L’Arrivée: Lumieres and after…

Thurs, Oct. 13 at 7:30pm; Artists Television Access; 992 Valencia Street in San Francisco

Featured Film—Ken Jacobs’ Opening the Nineteenth Century: 1896

commentary by Federico Windhausen

more info here / advance tickets here

It has been said that, in the 1960s, the films of the Lumière brothers held a distinct appeal for “underground” filmmakers who were reacting against the contemporary media landscape. Resisting both an industrial mode of film production that had become exceedingly pervasive and a sphere of electronic information flow said to be moving toward sensorial and cognitive saturation, experimental filmmakers embraced a body of early short films that seemed, by comparison, quite simple and direct. According to film scholar Scott MacDonald, the “widespread idealization” of these basic qualities gave “the Lumières’ single-shot, extended views of what seemed to be the everyday realities of 1895-96” a heightened value, and a seemingly antiquated model of filmic practice came to be recuperated as “a useful alternative.”[1]

Useful alternatives to dominant cultural trends abound in the San Francisco Cinematheque’s upcoming program of Lumière-inspired films and videos, but given that the selection is decidedly post-sixties, viewers should not expect to find much that could be characterized as an idealized cinema of simplicity. Rather, Cinematheque’s sampling demonstrates how the Lumières’ films have been appropriated into a diverse range of projects over the past four decades. Within one area of engagement, filmmakers and video artists have responded to shorts such as Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory (1895) by exploring how capitalist labor is represented onscreen. Within another, the perceptual complexity of early cinema is teased out through visual alterations of the original footage. Here, I will introduce the latter practice, by focusing on one film from the Cinematheque’s program, Ken Jacobs’ 11-minute Opening the Nineteenth Century: 1896 (1989/1990).

Jacobs’ film is a reworking of footage shot by Lumière cameramen, primarily on trains and boats in Paris, Venice and Cairo. The film is divided into two parts, with the sequence of eight shots that comprises the first part appearing in reverse order in the second part. Some of the shots have been flipped upside-down, in order to generate the same direction of onscreen movement throughout each of the two sequences. In the first sequence, the objects enter on the left side of the screen and exit screen right; in the second sequence, the shots have been flipped horizontally so that onscreen movement runs from right to left. To these modifications, Jacobs has added the requirement that each viewer must hold a dark grey filter over the right eye during the first sequence and switch to filtering the left eye for the second sequence. A 3-D effect is created when the filtered eye and the direction of onscreen movement correspond (if the objects move toward the left, for example, it is the left eye that must be filtered).

This phenomenon is referred to in perceptual psychology as the Pulfrich Pendulum Effect (involving the use of a filter to make a pendulum movement, swinging in a straight line across the axis of vision, look elliptical), and according to Jacobs, he first discovered it in the 1960s when he used a pair of $1 “See TV in 3-D” glasses to watch a ticker-tape parade on his black-and-white television set. What he soon came to understand was that the signals being received by the filtered eye are processed more slowly than the signals that reach the uncovered eye; this mismatch in time, between images that are seen by the naked eye and those that are delayed using the filter, can be exploited to produce depth effects. As Jacobs describes it, “It becomes possible to offer the mind, simultaneously, two distinct but related views of a scene. Complete stereopsis becomes possible, convincing 3-D, true-to-life or anything-but according to how the two information bundles relate.”[2]

Jacobs first deployed the Pulfrich effect in his film Globe (1969), which is made up of traveling shots of snowy, suburban Binghamton, New York (along with side A of an unintentionally humorous sexology record titled The Way To Become The Sensuous Woman By “J”). Because Globe is a color film, it does not push its matrix of flatness and depth effects to the extremes found in the black-and-white footage of his later Pulfrich-filter films. But it shares with Opening the Nineteenth Century an array of wintry landscapes where snow can appear as empty or negative space, around or within which solid forms appear, sometimes hovering, sometimes firmly embedded. In the more high-contrast Lumière shots, sky and snow become white voids, against which darker objects take on a more starkly three-dimensional quality.

Opening the Nineteenth Century is full of intricate visual “events,” as Jacobs tends to call them, but before I say more about them, I should point out that this film is probably made more enjoyable by the element of visual surprise. Some readers may prefer to come back to this text after having experienced the film “blind,” so to speak. For the rest of you, I will mention a few of the moments and patterns that struck me as especially notable after repeated viewings.

At times, the film’s images are difficult to recognize, as when a particular upside-down shot—of flat, nondescript building facades, for example—first appears. Encountering residential streets and waterside scenes that have been reoriented according to a different sense of gravity, viewers may discover that they are sensing depth effects before becoming fully conscious of what is being represented onscreen. When depth effects are combined with limpidly photorealistic surfaces, the distant vistas of 1896 can “open up” for viewers, producing visual experiences akin to what some call haptic (or touch-based) seeing.

The film’s imagery becomes especially flat when the camera is passing walls and fences that appear to scroll in from one side of the screen. When this scrolling-in effect (reminiscent of 19th-century moving panoramas) is combined with the pronounced presence of a clear horizon line, it can seem as if the world is rushing into the frame in a continuous, linear movement. Throughout Opening the Nineteenth Century, apparently simple traveling shots yield visual variety. The deep space of a French hillside or the banks of the Nile might draw the eye toward background buildings or trees, until the sudden appearance of a a parallel train or a boat brings the foreground into sharp relief. In contrast to earlier shots that present a camera moving across a scene on an x-axis, one shot activates the z-axis, constructing a recessional depth that is made more prominent by a long row of vertical columns outlined by their shadows. Such columns, as well as lamp posts and fishing boat masts, counterbalance the graphic motif of horizontal elements in the frame. Extreme close-ups of the sides of trains produce almost entirely dark images, followed soon afterward by images of train windows and bodies of water that become especially vivid with the aid of the filter.

The production methods of the Lumière cameramen may seem simple and direct to some, but as Opening the Nineteenth Century: 1896 makes apparent, early cinema can be as perceptually complex and visually dense as the most carefully worked-over images of contemporary experimental film and video.  This is a view of film history that Jacobs has sought to convey to audiences since his earliest performances of Tom Tom the Pipers Son in the late 1960s.

I should reiterate, as a final note, that Opening the Nineteenth Century represents merely one current running through the Cinematheque’s program. Find your own way through all of them on Thursday night.

—Federico Windhausen


[1] Scott MacDonald, The Garden in the Machine: A Field Guide to Independent Films about Place (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), p. 230.

[2] Ken Jacobs, untitled film notes, distributed during the retrospective titled “Wrong Turn Into Adventure: The Film-Performance Art of Ken Jacobs,” Museum of Modern Art, September 1996, n.p.