Exploded View | Ken Jacobs’ Blonde Cobra

By Chuck Stephens.

“One ought not even touch a being like that.”

The Song of Bernadette (1943)

The secret title of this valediction is, “Watching a bootleg rip of a Blu-ray of Ken Jacobs’ 1963 Blonde Cobra with the subtitles on.” (The very prospect sounds like science fiction to these aging ears, yet here we are.) It’s a typically short scribble, a polluted dream of purity, this time about the greatest nunsploitation film of the American avant-garde, and as usual, it’ll all be over almost as soon as it begins. As P. Adams Sitney wrote in Visionary Film, “Jacobs insists upon the idea of a film as a dying organism throughout his works. Blonde Cobra breaks down before it can get started.” Sounds like a plan: let’s call the whole thing off. 

With his monumentally angular countenance and movie-star-bright pompadour, Jack Smith is the film’s “Blonde Cobra.” In it, he glows like Jennifer Jones on her Oscar-winning, beatific Bernadette sick-trip: frail, radiant, hysterical, asthmatic, inspired…innocent and utterly ravished. He appears (eventually) as Madame Nescience (“ignorance”), a visionary/seer/quack-fortune teller, her face etiolated with crumbling pancake, lounging about on an exfoliated sofa, “exuding effluviums from the musty past.” Soon, Nescience reappears, offscreen, in Smith’s increasingly fevered narration (intoned over a black screen), as a nun; actually, a Mother Superior. (“A mother’s wisdom has dragged me down to this!” Smith will ultimately declaim. “A crummy loft! A life of futility! Hunger! Despair!”) In her absent presence, the Reverend Sister oversees “an outbreak of lesbianism in the girls’ dormitory,” replete with sacred totems shoved into flaming desires (thus slotting the film into a continuum somewhere between Powell/Pressburger’s Black Narcissus and Suzuki Norifumi’s 1974 School of the Holy Beast). 

Smith’s transubstantiations are ongoing: having announced that “God is not dead, he’s just marvelously sick” (one of a series of meme-ready proclamations made against the stubbornnesses of Jacobs’ insistently black screen), Smith resurrects once more, now in tableaux which suggest future bits of Roeg/Cammell’s Performance (1970) and Fassbinder’s The American Soldier (1977) (dapper tough guys and muscle-men mags; a flash of silly violence providing the set-up to a sight gag about butt sex). A “Wipeout”-propulsive drumbeat drives things along, then doesn’t. Is that a cute bonnet or a pair of baby-doll panties on Smith’s head? Neither, neither, either, either. Fin, or begin again? What went wrong?

Paul Arthur described Blonde Cobra and Smith/Jacobs’ 1963 companion piece, Little Stabs at Happiness, as “do-it-yourself movie kits whose elements no sane viewer could ever assemble coherently. They resist our every effort at connection or expectation, yet, implausibly, they draw us into a lush world of dark liberties.” Dark indeed: God’s health notwithstanding, the film does pivot on shots of a graveyard and evince a suicidal telos, that desire to call the whole thing off. “Jack says I made it too heavy,” admitted Jacobs, who “composed” Blonde Cobra from footage Smith and filmmaker Bob Fleischner had shot (and abandoned) for a pair of “light monster-movie” comedies. “It’s a look in on an exploding life,” wrote Jacobs, “on a man of imagination suffering pre-fashionable Lower East Side deprivation and consumed with American ’50s, ’40s, ’30s disgust. Silly, self-pitying, guilt-strictured and yet triumphing—on one level—over the situation with style, because he’s unapologetically gifted, has a genius for courage, knows that a state of indignity can serve to show his character in sharpest relief. He carries on, states his presence for what it is. Does all he can to draw out our condemnation, testing our love for limits, enticing us into an absurd moral posture the better to dismiss us with a regal ‘screw-off.’”

Always already a fantasia of fits and starts, Blonde Cobra (available on Kino Lorber’s recent Ken Jacobs Collection Volume 1) gains additional and not entirely undelightful dysfunction with the subtitles turned on, if only in the discovery of the misprision of Gloria Swanson’s name as the exclamation, “Glorious, wasn’t it?” A dying organism, half-exalted if only half-remembered: it’s a legacy I’d happily endorse.  

chuck.stephens@cinema-scope.com Stephens Chuck