Tightly knit and momentarily coherent within its own perimeter, the Lower East Side nevertheless represented an experiment in collective rootlessness, a brief transcendence over nationhood by a people that had not been able to become a nation. It was a provincial world with universalist values.
– Irving Howe (1)

I was a rootless cosmopolitan.
– Ken Jacobs (2)

If Ken Jacobs’ self-guided apprenticeship in 16mm filmmaking had followed one of postwar experimental cinema’s most commonly traced patterns of development, he would have begun his career by purchasing or borrowing a Bolex camera.  He considered doing so around 1954, after having evaluated the Paillard-Bolex company’s H-16 model, a camera still widely viewed today as a delicate and dynamic instrument.  Jacobs understood that the Bolex was small enough to be propelled through space in a variety of ways, and that it provided, through functions such as variable speed control, single-frame exposure mode, and variable shutter, a diverse set of options for in-camera image modification. (3) Learning to use a Bolex in a sophisticated manner had become a rite of passage for American experimental filmmakers by the early fifties, but Jacobs took a comparative view of its capabilities, for he was also weighing the benefits of the far less popular (and more expensive) Bell & Howell newsreel and combat camera.


The Bell & Howell “Filmo” camera has been described by the filmmaker as “a chunk of metal that pushed film through,” an unwieldy apparatus that traded intricate functionality for impact absorption and the capacity to film under arduous conditions. (4) It also required relatively little user maintenance.  To Jacobs, the Bolex looked “like an exquisite piece of machinery that could not take the sort of guerrilla filming that I saw myself entering into.”  Selecting the Bell & Howell Filmo meant having to “walk around with this very, very heavy sardine can that could do one thing only, but supposedly…keep doing that, in the midst of battle.”  The combat camera seemed more appropriate for the urban environment of New York City, which he sought to explore and depict in a semi-documentary fashion.

The act of selecting a camera involved Jacobs in a set of perceived problems that went beyond the merely practical. On the one hand, he was intrigued by the Bolex’s ability to shape the look of a film and facilitate a filmmaker’s nuanced responses to the visible world. On the other hand, Jacobs wanted to simply “record,” minimizing his “intrusion into what existed,” and he viewed the more functionally limited Filmo as the one that might impel him to document without embellishment.

If we consider that Jacobs has also recalled that he “wanted to go out and capture things, to confront the world with [the camera],” his ideas about his early filmmaking method can be said to have coalesced around a combination of the following elements: minimal intrusiveness, stylistically restrained documentation, and camera-mediated confrontation.  Ideally, the first two elements would convincingly generate, for viewers, the effect of glimpsing fragments of the everyday and the vernacular. Yet the third suggests the possibility of moving in another direction, beyond the screen as window onto an urban world and toward an acknowledgment of the impact of his camera on the space being filmed.  Since Jacobs preferred to achieve the latter effect without relying on overtly virtuosic camerawork, the simplicity of the Bell & Howell won him over.  Armed with his new Filmo, he spent the better part of a year shooting Orchard Street (1955). (5)

My brief account of the filmmaker’s selection process is intended to refine a more general point: Jacobs has attempted to negotiate, since the earliest stages of his practice, the terms by which he could simultaneously represent the visible surface of city life and assert his responsive “presence” within it.  This impulse prompted the production of Jacobs’ Orchard Street, the Lower East Side film that is the main subject of this essay.  Orchard Street presents the typical outdoor activities of what the filmmaker has called a “primitive mall,” located within a downtown ethnic enclave that was still, in the fifties, “very, very Jewish.” (6) In what follows, I indicate how Jacobs’ status as insider and outsider, often maintained simultaneously within different cultures that co-exist in urban spaces, informs his earliest film.  Since his place within experimental film has received extensive commentary, my emphasis is on the relatively neglected subject of his Jewish identity. (7) This introductory article offers one possible entry point into a discussion about the significance for his oeuvre of questions of Jewish community and identity, as they have been posed within the culture of his hometown.


The Lower East Side that Jacobs wanted to depict in the mid-fifties was already a world that seemed to him to be vanishing, and his view was not an uncommon one, given that the extended departure of Jewish immigrants from the area had already been underway for forty years.  Once recognized as one of the most densely populated places in the world, the Lower East Side lost over half of its Jewish population after 1910, first to the outer boroughs and later to the suburbs of the northeast. (8) For Jacobs, who was born in 1933, the decline was gradual enough that his youth in neighbourhoods such as Williamsburg was still marked by geographical proximity and spatial cohabitation. The street was an open community centre, and this contributed to what anthropologist Riv-Ellen Prell calls a “spatial Judaism,” one that served as

the key trope of Jewish life before and shortly after World War II in the United States…Jews were Jews because of where they lived.  Jews lived their lives in urban streets, air, and public spaces.  Even stores that catered to Jewish needs became a version of a Jewish civic square.  These neighbourhoods took on meaning as important ‘places,’ but in effect what was most significant about them was the shared space they created. (9)

Prell goes on to claim that, in certain urban neighbourhoods, “what defined the Jewishness of the area was the dominance of Jews,” not “self-conscious choices, membership, or necessary activity.”  Her timeline covers the years of Jacobs’ childhood and adolescence (spent mostly in Brooklyn’s Jewish enclaves), and irrespective of how broadly applicable Prell’s generalizations might be, her notion of a Jewish identity that is secular, urban, and accepting of diversity is one that aligns closely with Jacobs’ own self-characterizations. (10) For Jacobs’ generation, a Judaism of shared spaces and cultural heterogeneity could be experienced as a liberation from the trappings of formal religious affiliation. It could also appear to affirm the binding power of either a common ethnicity or the urban environment itself.


Orchard could still be represented as a street where the concentrated commingling of urban denizens was an ongoing activity, a refuge from distant sites of devastation in Europe and the Soviet Union.  The street’s density is visible in the film’s opening image, a brief, high-angle long shot taken at a peak hour of crowded sidewalks. Surrounding the slowly-moving throngs of shoppers are automobiles, apartment and shop windows, store signs of various sizes, and tenement fire escapes.  This first view of Orchard is followed by a close-up of a hand jiggling a small toy (a pink bird figurine in a cage), which begins a series of short close-ups and medium shots of vendors holding up colourful items for sale.  After six shots and approximately thirteen seconds, the vendor sequence is cut off by another overhead shot of buildings and pedestrians, filmed from a closer vantage point and running slightly longer than the opening image. Thus, the first twenty seconds of the film briefly establish the locale as heavily populated, before quickly delving into eye-level representations of Orchard’s overpopulated milieu. The views of tiny toys vying for shoppers’ attention introduce the film’s motif of presenting small-scale details of an intriguing or curious nature (or with utterly common, ordinary qualities that are rendered interesting by Jacobs’ framing and cutting). Such moments appear unpredictably throughout a dynamic and diverse selection of shots that seems designed to convey the community’s vitality.

At times, a different type of montage sequence in Orchard Street suggests the possibility of another kind of film, an ordered inventory of the constituent elements of the street, perhaps patterned after the film’s opening sequence of vendors. (11) Such overtly presentational moments present sequential clusters of similar objects, such as painted store signs and handwritten prices, or actions, including children playing and people eating.  These are only brief intimations of a classificatory approach, however, and one can locate many other shots in the film which, despite their formal or representational similarities, have not been neatly placed within sequences based in visual affinities. Contrasting Jacobs’ more orderly arrays, then, are motifs that are more widely dispersed throughout the film. Attentive viewers may notice, for example, the recurring images of peddlers holding up their wares for the camera, reflections on shop and car windows, and older women standing before outdoor bins, appraising the goods for sale.  Since the film’s interrelated shots are only rarely juxtaposed in direct sequential relation to each other, and since many shots end abruptly (often during a gesture and not after its completion), the editing style of Orchard Street might feel spontaneous and subjectively motivated to some viewers.  Rapid transformation, whether occurring repeatedly within single shot compositions or across chains of shots, can have the effect of keeping viewers alert, as if the film were soliciting a milder analogue to the state of attentiveness often required by actual encounters with street life.

In its display of both clustered and scattered modes of organization, the film can be linked to its closest predecessor, the short by Helen Levitt, James Agee and Janice Loeb titled In the Street (released in 1952).  Shot in East Harlem and the Lower East Side in the mid-forties, In the Street does not distinguish between apparently similar neighbourhoods; rather, it links together the sidewalk activities of poor children.  As Juan Suárez points out, the film has “few completely disconnected images or loose ends,” and its theme-and-variation strategies resemble those employed in music:

Almost every shot can be related to others that play a formal or thematic variation on it.  The film opens with a boy on a bicycle threading his way around traffic, moving left to right.  The next shot shows a baby in a stroller (another child on wheels); this time the vehicle is motionless but passerby move in the same direction as the boy in the previous shot.  And later on, there is a take of a car with a child riding on the rear bumper and moving in the same direction as the boy on the bike.  The links between these shots are graphic and thematic. (12)


Jacobs frequently introduces Orchard Street by mentioning the influence of In the Street on his early sensibilities as a filmmaker, and the earlier film’s reliance on “graphic and thematic” links can be discerned in his opening vendor sequence, which begins a close-up/medium-shot pair that is inverted in the next two shots: we see a hand holding a toy in close-up, followed by a medium shot of the vendor holding it, followed by a cut to a medium shot of another vendor holding a different toy, which in turn is followed by a close-up of that toy.  Later shots pick up on some of the stylistic and representational elements in this opening, creating points of connection that often appear unexpectedly throughout the course of his film.

Notwithstanding its carefully ordered montage structure, In the Street can feel unpredictable and spontaneous, an effect that affirmed Jacobs’ view that “films didn’t have to be arty or airless.” (13) In statements on the “nasty overstuffed clogged and airless American fifties,” he has written that he saw a need for “art film in the vernacular,” deliberately “sketchy, airy, anti-precious, without a lot of geniusing at the audience,” (14) and since In the Street possessed those qualities, he assumed that they were the result of filmmaking objectives that matched with his own desire to simply “record” street scenes and position himself as unobtrusively as possible within the filmed urban environment.  For In the Street, the appearance of unnoticed observation was famously created using a winkelsucher, a “right-angle periscopic attachment” that allowed the lens to capture that which was perpendicular to the camera – usually, subjects unaware that they were being filmed. (15) Jacobs had no such device at his disposal when filming on Orchard, but given the high amount of pedestrian traffic in the area, the presence of his camera does not appear to have impeded residents, shoppers, and vendors from going about their normal activities.  Yet, despite Jacobs’ stated motivation of trying “to get Orchard Street, without commenting on it,” his chosen methods of exploration and documentation demonstrate that he recognized that he was more than an invisible recording medium. (16) As his account of purchasing a camera suggests, a strong impulse to confront the urban scene went hand in hand, perhaps paradoxically, with a pursuit of detachment and unobtrusiveness.

If an apparent conceptual contradiction lay in Jacobs’ views, it could be easily circumvented in practice by alternating between different approaches.  Early in the film, Jacobs includes a long shot of a vendor, seen from behind as he leans over his ice cream cart, in a composition that allows us to see not only his relaxed body language but also the streams of pedestrians he is casually observing.  This is followed by a surprising reversal of position in a medium shot: the vendor maintains the same pose but now appears to be looking at the camera, wearing what appears to be a blank, vaguely benign expression.  The next image is a medium close-up of the same vendor, still looking in the direction of the camera, still fairly inscrutable.  The three shots last a total of about eight seconds, long enough to be noticed and remembered as a direct encounter between filmmaker and subject.  Preceding and following the sequence are more shots in which street life proceeds in apparent ignorance of or disregard for Jacobs’ camera.  At another moment, one also marked by converging looks, a young woman walks past the camera, smiling as she watches it pan to follow her.  The inclusion of reciprocated looks in Orchard Street preserves the anonymity of the street’s cohabitants – they remain inaccessible to us in many ways, despite their isolation within the frame – while, at the same time, mitigating this effect by registering the specificity of a body or a gesture, often for a slightly longer moment in time than the majority of the film’s brief, fragmented images.


When Jacobs presents individual responses to his presence, his film shifts from a voyeuristic approach to filming, of the sort he had associated with In the Street, to a more interventionist mode, realized most vividly for him in a shot from Weegee’s New York (1954), a film he had seen at a Cinema 16 screening. (17) According to Jacobs’ recollection of the shot, a pan executed by the photographer traverses an enormous weekend crowd on the beach at Coney Island, and his camera movement is acknowledged and hailed by the lively beachgoers being filmed. (18) There are no large masses of people addressing the camera in Orchard Street, but Jacobs’ film does show a small number of individuals meeting his mediated gaze.  Such confrontations place Jacobs within the street scene as a member of the crowd and an observer standing apart from it, a removed but engaged participant whose camera does, at times, “intrude.”

The simultaneously proximate and distanced position the filmmaker assumes within the film is also signaled by his visual aesthetic, which avoids adherence to the conventions of documentary reportage in order to follow the lead, so to speak, of his impulses and sensibilities.  The film’s visuals are unmistakably unified by their ties to a particular place, but they also demonstrate that the camera can do more than provide information because it is capable of altering and intensifying aspects of the city’s visual panorama. In many shots, the filmmaker seems to be either looking away from the crowd or beyond its behavior, in order to explore the play of light, shadow, and colour visible in a particular location. Faces are often covered by shadows, for example, allowing other surface textures and colours (richly enhanced by Kodachrome film stock) to become significant objects of attention within his compositions.  Low angle framing renders architectural facades unfamiliar at first sight, foregrounding their material properties and geometric outlines.  Idiosyncratic cropping removes the larger contexts for close-ups of body parts and objects, bringing their tactile qualities to the fore.  Through techniques such as these, the film suggests the abundant assortment of visual phenomena available to those who choose to look carefully at Orchard’s streetscapes, while also presenting shots that seem to highlight the filmmaker’s personal perspective.  When exploring the camera’s ability to convert the profilmic world into a visual artifact, Jacobs is demonstrating his early interest in the production of a visually distinctive cinema based in the specialized vision of the filmmaker.  In this sense, he stands apart from the masses of the street – and the ethnic community with which he can be identified – in order to see differently, following the dictates of his own subjectivity.


The Lower East Side, where a “logic of space” had facilitated cosmopolitan identity formation, was rapidly being transformed demographically, architecturally, and culturally by the mid-fifties.  As a consequence of the clearing of slums and the construction of new public housing, city blocks slated for government rebuilding “remained unoccupied for years,” and “new ‘island communities’ were imposed by governmental decisions.” (19) Also, in contrast to the growing Latino population in New York, the number of Jews “declined rather steeply from 1957 to 1970, showing a loss of almost 900,000, or about 42 percent,” according to one account. (20) By the time these shifts in residential patterns were underway, Jacobs had already moved from one enclave to another (leaving his extended family in Williamsburg for the Lower East Side), but not in order to seek out the comforts of Jewish provincialism. Rather, he saw himself as becoming more deeply involved in the type of cosmopolitanism that could accept both ethnic collectivism and cultural diversity, and it was the Lower East Side of the fifties that seemed to offer this in conjunction with an acceptance of artistically-oriented, “bohemian” identities.

During this period, Jewish migration into suburbia reflected the rise of values that Jacobs did not share.  He was not alone in viewing this development as an indicator of a loss of heterogeneity within collectivity: the relatively diverse national origins of Jewish immigrants had influenced the image of the urban neighbourhood, but outside of the city, Jews appeared to have succumbed to a culture of conformism.  Critics of the suburbanization of Jewish life argued that it was a retreat into institutionally sanctioned affiliation, symbolized most prominently by synagogue membership. (21) By 1972, one Jewish scholar would conclude from such developments that

“The Jewish [urban] neighborhood per se seems to have little symbolic, or even actual, significance for its residents…There is little feeling for the area itself, and hence no overwhelming desire to preserve it from decay.” (22)

For others, the passing of an extended moment of intensified communal activity, based in the shared occupation of urban space and a sense of ethnic connectedness, was simply an indication of what happens “in a megacity where impersonal patterns are so dominating,” where the integrative basis for any group’s urban character or identity can always be threatened by shifts in municipal policy. (23)

Some of Jacobs’ post-Orchard work can be interpreted as contributing his own critique of such developments and, more broadly, of “the moral anonymity of modern society itself.” (24) In an experimental feature titled The Sky Socialist (1964-65), for example, Jacobs positions mute, symbolic characters (such as “a miraculously spared Anne Frank,” Russian emigre author Isadore Lhevinne, “Nazi Mentality,” and “The Muse of Cinema”) in downtown locales near the Brooklyn Bridge, urban zones rarely seen in the cinema. (25) Because The Sky Socialist explores different compositional approaches to the public spaces of lower Manhattan, he indicates in his program notes for the film that “the setting is at least of as much concern as the story,” and he goes on to mention that the area was “the first home I’d known since early childhood,” one that “the profiteers of ‘urban renewal’ were bulldozing…away along with 200 years of New York history.” (26) The latter statement, along with the film’s allusions to the Holocaust and cultures of exile, are all of a piece, insofar as they belong to the  prominent strain of cultural critique within Jacobs’ practice, wherein the persistence of loss, exile, and displacement is taken to be as much a contemporary condition as a historical one.  By the end of the seventies, Jacobs declares in a live performance, “I think that the Jew today hardly exists except when considered as such by others,” thereby suggesting that Jews have become so self-alienated that they no longer set the terms by which their identities can be understood. (27)


Political and cultural critiques have been evident in Jacobs’ work since the earliest versions of his long feature Star Spangled to Death (shot between 1957 and 1959 but not completed until 2004), but they are asserted with varying degrees of discursive explicitness.  In the case of New York Ghetto Fishmarket 1903, for example, a work that began as a dual-projector film performance (1993) and can now be seen as a digital video (2007), its imagery – found footage of the Hester Street market that thrived during the peak years of the Lower East Side’s Jewish ghetto – was first presented sans commentary, with no direct references to the rich cultural history he has been exploring for decades.  Employing variable-motion and flicker effects, the filmmaker presents his viewers an assortment of details from a bustling scene, reanimating images of individuals in crowd and small clusters of people within the larger mass. (28) The work suggests the weight of history through the material traces of time on the filmstrip and through a red-hued sequence with darker emotional overtones.  During the latter, “a vision of the catastrophic historical trajectory of Eastern European Jewry is wedged into the proceedings,” in the words of Paul Arthur; “skin seems to melt from bone” and “tortured postures are frozen in a Goya-esque tableau of mass murder.” (29) Thus, while it can be said that this work, like Orchard Street, reflects an impulse to generate visual representations of the vitality of Lower East Side culture, it differs insofar as it alludes, indirectly yet expressively, to the catastrophes of Jewish history.

The later, video version of New York Ghetto Fishmarket 1903 includes a series of intertitles written by the filmmaker that were not part of the film-performance versions of the work.  The text discusses Jacobs’ personal biography, along with a few of the topics raised in this essay.  Rather than reiterate those points, however, I quote from the opening lines of Jacobs’ text, in order to periodize Orchard Street once more and to suggest how he responds to changing political realities after Orchard:

Why be pre-occupied with death and destruction? distract yourself. Hillary Clinton or John McCain won’t turn America around. Better that you turn your attention to a long abstract film and escape for a while this shamefully failing state. NEW YORK GHETTO FISHMARKET 1903 could be Your Ticket to Better Times for two hours, maybe your last. (30)

Addressing his audience at the outset of a work that seeks to retrieve the visible vestiges of a past Jewish culture, Jacobs implies pessimistic worldview, yet with characteristic black humour he also offers his manipulated moving images as a temporary respite. In doing so, the filmmaker endorses another kind of secular congregation, located not on urban pavements or the floor of a political convention centre, but rather inside the movie theatre.

A key feature of life on Orchard and Hester Streets was shared experience, and at an early moment in his artistic development, Jacobs recognized that the cinema offered versions of this on a daily basis, at places like Cinema 16 and the Museum of Modern Art.  By the sixties, he was founding and participating in film institutions such as Millennium Film Workshop, and by decade’s end, he had embarked upon an extensive exploration of moving image performance, a mode of practice that allowed him to link his cinema more directly to the presence of live audience.  Returning to Orchard Street, then, we can view it as a film belonging to a long period of transition: it is a cinematic representation of the type of Jewish neighbourhood Jacobs was no longer living in, made for moviegoers not unified enough to form what would later become a vital experimental film scene. (31) His second, adopted community obviously could not compensate for the loss of the first, nor did it function as an antidote to existential malaise or political disillusionment. Yet it has consistently offered, with every screening, at least the possibility of a meaningful gathering, one that is “momentarily coherent within its own perimeter,” to borrow a phrase from my opening epigraph about the Lower East Side.  In the cinema, as in the street, Jacobs has sought to overcome, however fleetingly, a sense of alienation from history and community. As this article has sought to show, a rarely-screened short shot on the Lower East Side lies at the initiation of that search, and it helps us to place Jacobs at a historical intersection, marked by a matrix of changing ethnic, urban, and cinematic cultures.


  1. Irving Howe, “The Lower East Side: Symbol and Fact,” The Lower East Side: Portal to American Life (1870-1924), ed. Allon Schoener (New York: The Jewish Museum, 1966), p. 11.
  2. Harry Kreisler, “Film and the Creation of Mind: Conversation with Ken Jacobs, film artist” (interview dated October 14, 1999),  http://globetrotter.berkeley.edu/people/Jacobs/jacobs-con1.html (last accessed: September 1, 2010).
  3. For an introduction to the significance of the Bolex camera within the history of postwar American experimental film, see Carlos Bustamante, “The Bolex Motion Picture Camera,” Moving Images: From Edison to the Webcam, eds. John Fullerton and Astrid Söderbergh Widding (Sydney, Australia: John Libbey & Company, 2000).
  4. Ken Jacobs, interview with the author, New York City, July 26, 2001.  All quotations in this paragraph and the next are taken from this interview.
  5. The making of Orchard Street was preceded by earlier attempts at making films about other subjects, which included New York City’s pigeons, its elevated trains, and its architectural reliefs and sculptures. All were abandoned, in part because they required Jacobs to take public transit, which he could not afford.
  6. Michelle Dent, Ken Jacobs, and Brian Price, “An Interview with Ken Jacobs” (dated March 24, 2003), http://www.culturalsociety.org/texts/q-a/an-interview-with-ken-jacobs/ (last accessed: September 1, 2010).
  7. For another treatment of this topic, see Jeffrey Skoller’s analysis of Jacobs’ Urban Peasants (1975), in his book Shadows, Specters, Shards: Making History in Avant-Garde Film (Minneapolis, MN: U of Minnesota P, 2005), pp. 52-60.
  8. Christopher Mele, Selling the Lower East Side: Culture, Real Estate, and Resistance in New York City (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2000), pp. 81-83.
  9. Riv-Ellen Prell, “Community and the Discourse of Elegy: The Postwar Suburban Debate,” Imagining the American Jewish Community, ed. Jack Wertheimer (Lebanon, NH: UP of New England/Brandeis UP, 2007), p. 70. Jews were carrying out, in the words of Eli Lederhendler, a range of activities (“political, cultural, and civic”) that evoked the “affirmative qualities…of particularity, attachment, and involvement: abstract names for participatory patterns of behaviour.”  Lederhendler, New York Jews and the Decline of Urban Ethnicity, 1950-1970 (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse UP, 2001), p. 31.
  10. Accounts that complement Prell’s can be found in Lederhendler, New York Jews and the Decline of Urban Ethnicity, and in Deborah Dash Moore, At Home in America: Second Generation New York Jews (New York: Columbia UP, 1981).
  11. Within such sequences, Orchard Street resembles the type of city film that Paul Arthur refers to as the “catalogue.”  Jacobs’ film also includes elements of two other types mentioned by Arthur, the “tour” and the “microcosm.”  See Paul Arthur, “The Redemption of the City,” A Line of Sight: American Avant-Garde Film Since 1965 (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2005), p. 50.
  12. Juan A. Suárez, Pop Modernism: Noise and the Reinvention of the Everyday (Urbana and Chicago: Illinois UP, 2007), p. 238.
  13. Ken Jacobs, public presentation, American Museum of the Moving Image, New York City, November 10, 2001.
  14. Ken Jacobs, “Program Notes,” in Films That Tell Time: A Ken Jacobs Retrospective, ed. David Schwartz (Astoria, New York: American Museum of the Moving Image, 1989), p. 17.
  15. Roy Arden, “Useless Reportage: Notes on Helen Levitt’s In the Street,” Afterall 6 (Autumn/Winter 2002). See also Cecile Starr, “Helen Levitt, Film Maker,” Center Quarterly 24 (Summer 1985).
  16. Scott MacDonald, “Ken and Flo Jacobs,” A Critical Cinema 3: Interviews with Independent Filmmakers (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), p. 366.
  17. Scott MacDonald, Cinema 16: Documents Toward a History of the Film Society (Philadelphia: Temple UP, 2002), pp. 19-20.  Weegee’s New York was shot by Arther Fellig (Weegee) and edited by Amos Vogel.
  18. This shot does not appear in the particular print of Weegee’s New York (owned by San Francisco State University) that I have seen. It is possible that Jacobs saw a different, earlier version in the mid-1950s.
  19. Mele, p. 118.
  20. Lederhendler, p. 149. For an account of the relevance of an increasingly Latino Lower East Side for sixties underground film culture, see Juan A. Suárez, “The Puerto Rican Lower East Side and the Queer Underground,” Grey Room 28 (Summer 2008).
  21. Prell, “Community and the Discourse of Elegy: The Postwar Suburban Debate,” p. 69.
  22. Marshall Sklare, “Jews, Ethnics, and the American City,” Commentary 53:4 (April 1972), p. 77.
  23. Lederhendler, p. 203.
  24. Lederhendler, p. 41.  Lederhendler argues that the broader, moral issue was taken up with increasing frequency, beginning in the fifties, by Jewish intellectuals.
  25. For an analysis of the allegorical dimension of The Sky Socialist, see David E. James, “The Sky Socialist: Film as an Instrument of Thought, Cinema as an Augury of Redemption,” Optic Antics: The Cinema of Ken Jacobs, eds. Michele Pierson, David E. James, and Paul Arthur (New York: Oxford UP, 2011), 64-88.
  26. Ken Jacobs, program notes, Visions from New York: Films from the 1960’s Underground, American Museum of the Moving Image (November 18, 2000), p. 2.
  27. Ken Jacobs, “Ken Jacobs” (transcript of the March 11, 1979 performance of Stick to Your Carpentry and You Won’t Get Nailed), Cinemanews 79: 2-3-4 (1979), p. 13.
  28. Unlike the fleeting representations of another scene of commerce in the much shorter Orchard Street, Fishmarket makes use of image retardation techniques that grant the “sociological details of clothing, gesture, hairstyle, and so on…a vivid cultural specificity far exceeding their impact in ‘real time’ projection.” Paul Arthur, “The Redemption of the City,” p. 59.  A film that merits comparing with Orchard Street and Fishmarket is Ernie Gehr’s Untitled (Part One) (1981). Like Jacobs’ films, it is also informed by a fascination with the externally-visible behavioural patterns of New York ethnic street life.
  29. Paul Arthur, “The Redemption of the City,” p. 59.
  30. Jacobs calls the video abstract, but he actually alternates between delving into the filmic artifact’s representational richness and using its recognizable images to generate various types of visual abstractions.
  31. In Jacobs’ view, this scene began to come together in the early sixties at the downtown cinema called the Charles Theatre.  Also, as many others have noted, it also coalesced around the figure of Jonas Mekas, a filmmaker whose work addresses a number of the themes of community and displacement I have discussed here, but from the perspective of a European émigré. Coincidentally, Mekas was living on Orchard Street when he saw a longer version of Jacobs’ film at a party (probably its first “public” screening). For Jacobs’ account of this event, see Scott MacDonald, “Ken and Flo Jacobs,” pp. 365-6. For more on the Charles, see J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum, Midnight Movies (New York: Da Capo Press, 1991), pp. 39-44.

About The Author

Federico Windhausen is a film scholar whose research areas include Latin American cinema (with an emphasis on Argentina) and experimental practices in film, video, and new media. He also programs other people's films and makes his own. His writing has been published in journals such as October, Hitchcock Annual, Grey Room, and Millennium Film Journal. His essays can also be found in Cinephilia: Movies, Love and Memory (2005), Art and The Moving Image: A CriticalReader (2008), Optic Antics: The Cinema of Ken Jacobs (2011). He is currently writing a monograph on Paul Sharits.

Related Posts