Films That Tell Time

The paradoxes of the cinema of Ken Jacobs
by Tom Gunning  posted February 6, 2009
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When the Museum of the Moving Image presented the month-long series Films That Tell Time: A Ken Jacobs Retrospective in the fall of 1989, Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman called Jacobs “one of the most extraordinary unknown personalities in the history of American movies.” Indeed, the retrospective went a long way toward establishing the importance of Jacobs's work. In the 20 years since, he has remained prolific, finding astonishing new ways to unleash the power of new and existing moving images (he is the subject of a small retrospective at the Harvard Film Archive this weekend). Noted film scholar Tom Gunning contributed an original essay to the catalogue for the retrospective, which also contains writing and drawings by Jacobs, available here.

I love to go to the movies; the only thing that bothers me is the image on the screen.

—Theodor W. Adorno

I. Ken Jacobs and the Inventing of the Cinema

When asked in 1899 to comment on the invention of moving pictures (which his experiments had made possible) the physiologist and inventor of chronophotography, Étienne-Jules Marey, declared, "What [motion pictures] show, the eye can see directly. They add nothing to the power of vision and remove none of its illusions. But the true essence of the scientific method is to supplement the weakness of our senses and correct our errors." As we begin the celebration of cinema's centenary, I believe it is time to take stock of this fin de siècle invention and ask Marey's implied question: has the cinema strengthened our vision and given us the means to overcome illusion? Or has it rather, as he seemed to fear, weakened our sense and understanding of sight and multiplied the possibilities of visual deception?

While the films of Ken Jacobs may not completely answer this question, they certainly lead us onto the proper paths for its investigation. For the past three decades, Jacobs has probed the nature of the cinema in a way few filmmakers have aspired to. And it is precisely the total body of Jacobs's work (rather than any specific film) that reveals the systematic and profound nature of his investigation. This retrospective allows us to discover the center of an oeuvre that is more fugitive than most, yet essential to a rethinking of the nature of film as it enters its second century.

I wouldn't load such freight on the back of Jacobs's work if I weren't sure it could take it, in spite of its unprepossessing appearance. Looked at over an expanse of time, Jacobs's work might seem disjointed. In a concentrated dose its unities emerge and its ambitions and successes are clarified. But these ambitions are couched within ironies and their most probing questions come as a still small voice rather than a whirlwind. The fragmentary and seemingly modest dimensions of this oeuvre are its riddle and secret challenge. Jacobs has never claimed the position of priest of cinema but rather describes himself as a sort of secondhand dealer in film's curiosity shop, his work bits and pieces showing the wear of time. But as in a 19th-century romantic tale, it is in this rag and bone shop that the greatest mysteries of film can be obtained, discoveries unavailable in the great halls of bombast and pretension.

On first seeing a number of Jacobs films, one might flip through the program notes to make sure these are the works of one filmmaker. The diversity can be a bit dizzying. To the extent that genres exist in avant-garde film, Jacobs seems to cover them all: picaresque comedies (Blonde Cobra, Little Stabs At Happiness); diary film/home movie (Nissan Ariana Window, Urban Peasants); structural experiments in a single fixed-take (Soft Rain) or rephotography (Tom Tom The Piper's Son); metaphysical dramas with allegorical tableaux (The Sky Socialist); experiments in documentary (Orchard Street, Perfect Film). But if this succession of phrases describes something of the range of Jacobs's work, they also immediately obscure the films. None of these films can be so easily categorized, and seeing them as parts of a whole makes one aware of subterranean passages linking them.

Jacobs's films pursue the slippery surfaces of experience rather than the deceptive clarity of ideas. None of his films illustrate or grow out of theories, and there is no substitute for the hard-won pleasures of sitting through them and puzzling them out while watching. He has specifically warned me of the dangers of trying to explain his (or anyone's) films, and the reader is hereby cautioned that this essay will be useful only if she has already threaded her own way through the Jacobs labyrinth. To delve into a Jacobs film requires getting one's hands dirty. What I hope to do in this essay is less to take an overview than to trace a series of paths along the corridors, well aware of the finger smudges on the wall and the sticky footprints on the floor. But from my perspective, more is at stake here than simply understanding Jacobs's films. The nature of cinema itself is the issue, a question that Jacobs explores with paradoxes rather than doctrines.

II. The Paradox of the Perfect Film: The Discovered Image

All arts are founded on the presence of Man; only photography delights us with his absence.

—André Bazin, "The Ontology of the Photographic Image"

The first and most apparent paradox of Jacobs's work is the fact that most of his films are made from material shot by other people with other purposes than his own. The sources are varied: footage from abandoned film projects by Jacobs's friend, filmmaker Bob Fleischner (Blonde Cobra); a 1905 chase film by the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, shot by famous cameraman Billy Bitzer (Tom Tom the Piper's Son); a short film, probably shot for television, about the sacrifices of a country doctor (The Doctor's Dream); home movies from the '40s shot by a relative of Jacobs's wife, Florence (Urban Peasants); outtakes of news footage surrounding the assassination of Malcolm X (Perfect Film); and in the Nervous System performances: a documentary on the colonial history of the Philippines (The Philippines Adventure); combat footage from WWII (Camera Thrills of the War); antique hardcore stag movies (XCXHXEXRXRXIXEXSX); records of daredevil stunts (The Whole Shebang). These films consist almost entirely of found footage; bits of political documentaries, cartoons, and educational films also play important roles in Lisa And Joey in Connecticut, January 1965, and Star Spangled to Death, not to mention the many instances of "found sound" (old 78s, ethnographic recordings, how-to records, vintage jazz) that make up Jacobs's soundtracks.

In most of these films, Jacobs works over the original footage, utterly transforming the material into a film of his own, either by re-editing it according to his own schema (The Doctor's Dream), re-photographing it off the screen (Tom Tom The Piper's Son), or transforming it through a multiple projection system (as in the Nervous System performances). But in Perfect Film, one of Jacobs's most recent works, the transformation has been reduced to a minimum. Perfect Film starkly reveals Jacobs's paradoxical view of filmmaking as a process that doesn't necessarily require a filmmaker's conscious intentions to be meaningful.

Perfect Film is literally a found film. Jacobs, foraging through a secondhand shop on Canal Street, found the footage (as well as the film that he re-edited into The Doctor's Dream) in a bin of used film reels. The metal reels were on sale for a couple of bucks, with the film clinging precariously to them thrown in for free. Jacobs gave the footage a name and made a print, boosting the volume of one section. Otherwise the film remains as he found it. The paradox lies in the fact that nonetheless Perfect Film stands as an essential Jacobs film, and one that gains its fullest dimension when seen in the context of all his work. Perfect Film—a film that Jacobs neither shot, edited, nor "directed," but only found.

Is Jacobs simply playing a dadaist game, signing his name to a discarded readymade? Rather than an action of brash egotism, commandeering the work of someone else, Jacobs's issuing of Perfect Film under his name displays a deep humility before the cinematic image and devotion to its inherent fascination. In this investigation of the cinematic image Jacobs's lack of manipulation of the original footage is as important as a scientist's disciplined objectivity during an experiment. The film consists of what would generally be considered outtakes, unedited footage from news coverage of the assassination of Malcolm X. We see and hear multiple interviews of an eyewitness to the shooting; interviews with bystanders in Harlem; a statement by a New York City police official; silent footage of the Audobon Ballroom, where the murder took place, and its environs; close-ups of bullet holes in the floor; and briefly an image of Malcolm himself discussing recent threats to his life.

The event that motivates the film galvanizes our attention. But accustomed as we are to broadcast coverage, it is the unmanipulated quality of this unedited footage that begins to intrigue us, provided we are willing to let its powers of distraction overcome our impatience to get the story. The gathering of information brings us no closer to the horror of the actual event. In its multiple re-tellings we witness an act of murder become a story, then a news item, a bit that will be tailored to the format demands of television journalism. Even the sincere involvement of the eyewitness seems to be overwhelmed by the banality of the interview process. One's attention becomes diverted to odd bits of behavior (the eyewitness's jaw muscles seem to convulse; the bizarre and irrelevant behavior of bystanders jumping to be included within the camera frame, attracted not by the event but by the camera). The film becomes an anthropological document, giving us the opportunity to observe human behavior in itself, not simply as a vehicle for information or ready-made formulas of human interest.

Since this is raw footage, the awkward moments that would be weeded out before broadcast remain. These rough spots possess the greatest powers of revelation. The police official's demand that the filming be done his way reveals his insecurity and authoritarian stance, rather than his strength and control. Likewise the inarticulateness and clumsy responses of some of the black bystanders eloquently express the emotional dynamics of the moment. Besides these bits of flotsam and jetsam of reality, the starts and stutters of film itself are retained. The film includes sections of blank leader, occasionally with wild tracks of sound. Shaky MOS pickup shots of street signs and the exterior of the ballroom give a fragmented but strangely expressive feel of the place itself, the scene of the crime.

At one point the cameraman filmed a sign proclaiming that no cameras are allowed in the ballroom. This image, which simultaneously portrays the stricture against its own existence and the transgression of the rule, seems an emblem for the contradictory energy of the film. We see the periphery of an event of historic significance, strongly feeling that we are outside of it, insulated from its reality. If this footage had been edited for television it would have been given a sense of smoothness and narrative coherence, the manufactured intensity of "eyewitness news." But Perfect Film reveals such coherence as an artificial process, a trivializing of the event, aimed at producing a piece of easily digestible information. And this homogenized product would eliminate all the rough edges, the awkward clumsiness of events that speak so eloquently in the unedited version. It is through the uncontrolled moments, the glitches and inarticulate statements, that life appears in Perfect Film. These rough spots also reveal the seams in the constructed veneer of reality that most often covers our screens. Jacobs shows us how to begin to take that apparent coherence apart. By picking at the scabs, he both releases vitality and uncovers rot.

I am not sure that every viewer placed before Perfect Film would understand it in this way. And this is why its identity as a Jacobs film plays a key role. It is as though all of Jacobs's previous films teach us to see Perfect Film, training us to watch the moving image while remaining alert to the contingent and marginal, to subtexts popping out from behind the apparent subject matter. Jacobs not only found the film itself; he allows us to find many things within it. He abdicates the position of all-powerful creator, maker, fashioner of images, to assume that of witness, observer, investigator, and ultimately analyst. His contribution to the film lies in the fact that we have seen his microscope, uncovering what is concealed and paying attention to what is generally ignored.

Perfect Film is, according to Jacobs, perfectly revealing. And all Jacobs has to do is present it to us, having previously made us realize the need to re-center our viewing of images, to be alert for the action in the margins, to watch for the seams in the construction. In this way Jacobs reveals the perfection of film itself, its unique contribution to the arts—the ability to capture the unconscious by penetrating the disguises of the conscious. Perfect Film reveals things that the people on camera never intended to reveal. At the same time it also reveals things that the original cameramen (whoever they were) did not intend. In fact, the whole issue of intention becomes irrelevant. In uncovering meanings that were never intended to be revealed, Jacobs enters an uncanny dimension of the cinema akin to psychoanalysis. Perfect Film is cinema before secondary revision, before a rational sense has been imposed on the chaos of the image. Jacobs's role as filmmaker is not that of a demiurge fashioning a world in his own image. Rather, like a trained analyst, he stays in the background, mutely allowing the secrets to reveal themselves.

III. The Paradox of The Nervous System: Space, Time, and Image

Our taverns and our metropolitan streets, our offices and furnished rooms, our railroad stations and our factories appeared to have us locked up hopelessly. Then came the film, and burst this prison-world asunder by the dynamite of the tenth of a second, so that now, in the midst of its far-flung ruins and debris, we calmly and adventurously go travelling.

—Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction"

Mayakovsky's going to play a solo

On a flute made of his backbone.

—Vladimir Mayakovsky,

"The Backbone Flute"

Writing 50 years ago, Walter Benjamin declared that cinema shared with psychoanalysis an ability to probe into realms of reality of which we were not previously conscious. The true power of cinema, one rarely tapped by the mainstream commercial cinema, lies in its exploration of an optical-conscious. Perfect Film does this so effortlessly, partly because the intensity of the historical event raises it to an unusual transparency. Jacobs's role as analyst is rarely so simple. More often he uses the basic tools of his filmmaking to fracture the overwhelming familiarity of the moving image, blocking our most ingrained visual habits so that something else could take place.

Freud discovered he could help his patients make sense of their dreams only when he re-presented the seemingly familiar but opaque dream to them cut up in pieces, isolating its elements from their apparent coherence. Jacobs also usually begins by breaking up some basic element of film continuity. In The Doctor's Dream he detours the onrush of narrative by systematically reworking the order of the film's shots. Instead of the original film's linear progress to resolution, Jacobs begins with the middle of the film and then alternates shots, one group moving toward the beginning of the film, the other toward the end. This does more than simply undermine the film's narrative flow. In true psychoanalytic fashion it unleashes currents of energy present, but disguised, in the film's original story: the sexual attraction between the country doctor and his moppet patient.

But Jacob's most systematic and challenging transformation of our relation to the film image comes in the series of performances he calls The Nervous System. In the past decade, this ever-expanding group of works has absorbed most of Jacobs's filmmaking energy. These works are as vital and challenging as anything done in the history of avant-garde film. Their relative neglect comes partly from the exigencies of their presentation (they are literally performances—Jacobs must be present and operate the apparatus; therefore, unlike most films, they have no existence as canned goods), and partly from the intense offensive they mount against our viewing habits.

Jacobs's apparatus here is not the film camera, but the projector. The projection apparatus Jacobs has devised is complex and is basically his own invention. Simply stated, it consists of two analytical projectors which can show the film frame by frame, or freeze it immobile on the screen. Each projector shows an identical print. Jacobs then controls the film's advance (or retreat) frame by frame, the two images getting slightly (usually no more than one frame) out of synch. A specially devised adjustable shutter in front of the projectors controls the relation between the images, at points keeping them separate, at other points overlapping them in a variety of durations. The shutter also creates a range of flicker effects and can even shape the projector light. Additional effects come from a platform that allows the projector to move slightly side to side, up and down, back and forth, and even tilt a bit. Operating the projectors himself at each performance, Jacobs plays on his apparatus like a musician. We watch the film unfold in retarded time, and process the slightly different images. By breaking the automatic whirr of 24 frames a second, Jacobs returns cinema to its prehistory in Marey and Muybridge's analysis of motion. But besides breaking down the illusion of motion, Jacobs also uncovers how dependent our sense of space in film is on this constant mechanical speed.

The slightly different film frames, diverted from an illusion of motion by the analytical projectors, begin to produce spatial illusions. It has long been known that film could produce an illusion of three dimensions by projecting two images whose deviation matches that of a human binocular vision. The use commercial cinema made of this is the gimmick of 3-D movies with lions leaping from the screen. In mainstream movies, 3-D has remained a fad that has never found a permanent place, but whose occasional resurfacing indicates some primal fascination on the part of film viewers. The projection arrangements of The Nervous System paradoxically produces an effect similar to 3-D movies, the deviation produced by motion between two film frames substituting for the binocular parallax (Jacobs uses Polaroid lenses for some of his performances, and in others relies simply on the mind's power to process the images by itself). Jacobs is the only major filmmaker to consistently mine the untapped potential of 3-D illusion on the screen.

But if The Nervous System undermines the common 24 frames per second seamless illusion of motion on which almost all cinema depends, it never becomes a series of static images. The possibility of motion haunts these trembling images, and Jacobs uncovers a range of illusions of motion in the interstices of film frames. Not only is the moment of transition in human gestures or the sweep of nature agonizingly prolonged and probed, the miracle of transformation from still to motion takes place before our eyes. The Nervous System overcomes Zeno's paradox as motion is built up out of infinitely small increments. Further, manipulations of shutter and projector position often create truly paradoxical experiences of motion as the screen itself seems to rotate slightly or its surface becomes convulsed by a sudden ripple. These images flow and ebb before us, inviting us into their depths or looming out from the screen to meet us. The trajectory of motion pauses, reverses itself, breaks down and reconstitutes itself. Here, after nearly a century, are true motion pictures in which motion is never taken for granted but continually encountered in a flux and reflux of perception.

Jacobs's 3-D movies rarely aim at a lifelike illusion (although a few films, such as Globe, do invoke it in an ironic fashion). The Nervous System performances don't even use films originally shot in 3-D. Instead Jacobs creates a strange vacillating illusion of three dimensions through his projection process. Rather than being subjected to an illusion we watch the perceptual process itself evolve. A strange trembling image takes shape before us, seeming always on the verge of breaking into motion, or transforming into a steady three-dimensional illusion. But it hesitates, shivering before us, and seems to break down into the basic units of time and motion, space and objects.

The Nervous System plays on our nervous system. Jacobs not only operates his analytical projectors, he also hooks into our most primal processes of perception. Our basic ability to perceive figure and ground, movement out of stillness, to synthesize space and time are played with, as though we were hotwired to the screen. Space, motion, time, and imagery dance before us, eternally breaking apart and coming together. The Nervous System makes great demands on its audience. It focuses our awareness on processes that are usually unconscious, on our own mental contribution to the images on the screen, synthesizing frames into motion and patterns of light and shadow into space. Never has the position of the film spectator been so perilous, the sutures holding the subject/viewer to the screen so radically unstitched.

Jacobs opens a window on to perception and calls into question the coherence of our position as viewers and masters of vision. The effect is both exhilarating and frightening. In becoming aware of our role in making the moving image we also realize the power the apparatus has over us. I have never watched a Nervous System performance without the vertiginous sensation that I was teetering out of control on the brink of some primal threshold. One begins to synthesize spaces that make no sense (the moments in all the films when foreground and background seem to change places), and to envision images that aren't truly there (the monstrous faces that seem to materialize in the flames of the "wall of death" stunt that opens The Whole Shebang).

This process of breaking down the film image into its basic elements (which Jacobs first explored in Tom Tom The Piper's Son through frame-by-frame projection and rephotography, combined with magnification of the image down to its grain) coheres with the central concerns of modernist painting. Jacobs began as a painter in the era of abstract expressionism, and both cubism and the ideas of his teacher Hans Hofman exert a strong influence on the push/pull of space in the Nervous System works. But as important as modernist painting is as an inspiration (and, for those confused by Jacobs's films, as a sort of guide to the perceptual play he invites), the cinematic apparatus remains central. Jacobs never simply undermines the filmic illusion in order to reach a sort of neutral material. He is always making movies, dealing with the intricacies of illusion even as he unmasks them.

Likewise, although these performances uncover essential structures beneath film viewing, they are merely abstract. Specific images anchor our experience, whether it is the marching American colonial troops in The Philippines Adventure or the spurt of orgasm in XCXHXEXRXRXIXEXSX. At the same time as he probes the illusion of the moving image, Jacobs uses his apparatus to investigate this record of human behavior. These films never rest on the level of phenomenal play but become profoundly historical works, aware not only of the celluloid surface of the original films, but of their place in history and culture as well. As with Perfect Film the events these films record are reclaimed by Jacobs's method, liberated from structures that were often meant to obscure them. In The Philippines Adventure, for instance, the official handshakes between American presidents and representatives of the Filipino people are revealed by The Nervous System as predatory gestures, their essential aggression unmasked by the fracturing of motion.

IV. The Ultimate Paradox: Telling Time

Time is a river that sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger which destroys me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire.

—Jorge Luis Borges, "A New Refutation of Time"

The only thing that begins by reflecting itself is history. And this fold, this furrow, is the Jew.

—Jacques Derrida, "Edmund Jabes and the Question of the Book"

While Jacobs derives inspiration from the push/pull of modernist painting, the dimensions of movement continuously propel him into the realm of movies and into a confrontation with the most essential yet slippery property of film—time. While the linear trajectory of narrative seems to exhaust the range of times available to commercial cinema, Jacobs offers a full temporal menu. The Nervous System performances, in their hesitation and prolonged stutter between frames, frequently evoke a time struck in the groove, a nightmare of endless repetition. As if freeing themselves from some metaphysical mud, the figures in a Nervous System piece often seem caught in the cycles of the same motion. But in the midst of this repetition one begins to sense the moment of change as the returning flow of time becomes palpable. We skate on the intervals between moments, experiencing time's weight and its release as never before.

Equally important, Jacobs occasionally celebrates an empty, "sitting around" time captured so eloquently in his Little Stabs at Happiness, made up of 100-foot rolls as they came out of the camera. Jacobs once evoked in conversation the image of a cave family sitting around on a rainy Stone Age day peering out into the drizzle as the type of essential human time history so often loses track of. While commercial movies seem designed to evoke anxious expectations of an oncoming ending, Jacobs hopes to tune his viewers into the richness of the times that lie between. A moment that promises neither climax nor delay, but that possesses its own weight and presence, provides a utopian image of happiness in a number of Jacobs films.

But time in Jacobs's films also involves a complex transaction between the immediate present moment of watching and the distanced past of the film image itself. Nearly every Jacobs film displays its pastness, whether by the actual marks of wear on the print (scratches and dirt particles on the original material play complex and paradoxical roles in the three-dimensional illusions of the Nervous System films), or the sense of history they capture. As the Nervous System pieces and Tom Tom The Piper's Son demonstrate, time can be taken apart, our whole perception of it altered, but it cannot be ignored. Jacobs lacks the romantic's thirst for eternity, and his films constitute a recurring critique of the attempts to deny time. Rather than a liberation, denying the many dimensions of time (or restricting it to only one) becomes an act of oppression.

What Marey (a scientist seeking timeless principles and hoping to wrest a system from the apparent randomness of motion) could foresee about moving pictures was their eventual role as the memory of the 20th century. The relation between cinema and memory stands at the center of Jacobs's films and asserts its final paradox. Jacobs is well aware that cinema can be the enemy of memory as much as its embodiment. This paradox is ancient. Plato in The Phaedrus repeated the legend that when Thoth introduced writing as a boon to memory, he was rebuked by the king of Egypt, who recognized that, in fact, writing would bring forgetfulness, since men would now rely on the written reminder and neglect the living memory within them. In the 20th century the deluge of photographic images has deadened our ability to see, and the constant imaging of the past threatens our experiences of memory at the root. Things are filmed and recorded in order to be forgotten.

But where danger is, there grows salvation also. Jacobs realizes that these images of the past need not serve only as inert matter, or as totalizing versions of the past. Unlike the written text, film images may be interrogated, not only to reveal their falsity, but to unearth their hidden truth as well. Jacobs crawls inside the images he finds, and reveals that the camera really did catch it all—provided we know where and how to look. Psychoanalysis too, involves an art of memory, the excavation of those things not only forgotten but repressed from consciousness. In both Freud and Jacobs the process of recovery never regains the full embodied presence that commercial cinema seems to deliver, but a fragmented story and a consciousness of loss. With this acknowledgment of loss the past becomes part of our conscious history, and the wounds of time are acknowledged, if not healed. The past exists only in remnants.

Jacobs once characterized his role as filmmaker as a dealer in remnants. He jokingly (seriously) described it as part of his ethnic heritage, becoming a retailer of other people's discards, recycling the garbage of the culture. Jacobs's wit here cuts in several directions. Referring most obviously to his use of found footage, this invocation of his Jewish identity resonates with multiple meanings. Forced into the peripheries of society, Jews have always found unexpected uses for those things the culture did not value. From the Orchard Street merchant in fabric remnants, to the turn-of-the-century Jewish immigrants who invested in the disreputable movie business, to Sigmund Freud's valuing of the discards of conscious life (dreams and slips of the tongue), the Jew has survived by converting the marginal into the essential.

But for Jacobs remnants primarily speak of time. Remnants are the remains, what is left over, what has survived in a marginal state. Remnants are the traces of time past, of events passed on, the crumbs from the feast. But like the trickster in Jewish legend who makes soup from a stone, Jacobs understands the feast that can be made on what others discard. It is a feast to which he invites us all, freely. And so let us sit and eat. But be sure you have good teeth.

Many of the ideas in this essay grew from four-way conversations between Kenneth and Florence Jacobs, David Schwartz, and myself. However, I alone deserve any blame for their development, which may not represent Jacobs's view of his films. The title for this retrospective, "Films That Tell Time," which I have borrowed for the title of my article, comes from Jacobs. 


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Perfect Film, by Ken Jacobs
Photo Gallery: Films That Tell Time


February 6-8, 2009 The Nervous Art of Ken Jacobs


Tom Gunning is a professor in the Department of Art History and the Chair of the Committee on Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Chicago.

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