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Ken Jacobs

Ken Jacobs: Educator, innovator, filmmaker

Film director and Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Cinema Ken Jacobs returned to Harpur College in April to screen his latest films for faculty and students.

His new film, “Seeking the Monkey King,” premiered at the New York Film Festival’s Views from the Avant-Garde program, and a new book out about his work, Optic Antics, includes essays by prominent film scholars along with photographs and personal pieces from artists and critics.

In 1969, Jacobs held a guest seminar at Harpur College that lasted a week. Students petitioned to hire him as a full time-professor. He was hired and, along with Larry Gottheim, organized the Department of Cinema at Harpur College. He has remained involved with Binghamton University since his retirement in 2002, returning to Binghamton in 2005 to show his film Star Spangled to Death.

At the April screening, Jacobs spoke about teaching at Harpur College, addressing the popular slogan, “Those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach.” Rejecting the premise, he talked of loving being able to teach at Binghamton, and at other schools, while trying to make films as well.

“What is an independent filmmaker supposed to do? Continue the tradition of starvation?” he asked the audience.

Turning more serious, he told the audience that by teaching he was able to test new ideas and work, and also learn from his interaction with bright students and colleagues.

Originally interested in painting Publication pays tribute to Gaddis Rose Ken Jacobs: Educator, innovator, filmmaker before moving on to cinema, Jacobs’ focus in many of his newer experimental films is the idea of two dimensions versus three. He shoots many of his films with a 3D camera, which makes it possible to show videos that can be viewed in 3D without glasses.

In addition to “Seeking the Monkey King,” he screened three other films the night he was in Binghamton. The first, “Street Vendor,” was six minutes long and the entire film was one sweeping shot of a street vendor’s cart. The second film was another short piece with footage of swirling ocean water called “The Green Wave.” The third film, “Ronald Gonzalez, Sculptor,” was filmed in 2009. Gonzalez, a professor of art at Binghamton and a friend of Jacobs, took part in the film screenings.

Vincent Grenier, a professor of cinema, introduced Jacobs at the screenings and considered them a success.

“The enthusiasm of a great number of students in the audience, particularly in regard to the screening of ‘Seeking the Monkey King,’ was palpable and it was confirmed the next day in my classes,” Grenier says. “One of Ken’s strengths has always been his ability to discern and articulate, often with great eloquence, layered critiques of the works he either taught or responded to, as in the case of colleagues’ or the students’ own films or videos. That is something that often impressed many of his students who could be heard even many years later saying that Ken Jacobs had been one of their most inspiring teachers.”

Grenier also admires Jacobs’ artistic ability in his own work: “His own work has had a tendency to be didactic but also convey a sense of discovery, with a keen interest in making whole what is overlooked or frowned upon.”

— Irene Bunnell

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Last Updated: 3/1/17