By Michael Sicinski
Ordinarily when one is tasked to compose an obituary for a public figure, the writer can assume that the reader has some basic familiarity with the subject. This lends itself to a particular approach, which usually entails an expression of the subject’s significance to his or her field, some historical context for their achievements, and an overall reminder of the enduring value of their work. In the case of experimental filmmaker Jim Jennings, who died on May 19th, some of these assumptions are frustratingly inapplicable.
Even within the rarefied world of avant-garde film, Jennings’ work still has not received the exposure and acclaim it deserves. This should change since, through the efforts of his wife Karen Treanor, a team of young archivists, and Mark Toscano of AMPAS, Jennings’ work is being preserved and restored. At this point, most of Jennings’ films can be streamed at jimjenningsfilm.com, a website maintained by Treanor that, in addition to the films, includes examples of Jennings’ acclaimed still photography, drawings, and paintings, along with valuable historical documents and data.
To all outside appearances, Jennings seemed poised to take his place as one of the most important filmmakers of the era. A one-time student of Ernie Gehr, an early associate of Richard Foreman—he performed in the Ontological-Hysteric Theater’s production of Vertical Mobility in 1974—and a fixture in the New York avant-garde scene around Jonas Mekas and Ken Jacobs, Jennings was clearly in the right place at the right time, and spent five decades making work of enviable consistency. While one can compare Jennings’ ’70s films to his work from the ’90s and 2000s, it is possible to discern certain shifts in focus and preoccupation. But his exquisite, jazzy formalism and sensitivity to the bustle of the city streets was in place virtually from the start. Jennings started and finished strong, his keen eye unerringly abetted by a lithe, almost sculptural handheld shooting style. His Bolex molded the urban environment like clay, treating architectural reality like a jazz chart, lending shape to his joyous improvised solos.
So why, at this late date, does Jim Jennings remain what Andrew Sarris called a “subject for further research?” It’s difficult to say, but it might’ve been a matter of temperament. Jennings was a contemporary of filmmakers like Nathaniel Dorsky and Phil Solomon, filmmakers who eventually achieved broad success (relatively speaking) that Jennings did not. Unlike those film artists, Jennings didn’t openly theorize about the nature of the medium, or deliberately situate his films within the overall master-narrative of experimental cinema. Although he was universally regarded as a master by his peers, and supported throughout his career by prominent programmers like Mark McElhatten, Steve Anker, and Andréa Picard, Jennings was a bit of an introvert, and in no way given to self-promotion. In fact, throughout most of his artistic career, Jennings maintained his day job as a master plumber in New York City, owning and managing his own firm, incorporated under the revealing company name Time Mechanicals. According to Treanor, Jennings often brought his Bolex along with him so he could shoot street footage while he was caught in traffic between jobs.
It’s possible to perceive this ambiance of waiting, noticing, “killing time,” in Jennings’ best films. In his book The Practice of Everyday Life, French philosopher Michel de Certeau described the experience of walking in a city, noting that those in power, who planned the city in the first place, employed strategies to keep the citizenry in line. However, on the ground level, the individual was capable of discovering tactics, small subversions of the dominant order—shortcuts, byways, affective connections that remapped the metropolis in a personal, impermanent way. Jennings’ films seem to me to exemplify this tactical approach. It’s not just that he reconfigured the in-between times of urban travel, with its frustration and gridlock, into new opportunities for visual and environmental epiphany. In making these films, Jennings undermined the logic of capital itself, supplementing his days not with mindless escapism but spontaneous poiesis. Consider it: while someone in the car next to him was perhaps easing the irritations of the Manhattan commute by listening to Rush Limbaugh, Jennings was recording the underlying forms and structures of daily life, its diversity and surprise.
It’s this sense of the in-between, the freehandedness of Jennings’ films, that marks their significance while simultaneously displaying a humility that abjures ambitions toward “greatness” as typically understood. Over the years I had the chance to see many of Jennings’ newest films as part of group programs, in particular at the New York and Toronto film festivals. The films had a remarkable characteristic of improving the films shown before and after them, making gestural or tonal values more evident in the work of others. The consummate plumber, Jennings made connective films, works that articulate the intimate relations between and among things.
In his works of the late ’70s and ’80s, Jennings tended to focus quite explicitly on these non-spaces of the in between. Chambers, from 1978, examines the ceiling and turrets of a brick building from the 1920s, built to mimic the forms of Romanesque architecture. He treats the contours of the structure like a map, using his camera to trace the curves and helixes of the building with increasing intensity, finally resulting in a visual cursive that suggests the peaks and valleys of a rollercoaster. Clothesline (1977) and Counterpane (1979) treat the sky’s appearance between objects as the positive space, with wires bisecting the frame or the swooping corners and edges of walls realigning the “volume” between them.
In later works, Jennings adopted a playful minimalism, still focused on the apparent absence of solid forms. Painting the Town (1998) is a film mostly composed of darkness, with Jennings’ bobbing camerawork zeroing in on city lights that puncture the inky frame. Like Chambers, Painting the Town explores cinematography as a kind of spontaneous calligraphy, now reduced to the polarities of black and white. Miracle on 34th Street (2000) looks down instead of up, observing the intermingled shadows of pedestrians at high noon, the sidewalk a kind of analogue for the movie screen itself. (As I wrote at the time, Jennings takes us back to a moment before cinema, when the only projector was the sun itself.)
His works of the 2000s extended his basic method, but revealed a heightened focus and increased intimacy. Close Quarters (2005) may be Jennings’ greatest achievement, although it can be difficult to discern just what the film is doing without having some sense of the filmmaker’s larger project. It is a film made inside the home Jennings shared with Treanor and a cat, and in its preternatural subtlety it defines the essential meaning of domestic space. We see Treanor’s bare feet lying on a couch, and the cat’s jagged fur slicing a hard black form into the light streaming in from a window. But more significantly, Jennings returns to certain gestures familiar from his urban films. He provides close-ups of furniture, delineating the unobtrusive geometry of the home. But where Counterpane or Miracle discovered hard lines and edges, here we see the ragged fuzz of an old cushion, the fraying threads of a blanket, all visual distinctions softened and blurred. This is what it means to be home. Compare the haptic warmth of Close Quarters with the domestic interiors of Brakhage. The anxious ambivalence of Cat’s Cradle or Window Water Baby Moving (both 1959)—the desire to both settle into and flee the family fold—is utterly absent here. Instead, we sink into domestic space, its forms reaching out to meet us, in an organic embrace.
In certain ways, Jennings could be considered a formalist. At the heart of his films is an exploration of cinematic space and gesture, the way that a sudden pan or edit can reconfigure our understanding of the image. But often, formalism suggests a conceptual method in which the specific content of the image is secondary, if not irrelevant. Jennings’ films could not be further removed from that approach; each of his films displays great sensitivity to the profilmic event, particularly in his New York films. Although the filmmaker would probably have abjured such a description, these works present a casual form of urban sociology.
For example, compare Day Dream (2001) with Made in Chinatown (2006). The most obvious distinction between the two films is that the first is in black and white, the second in vibrant colour. But subtle differences in shot length and camera movement reveal Jennings’ impressions of what makes these locations unique. There is a grainy haze permeating Day Dream, shot in what Jennings referred to as “a nondescript New York neighbourhood,” the bright areas between buildings more luminous than the structures themselves. Made in Chinatown, by contrast, depicts a protean space, stretched and warped by reflected movement. In some respects Chinatown is Jennings’ most Dorsky-like film, focusing on how surfaces and light interact to produce fugitive events of shifting perspective. But the brevity of Jennings’ shots, and his brief, truncated lateral pans, are radically different from Dorsky’s still frames. Jennings’ camera drifts in Day Dream, working to discover underlying rhythms and impressions, as if trying to “wake up” the somnambulant life in front of it. But Made in Chinatown is record of sensory overload, a film whose form is defined the filmmaker’s cultural separation from the community, and his effort to remain alert to its surprises.
This anthropological openness is a defining feature of Jennings’ cinema, but it never feels didactic. Generally speaking, Jennings was not a political filmmaker. One senses from his films that he was more concerned with exploring the underlying relationships between things, exercising an ontology of seeing, than in making definitive statements about the way things should or should not be. An exception, although an exceedingly subtle one, was his 2007 film Public Domain. According to his program notes for the film’s premiere at the TIFF, Jennings made Public Domain in response to then-mayor Michael Bloomberg’s attempt to levy prohibitive costs on those seeking to film in New York City, an initiative that failed almost as spectacularly as his presidential campaign. In a sense, Jennings’ film is an ideal demonstration both of what would be lost if NYC imagery were restricted, and, perhaps more importantly, of how such a law would be virtually unenforceable, since a world of fleeting fugitive images exists beneath the radar, well below the ken of even the most intrepid “independent” filmmakers whose aspirations chain them to 35mm film crews.
There are compact formalist micro-dramas that characterize Public Domain’s overall montage, moments in which brief quotidian gestures are glanced, then shown either on their side or right side up, so as to emphasize both the pure movement within the frame and its human/geographical content. For example, when we see the distortion of buildings as reflected in the side of a moving bus, Jennings presents it twice or in some cases three times, with different orientations. In this way, we can quickly apprehend the patterns of abstraction Jennings has discovered, even as the subject matter retains its denotative connection to the life of the city. What’s more, within this overall orchestration (less city symphony than string quartet, a set of sharply articulated scherzo manoeuvers) Jennings seems to expand on the theme of the “public domain” of the unrestricted cinematic image, with moments that recall other great avant-garde films and filmmakers, an entire tradition that didn’t wait around for permits. We see Dorsky’s floating bag, the upended pedestrians of Gehr, and the grungy urban poetry of Jacobs and Jack Smith. Jagged moments in the editing, shuttling us from the pavement to the sky, recall certain moments in Warren Sonbert’s work. And yet, in terms of colour, lighting, tone, and pacing, everything is of a piece, and unmistakably organized by Jennings’ distinctive rhythms.
Despite the overt musicality of so many of Jennings’ films, nearly all of them were silent. One of his final completed works, 2012’s Watch the Closing Doors, in an exception in several respects. It was the filmmaker’s first and only digital work, shot on video with sync sound. It is an odd film, one that suggests a promising future grappling with a new medium, although Jennings returned to 16mm for his final two films. The easy grace of Jennings’ editing, his visual bebop that follows sudden shapes and forms before moving onto another theme, becomes unexpectedly jarring when applied to natural sound. The rustle of the subway, the chiming of the doors, and other ambient noises maintain a general sameness but vary in timbre from shot to shot, actively working against any sense of unity. It works better without sound, in the sense that it exhibits the qualities that defined Jennings’ best films. But then again, that might miss the point. Where other filmmakers of Jennings’ generation attempted to move into the digital realm with little disruption, he suggests with Closing Doors that there is no easy rapprochement between these two mediums. A final statement in certain respects, Jennings’ video says goodbye to a 20th-century aesthetic, and along with it, an entire way of seeing. The last train has indeed left the station.