Ken Jacobs Biography


Ken Jacobs was born May 25th, 1933 in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. His family background was that of a broken home, with a father who didn't care about him, and a mother who passed away when he was seven. His childhood life could be characterized, as he would call it, " Disastrous but typical, bequeathing me a social disgust and anger that I have cultivated, refined, monumentalized, and I am gagging on." His grim childhood had taught him to be a stronger person on the outside.

Aside from his early childhood difficulties, at the age of sixteen he had the opportunity to go to the Museum of Modern Art. There, he took a keen interest in various filmmakers, which then inspired him to write some of his own movie scripts. Also, he developed a love for art and painting. He attended the high school of Industrial Arts and often visited the film screenings at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

He served at the US Coast Guard. In 1955 he continued to study painting in New York, and in 1956 he studied with Hans Hoffmann.

Also in 1956 he befriended the filmmaker Jack Smith and began to work on his first films and first attempts in Silhouette Theater. In 1956, Jacobs put together a film called Orchard Street. Over the next couple of years, with the help of fellow filmmaker and classmate Jack Smith, his work was finally acknowledged. Smith, being a hopeful actor, starred in Jacob's film Blonde Cobra as well as a few other films.

He founded the Millennium Film Workshop in New York. He then taught film studies at St. Johns University. In 1969 he founded the film department at the State University of New York in Binghamton together with Larry Gottheim. From 1971 to the present he has been professor of film in Binghamton. In 1986 he was a guest of the DAAD (Berlin Artist's Program). In 1996 his work was shown in a comprehensive film retrospective in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Currently, his best-known films are his Nervous System Performances.

--John M. Bartruff Jr., 2000


After his mother's death Jacobs and his father drifted apart when his father failed to realize his dream of making in to Major League Baseball following a back problem (UC Berkeley Interview, p.1). At this point in his life Jacobs decided to look at other ways for happiness.

At the age of sixteen Jacobs visited the Museum of Modern Art. At the museum one day he found his way down to the basement. It was here that he discovered a separate theatre that showed some of his role models "like Chaplin and Langdon" (Interview, p.2). It was also here that Jacobs observed such things as French avant-garde films of the twenties and American comedies (Interview, p.2). Jacobs would go on to state, "Observing these films was an enveloping atmosphere. It became worlds for me". It was at this point that Jacobs knew he wanted to look further into avant-garde film studies.

Some time later Ken found himself in the Coast Guard. When he left the Coast Guard he had saved enough money to buy his first camera and also take some film classes at the City College of New York (Interview, p.3). In 1956 Jacobs started to study film with Hans Hoffman (Interview, p.3). It was at this time that Jacobs started to take an interest in painting. Jacobs appreciated painting because "time seems to stand still in that one single image of the painting" (Interview, p.3). However Jacobs eventually decided to stick with film because "film just dominated in ways that painting did not "(Interview, p.3). After his days of education Jacobs would then go out into the world and do his own films.

In 1956 Jacobs would meet filmmaker Jack Smith and begin a friendship that would lead Jacobs into his first films (Brakhage, p.55). In the span from 1956-59 Jacobs would work with Smith in making Orchard Street and Blonde Cobra. However several years later that friendship would turn sour after many arguments. It was after these films that "filmmakers started to acknowledge my work as an avant-garde filmmaker" (Interview, p.4).

Jacobs would go on to make many more films in his life. His most famous films are called his "Nervous System" films (Interview, p.5). These films were done by taking existing films and turning them into something with different meaning. Jacobs goes on to say, "I enjoy mining existing film. Seeing what film remembers, what it misses when it clocks by at normal speed. It tells us stories and much more" (Interview, p.6). This is essentially what Jacobs' films are all about. He continually takes films and "mines" into them to see what points have been missed and what can be changed. Jacobs also states that, "Hopefully my viewers get many, many different kinds of experiences, but essentially wakefulness and consciousness are the most important things they get from my films" (Interview, p.6).

Some years later Jacobs founded the Millennium Film Workshop in New York (Brakhage, p.58). He was also essential in the founding of the film department at the State University of New York (Brakhage, p.61). Presently Jacobs continues to teach film at the State University of New York in Binghampton (Brakhage, p.62).

--Mark Fijalkowski, 2001.


Ken Jacobs was born on May 25th, 1933 in Brooklyn, New York. He lived in Williamsburgh for some time, then he moved to Flatbush, then Long Island, then back to Williamsburgh, then finally to Manhattan. Through moving to many different places in New York City, he experienced many different subcultures of the city, which helped influence his work later in life. Jacobs's parents were divorced and his mother died when he was very young. It was then that he moved in with his father, a professional Baseball Player who was injured and no longer able to play. His childhood was very difficult for him. His father worked a lot and was at times a hard person to live with. His somewhat difficult childhood made him a stronger person in the end and helped motivate him in his filmmaking. (Berkley interview, part 1)

When Jacobs was young he had the opportunity to visit the Museum of Modern Art, in New York. This was a defining experience in Ken's life. It was after that when he decided that he would like to be a filmmaker. Ken was always interested in art, but it was after one of his visits to the Museum that he narrowed his interest down to film. He often visited the basement of the museum to watch old films. He would watch old Chaplin and Langdon films, which would be some of the films that inspired him to write films of his own. (Berkley Interview, part 1)

Sometime after he finished High School, Jacobs went into the Coast Guard. After the Coast Guard, he bought his first camera. For some time, he toyed with the idea of becoming a painter. He was very influenced by Hans Hoffman and his earlier trips to the Museum of Modern Art. Hoffman offered art classes for free that Jacobs happily took. (Berkley interview, parts 1 and 2)

Jacobs has made many films throughout his time. The work that he is most known for is The Nervous System Performances, and it has been said that it has to be seen to be believed. Ken described part of the technical magic that went behind this film in an interview at Berkley College with Harry Kreisler. He said: "Well, I usually take short lengths of film and pore over them, or pour into them. Dig into them. So it's mining. And I'm looking for things that literally you just don't see when it zips by at 24 frames per second, normal sound speed. Film is a relation of frame to frame to frame, and I am also declaring relations of one frame with another frame. I want to see what can be done between those two frames and then, maybe frame A and frame B, and then frame B frame C. Okay? It definitely is a dig. What I'm after, of course, is vital, interesting, amusing, crazy-making stuff. (Berkley interview, page 3) The Nervous system Performances are still showed all over the world at Film Festivals.

Some other films that Ken has made that are of equal importance are; New York ghetto fish market 1903 (1992), The marriage of heaven and hell (A Flicker of Life) (1995), Star Spangled to Death (1957), and A Good Night for the Movies (II): 4th of July by Charles Ives by Ken Jacobs (1972).

--Sarah Johnson, 2003


Ken Jacobs