector.  Aki Onda, one musician we perform with, insists it’s magic.  It is another form of cinema along with shadowplay, film and video but magic it is not.  Science will someday consider it and there will be answers.

Would the genius-drunks have invited us into The Artists Club?  They were thinking canvas and pigments and that only, they had to, and unlike with open-minded Hofmann art-cinema was a smirk away from nothing at all.  (Aside to painter-friend Max Spoerri who was allowed to check for interlopers at the door: can you imagine any one of those guys giving my work a moment of serious consideration?  Your friend, Resnick?  Never.)  The lift-off from understanding-of-depth to convincing illusion would’ve been considered offensive; joined to sound, blatant vulgarity.  Yet most of them painted to music!  (I have original Duke Ellington 78s that belonged to Pollack, really, abandoned in his NY studio after he died).  Their work had been joined to music at its inception.  

There is something to having the actual paint in front of you.  And realizing a painting’s depth implications on one’s own is no small thing to give up (our contraption does it for you, plays the game for you).  I apologize! (but not for considering art-appreciation a game, an activity unto itself in face of sure extinction while True Believers do terrible things to earn their Hereafters).  We do the realizing but also provide the unimaginable Eternalism.   

I almost apologize to violinists.  For saying that maneuvering the object behind the lens during performance demands similar taste and precision to the impossible things they do.

KJ 11.10/14/19.15  Non-believers welcome to see for yourself on my Vimeo site as your 2D monitor becomes 3D; or go to Sound Live Tokyo Ken Jacobs to see 15 minutes of a recent performance there with Aki Onda.