Q & A: KEN JACOBS

This entry was posted on March 12th, 2014

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By David Phelps

Editor’s note: Ken Jacobs is a personality that cannot be overlooked in any anthology about experimental cinema or found footage. Our collaborator David Phelps had a long conversation with the american filmmaker, which first part was published in Cinema Comparative Cinema website (Just click here). The continuation of that interview follows below.

December 18, 2012, City Hall Park: Ken Jacobs and I determined to talk about the Millennium Film Workshop, at this point a kind of metonym for the 60s avant-garde in New York, and a topic happily skirted in part I.

A symptomatic story of many others internationally at the time, and yet taking to the streets in the most practical way—arming the populace with cameras, audio recorders, and basic editing proficiency—seems a particularly Ken Jacobs-like idea of home movie activism. Knowing little, I mostly listen, and we are, this time, interrupted only by the December wind and premature battery life of my recorder. Most of the words wrestled from the wind over a year later, but as a result, missing footage comprises discussion of arthouse movies, free stores, and Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas 

David Phelps: …Has there been any president you liked? 

Ken Jacobs: Well… I came in with FDR, ’33. So…he saved capitalism. And then the democrats, with the Republicans, saved it more—got rid of almost everything he did. The banking laws should never have been touched—and that was Bill Clinton. I hate Bill Clinton. I’m never to have any satisfaction in my life, politically.

DP: But have you had any?

KJ: No. I had hopes for Clinton and Gore. Assholes. Then we got W, the torture president, affirmed by Obama. I had hopes for Obama. Jerk. Can’t happen. The country’s all private property.  We are where the people are at the end of Miracle in Milan, though still somehow with considerable free speech.  They don’t rub out Noam Chomsky.  Though they are gunning now for Romney’s 47 percent.  They want them dead including kids.  They figure on drones replacing big armies.

DP: People get so sick of the Democrats, the Republicans look great, and then they get sick of the Republicans, and the Democrats look great. They keep it in this mode where they can support one another by making each other look fantastic.

 KJ: It’s a sham. Period.

 DP: So let’s talk about… personal politics, I guess?  The main thing I wanted to talk about is Millennium. You were going to Film-makers’ Co-op, and that was around when?

KJ:  In the mid-60’s.  What was very important to Millennium was a small grant that came to The Film-makers’ Co-op.  Stan Vanderbeek had the idea of renting an editing studio that people would sign up to share for specified hours. He and I went out looking for places and found a place and, although my work never pulled me into using it, I thought it was a great idea. Then, at some point, a government grant went to The New School. A lot of money became available. They wanted to study the new youth’s sexual mores.

DP: This is the Kinsey era?

KJ: The 60s, about ’65.   Ok, so, the New School contracted with St. Mark’s Church on the Bowery.  They had some art programs and would be a conduit to street-people. The church business had cooled considerably and they were doing outreach.  Now they wanted a film project because film was definitely in the air.  Underground film was in the air.  So I was one of the people who was known around and was interviewed and asked what if we gave you $10,000 a year and some space—what would you do with that?

DP: Who’s asking you this?

KJ: The church contacted… I’m forgetting his name because I hate him so. Oh God… Who did Pull My Daisy?

DP: Robert Frank.

KJ: And?

DP: Oh yeah, the other guy…

KJ: Leslie. Al Leslie. The fact that you can’t think of his name, but you think so readily of this other awful filmmaker—

DP: I like Frank’s other stuff, but I walked out of Pull My Daisy, I couldn’t take it.

KJ: Pull My Daisy is the best of them. The others are execrable. Al Leslie. That you couldn’t think of him will figure into Millennium’s disaster. So, Leslie had a film program—sort of an underground or individual artist program of screenings happening at the church. He had a going painting career at the time and didn’t want to bother with the kind of demands this thing could make. And I explained the Millennium idea, coming from this experience with Vanderbeek.

DP: So the original Millennium idea was to put in editing tables for people to use.

KJ: More than that. A kind of university of the streets. Screenings, teachings, you know, and equipment, free.

DP: And you were planning on showing both new and old work?

KJ: Well, to see what independent filmmakers were doing. It could be old, new, whatever. The people could be, you know, anybody. Punks and old-timers. But Leslie and I had a personal relationship—we were friends. And I hope that did not influence the decision, which was to hire me to do this thing. And then they hired somebody else, who had made a very good film, Stanton Kaye, K-a-y-e.

DP: What’s the film?

KJ: George, gay-org. The German pronunciation of George. That’s all he had shown but it was smart, influenced by the French new wave. And he was hired as my assistant, and was very unhappy. He wanted the main gig, you know. And he didn’t like my idea. He said it’ll just be a lot of hobbyists, where he’d use the money to direct a film using local talent. And that would be the program.

DP: Like a stimulus package.

 KJ: He would use it as his grant to direct the work using young people from the area. And from the beginning—we had this thing for, I can’t remember, half year or whatever, seven or eight months he actively undermined me. He was hostile. The whole idea, the idea of assisting me, of actually doing something I asked for, forget it.  So I had an assistant I had to watch out for. The place we were given was where Anthology is now, the old courthouse, though not mentioned in Anthology’s history of the building.

DP: It’s mentioned in your book [Optic Antics: The Cinema of Ken Jacobs].

KJ: I mention it. But I thought it a terrible disservice to give the impression that the building had gone from the police to them. The building had been abandoned for years when we entered. Down below was a jail, holding cells. Bars. Blood and shit on the wall. Blood and shit on the walls! How do you get blood and shit on the walls that had to be scraped off? The police of New York were literally beating the shit out of people.

DP: What year was this?

KJ: ’66, ’67.

DP: Are you calling it Millennium at this point?

KJ: Yeah. I called it Millennium because I thought it was such an outlandish movement toward the great change. Though it was certainly not religious.

DP: But it was utopian.

KJ: Utopian, yeah. There were times I thought more people should be around, involved, but by and large it was actually a very big thing. The holding cells were turned into editing rooms that people could lock to keep safe.

DP: And this is the first time you’d be teaching a class—or you had taught an art class in Brooklyn, right?

KJ: Yes, I’d taught for years. Painting.

DP: But now you’re teaching filmmaking.

KJ: Yeah, basic filmmaking. I hardly know more today other than basic filmmaking. But classes were good, and students cared about them very much. They only had to give an address to join, which no one was going to check up on, and they could walk out the same day with a Nagra tape recorder given to us by Shirley Clarke. It was like a Rolls Royce. We were very trusting, in the mood of the dayAnd in fact hardly anything was stolen.  Millennium has the Nagra to this day. And it works.

DP: Do you remember some of the films you showed?

KJ: Well we showed student works, there were like evenings that were just bring what you wish and we’ll show it, and we’ll talk about it. And from the beginning, I felt it my obligation to be very candid. So…I got a rep as a tough guy, without meaning to be, but I said what I thought. The first public screening we had was Peter Kubelka. Stan had seen his work in Europe -Brakhage, and thought it was great. Jonas wrote an article about it and when Peter came, we arranged to screen his work at the church. And, unfortunately, I gave the setting-it-up to Stanton Kaye, who hung the screen in front of a statue. The screen leaned against the statue and took its shape.

DP: So it became a representational film.

KJ: Stanton was, uh, pear-shaped. And he made sure to get in very tight with the minister, Father Michael Allen, our connection with the church. They went away together, socialized. Stanton would leave the doors unlocked, he was taking out equipment that was reserved for others, not acknowledging any rules. The church—Father Michael Allen was a chubby guy, had five kids, just to show how straight he was, had worked before becoming a priest for Time magazine and was very proud of that. So Stanton would socialize with the priest, who told us, after we told him of Stanton’s behavior, that we have to keep a list, a diary, and they’d look into it. So I kept a diary of Stanton’s fuckups and brought it to the priest and he wouldn’t look at it.

And he finally said, um, we think the problem is you. The thing you’re trying to do is way too ambitious for this project.

I was taking the $10,000, the money that was made available to me—I was using it to buy many cheap cameras, a lot of 8mm, a lot of other stuff, projectors. You know, I had no money before this and had learned to be so careful with what I would buy. I knew what was needed, knew from where, for how little. And then a lot of people like Shirley Clarke donated stuff, and also a lot of people in the industry volunteered to come and give classes—classes on lighting, camera use, technical things. It really touched a lot of people, who contributed a great deal to it. And we also got more money through Jonas who directed a Peg Sandtford Foundation grant to it. We were given, I think, maybe $8,000 for more stuff, a lot more than $8000 today. The Museum of Modern Art threw a dance at the courthouse, a celebration of Millennium. Many people filmed there, Jack Smith, Warhol.  I rehearsed shadowplay.  Ernie Gehr started there, took classes. So we were a live item in New York, there’s no question this thing was succeeding.  The public presentations were impassioned discourse with many personalities of the time, my favorite being Robert Downey.

 But the church, Father Michael Allen, said you’re the problem. Me. And they brought in Al Leslie to make a judgment. [Pause]. Ok, Al Leslie and I went to Chinatown, and Al did not want to talk about the problems with Stanton or the church, or with Millennium. He was in a fury over Jonas Mekas. He thought that Jonas had shifted responsibility for Pull My Daisy to Robert Frank. And it was true that the film was much more in the character of Al Leslie than Robert Frank. And he hated Jonas, and thought that Jonas was like—one of his names—an “octopus”; he was getting his hands into anything that was going on with film. And his intent was to defeat Jonas, to embarrass Jonas. What he wanted from me— he despised the priests, he despised Stanton Kaye. He said, you know, they’re both, in his words, “they’re fags—they’ve got something going.” But, “there’s one thing I want from you—and that’s to give back to Jonas whatever he gave to Millennium. To separate from him and let it be a statement.”

Where the fuck’s this coming from? So I refuse to do that. So he went and told the priest to go with Stanton. I was fired.

There were many, many people that objected walking around the courthouse holding signs, as the program changed completely, to Stanton’s filmmaking. There were some people that were able to keep their own editing going, and adjusted, so they became, uh—I won’t say anything. Ok, but, for the most part, there was a big objection, people would not go in, they would not cross the picket line. One person who crossed the picket line was Jack Smith. A fine socialist.

DP: This is after you stopped talking with him?

KJ: Yeah yeah.

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DP: He’d been using the editing tables at Millennium?

KJ: Yeah, I mean, everybody—we would all use the place.

DP: I think the most amazing part of this story is that the avant-garde of New York was developed with the church on one shoulder and the courthouse on the other.

KJ: Well and then the New School would adjust to this.  They still had access to youth, paying five dollars an hour to learn their sex lives. A couple of people told me it was incredibly stupid, the investigators knew nothing—you could just tell them lies and amuse yourself. [Laughter]

DP: So these are the institutions on all sides supporting this arts culture.

KJ: The New School would do nothing to save the program. One of the people involved went down to Washington, to the department that funded this thing, and explained what was going on—and that guy did not want to hear about it. He said, all these rules you’re showing that have been broken, I have a bigger book with more rules, and they count more.

It’s 12 now? we gotta go.

DP: Gotta go.

KJ: So that was the end of the friendship with Al Leslie, although I see him, Al Leslie and Jonas, you know, socializing. [Laughter]

DP: They made up.

KJ: You know, Jonas was impossible. He would not deal with it seriously. I think he wrote something about an argument between two worthy filmmakers. But The Village Voice, which was the only place one could then resort to, to do something, they didn’t want to deal with this because this Father Michael Allen was the “peace priest.” One of the church’s programs was for people who had rejected going into the military, and he was known for that. So they didn’t want to embarrass him. There was hardly anything written about it. There was no real effort to confront the facts. I was walking around with these facts, man—

DP: You actually had to keep a diary. 

KJ: I had to keep a diary—I had so many papers. And, uh, it was my albatross thing that I need to divulge. So I was just exhausted, I saw I was going nowhere.

DP: Ok, so—

KJ: But one more thing. The church owed me some money, which I had laid out for screenings and other small things and had a list of. They refused to pay. We took them to small-claims court, where Michael Allen appeared in his churchly, uh, drag—

DP: His frock.

KJ: His frock, that’s right. His nice frock. He showed the papers to the judge, we sat at the table with the judge and Michael Allen said what he had to say and the judge told Michael Allen, pay them. Pay them.

DP: Pay them.

KJ: Pay us. Whatever the sum is, you pay them he was told. And that was it.

DP: What was the sum?

KJ: Oh, like 40 dollars.

DP: It’s interesting, because there’s almost this cliché about the collapse at the end of the 60s of so much outwardly activist, socialist work, as artists began retreating inward after ’68.

KJ: Well, this thing was a big interruption to our work.

DP: I don’t mean the avant-garde or Millennium specifically, just generally, that 60s engagement shifts into 70s pessimism. Even within your own work, there’s this talk of Tom Tom marking a shift from more outwardly political, socialist films to something more inward, formalist—

 KJ: Let me explain. First of all, Jonas [pauses], Jonas said—he was very strange. He would not come out with a statement, but he did say that he was going to get some money for us. We lived alongside the Brooklyn Bridge and the city was tearing down the area, forcing us to move, and that’s how we came to Chambers Street. And, um, it was ’66. And Jonas said he would make money available to us, and meanwhile we could use the money the city was giving us to move, to remake, restart Millennium a few blocks away from the Courthouse where there had been a filmmakers’collective—it wasn’t doing well. The people doing it, Grey Henry and Bob Lowe, offered it to us, corner of 3rd street and 2nd Ave.

DP: So right near the courthouse.

KJ: So we moved there, moved in stuff that didn’t belong to the church, and we remade the program—and it took off. After one year, other people began to officiate, Gary Smith and George Tenille. We stepped away, we were exhausted.  Stanton and friends gutted the program at the Courthouse, everything went missing.  Millennium would eventually fall under Howard Guttenplan’s control and no longer change officers yearly but it did keep going and still is offering use of equipment and events these many decades later.