Found in the crowd: Ken Jacobs's Urban Peasants



One of the peasants
  • One of the "peasants"
If you missed Ken Jacobs's stunning Seeking the Monkey King when it played at the Onion City Film Festival in June, this weekend offers another chance to catch some of the filmmaker's work on a big screen. Urban Peasants, an hour-long piece that Jacobs first presented in 1975, screens Sunday at 7 PM at Cinema Borealis (1550 N. Milwaukee) as part of a program titled "Home Movies and the Avant-Garde," which was curated by the Northwest Chicago Film Society and Chicago Film Archives. Jacobs is one of the country's most important living experimental filmmakers; his work conveys bottomless curiosity about American history and cinema's formal properties—often both at once. As Fred Camper wrote in the Reader of Tom, Tom the Piper's Son (1969), the director's celebrated reconfiguration of a 1905 short film, "Jacobs teaches us how to resee almost any film, by mentally reframing its images or changing the speed of its action."

Urban Peasants is meant to be run at 18 frames per second—about three-quarters the speed of normal film projection—to the effect of giving the appropriated home-movie footage a dreamlike, underwater quality. It contains some other superb visual effects, such as when the film flares into frames of pure white or when Jacobs strings together several shaky handheld shots from different sources, making the 1930s Brooklyn settings seem galvanic and ever-evolving. Yet what registers most powerfully are the images themselves. Taken from the personal collection of Stella Weiss, the aunt of Jacobs's wife Flo, the footage centers on religious celebrations, regular family get-togethers, and exterior shots of the neighborhood where Weiss's extended family lived. The jittery motion renders the excavation of the past giddy, even exciting, yet Jacobs subverts these sentiments by emphasizing his distance from the material. The film is silent and structured in such a way that you can't relate to any of the faces as you would characters. One focuses on rituals, street corners, interior design; to watch it is to feel as much like an ethnographer as a movie spectator.

These images come from a crucial point in the history of American Jewry, when the first American-born generation began to work its way out of poverty and into the lower middle class. Their connection to old-world life remained strong, however, as Jacobs explained in his original notes for Urban Peasants: "The [film's] title is no put-down but a simple statement of fact, as I see it. Brooklyn was a place made up of many little villages; a near-shtetl is pictured here all in the space of a storefront."

By framing this milieu as old-world and rural—rather than American and urban, as the subjects probably would have—Jacobs acknowledges the feelings of alienation that come with assimilating into secular life. Adding to the movie's bittersweet tone are excerpts from an old record teaching practical Yiddish phrases, meant to be played over a blank screen, that bookend the silent images. Crucially, the record is an English-to-Yiddish translation, suggesting a return to the past. Also telling is that the section played at the start concerns phrases one would use when staying in a hotel, while the latter is titled "What to Do When You're in Trouble." The final sentences that Jacobs includes so perfectly encapsulate the movie's themes of discovery, nostalgia, and lost optimism that it would be a shame to give them away here.

Flo and Ken Jacobs in their son Azazels Mommas Man (2008)
  • Flo and Ken Jacobs in their son Azazel's Momma's Man (2008)

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