You can never step in the same river twice, and apparently, you can never deconstruct a vintage film snippet in the exact same manner twice, either. Of course, Tom, Tom the Piper’s Son, Ken Jacobs’s 1969 feature that turned a 1905 Biograph Studios short inside out, isn’t a “crime”; patience-testing, maybe, but certainly not an offense against humanity. Yet the avant-garde filmmaker had indeed returned to the scene, and he’s found new elements to be mined and manipulated. Context, in the form of the William Hogarth etching that inspired this fairy tale’s set design, is provided for comparison; an intertitle informing us that “God gives Little Billy his instructions” suddenly lends an innocuous figure in the crowd a profound existential weight (divinity is literally in the details). Meanwhile, a host of zooms, stutter edits, strobe-light effects and selective color coding continues Jacobs’s reel-world expansion of Walter Benjamin and John Berger’s ways of seeing art in the age of mechanical reproduction.
Yes, it’s heady stuff, and those who’ve already tuned out while reading this probably won’t find epiphanies in Jacobs’s rewiring of viewer perception. But as with most of his work, the contemplative rigor Return brings to concepts of imagery and technology yields rewards if you’re willing to work for them. The countdown to version 3.0 begins now.