“One Man Goofing: A visit with legendary Zen humorist Henry Jacobs” by Joel Rose (Arthur, 2007)

This article was originally published in Arthur No. 26 (2007), alongside an appreciation of Henry Jacobs’ The Fine Art of Goofing Off by artist/filmmaker Mike Mills. With the very welcome news that a) a new Henry Jacobs release is on the way, and b) the extremely highly recommended The Wide Weird World Of Henry Jacobs/The Fine Art Of Goofing Off cd/ & dvd set is finally back in print, we thought it was time to brush off the dust from this piece and offer it online for the first time. Here goes…

One Man Goofing: A visit with legendary Zen humorist Henry Jacobs
by Joel Rose

Once a week, Henry Jacobs drives to a community center near his house in Marin County, California to play ping-pong with his neighbors. But it’s ping-pong with a twist: Jacobs, a natural righty, insists on playing with his left hand. “I don’t know if I’m as good,” he says. “But I sure have a lot more fun, because I can surprise myself. With my right hand, I never surprise myself.”

The 82-year-old Jacobs has been playing left-handed ping-pong every Monday night for the last seven years. At first, he says, the neighbors were skeptical. But they’ve gradually come around and started playing with their off-hands, too. Jacobs recently started filming interviews with his fellow left-handed ping-pong players for a documentary. “I envision it mainly for the Third World,” he says, and for a second it’s hard to tell whether he’s joking or serious. “The motive is to try to clean up the rather ugly image [of Americans] in the last 50 years or so,” culminating with the present conflict in Iraq. Jacobs says he wants to offer an alternative view of American culture, and ping-pong is the perfect vehicle because of its popularity around the world. “The economics of it are pretty basic. A paddle which you could make out of banana leaf or whatever,” he deadpans. “It’s not about wiping out the planet. It’s about a simple activity called ping-pong.”

Jacobs sees the new documentary—which doesn’t yet have a title—as a kind of sequel to The Fine Art of Goofing Off, the series of animated television programs he worked on in the early 1970s. He says he’s filmed eight or nine interviews so far. Instead of shooting them head on, Jacobs had his subjects invent tasks to perform. (“One guy is fixing an electric lamp. Another guy is diddling around with some paintings.”) The point, says Jacobs, is they’re involved in what they’re doing, even while they’re talking out loud about ping-pong. “They’re not forced keep trying to remember all the points they wanted to make,” says Jacobs. “They can stop talking and get the screw-driver in the right place. It takes the pressure off to constantly be producing something useful and intelligent.”

And of course, “all this will be edited mercilessly. So you’ll only get little pieces of anything.” This, says Jacobs, was point of The Fine Art of Goofing Off: “Never do something so long as to bore someone.”

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Jordan Belson – 5 Essential Films on DVD

“Jordan Belson is one of the greatest artists of visual music. Belson creates lush vibrant experiences of exquisite color and dynamic abstract phenomena evoking sacred celestial experiences.” (William Moritz)

Features:

1. “Allures” (1961). An early masterpiece of Non-Objective Cinema.

“I think of Allures as a combination of molecular structures and astronomical events mixed with subconscious and subjective phenomena – all happening simultaneously. the beginning is almost purely sensual, the end perhaps totally nonmaterial. It seems to move from matter to spirit in some way.”

“…it took a year and a half to make, pieced together in thousands of different ways….Allures actually developed out of images I was working with in the Vortex Concerts.” (Jordan Belson, quoted in Expanded Cinema by Gene Youngblood, p. 160-162).

The soundtrack is a collaboration with Henry Jacobs. Allures was preserved with the support of the National Film Preservation Foundation.

2. “Samadhi” (1967) evokes the ecstatic state achieved by the meditator where individual consciousness merges with the Universal.

“I hoped that somehow the film could actually provide a taste of what the real experience of samadhi might be like.” (from Scott MacDonald’s interview with Belson in A Critical Cinema 3).

Belson adds “It is primarily an abstract cinematic work of art inspired by Yoga and Buddhism. Not a description or explanation of Samadhi.”

3. “Light” (1973) is based on the continuity of the electromagnetic spectrum. It is a ride through space and light. This is the last film for which Belson composed his own soundtrack. This film was preserved with the support of the National Film Preservation Foundation.

4. “Fountain of Dreams” (1984) – never before released. A bold synchronization to the Transcendental music of Franz Liszt.

5. “Epilogue” (2005).

By way of a pure Visual Music experience, the Hirshhorn Museum (Smithsonian Institution) commissioned a major new work from abstract film artist Jordan Belson, who distilled 60 years of visionary sound and images into a twelve minute videofilm, synchronized to a symphonic tone poem “Isle of the Dead” by the great lyric composer Sergei Rachmaninoff. Produced by Center for Visual Music, with support from the NASA Art Program. Epilogue was installed in the Visual Music exhibition at the Hirshhorn, Washington, D.C., June – September, 2005.