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TOM, TOM THE PIPER’S SON (director/writer: Ken Jacobs; cinematographer: Ken Jacobs; editor: Ken Jacobs; Runtime: 122; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Ken Jacobs; Ken Jacobs DVD; 1969-silent)

“It’s an experimental film with an appeal to a limited audience.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

NYC Abstract Expressionist painter turned experimental film director Ken Jacobs (“Razzle Dazzle”/”The Alps and the Jews”/”Star Spangled to Death“)playfully and reverently examines in great detail the crudely made 1905 silent one-reeler 10-minute short film originally produced by American Mutoscope and Biograph Company. It’s an extended chase film that’s loosely based on the celebrated nursery-rhyme of a pig-theft at a country fair. Jacobs’ signature piece film, a silent landmark of avant-garde cinema, is built around Hogarth’s etching Southwark Fairis. It’s about a boy named Tom, a worker at the fair, who stole a pig that he’s still carrying around by rope while those at the fair are chasing after him. The merry pursuers include street vendors, clowns, jugglers, acrobats, ladies in fancy dresses, pickpockets and other villagers.

Jacobs, after showing the original version straight, spends the rest of the film showing it so it’s incomprehensible, even showing it backwards, with no image coming through but the black and white colors, and also showing detailed close-ups that were previously not seen. By holding the film up to the light, it’s supposed to serve as a lesson on how to fully watch a film. The kicker comes when Jacobs shows the original in its entirety again at the conclusion and when the film is seen in a different light it makes it possible to see things not seen before.

I found it a grueling watch, much like doing detective work in a lab, but was cheered by its uncompromising and enthusiastic avant-garde approach to cinema. Let’s just say it’s not my cup of tea, but if you are the kind of adventurous film buff who is willing to try something so different, I think you will be rewarded with seeing a serious and worthwhile work on cinema. It’s an experimental film with an appeal to a limited audience: film buffs who are looking to find an alternative way of viewing film and who are willing to watch large chunks of the film as it’s shown blurred and with the frames out of place.

Jacobs wrote in a film-rental catalog that what he aimed to do was to ‘bring to the surface that multirhythmic collision-contesting of dark and light two-dimensional force-areas struggling edge to edge for identity of shape … to get into the amoebic grain pattern itself — a chemical dispersion pattern unique to each frame, each cold still … stirred to life by a successive 16-24 f.p.s. pattering on our retinas, the teeming energies elicited (the grains! the grains!) then collaborating, unknowingly and ironically, to form the always-poignant-because-always-past illusion.’ I guess if you got all that, you got what this film was about.

The film was admitted to the National Film Registry in 2007.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”