Originally published in Arthur No. 26 (Sept 2007), as a companion piece to Joel Rose’s profile of Henry Jacobs…
Red Goo, Paper Cut-Outs and Conscious Digressions: Mike Mills on HENRY JACOBS’ handmade absurdism
The Fine Art of Goofing Off
Three 30-minute episodes, 1971
Dir. Henry Jacobs
Available on The Weird World of Henry Jacobs DVD/CD (Important, 2004)
“Well, ‘goofing off’ is not really being what you’re really supposed to be doing.”
—boy’s voice in Episode 1
Each show begins with the same image: a gallon of paint thrown onto a black and white target. Red gooey paint, probably the worst tool for the job a target suggests—hitting the center and the center only, and all the competition, judgment, and evaluation therein. There’s no specificity, linearity, no ability to pierce—just thick gooey amorphous wrap-around-everything-non-solidness.
And so the game begins, The Fine Art of Goofing Off, or as I mistakenly remembered it “Taking Goofing Off Seriously.” Glad I’m not in charge of remembering, but there’s something to my mistake. Under all the home-made/hand-made qualities of the show, the claymation, construction paper cut-outs, the felt pen animation, and the rambling structure, under the constant humor and seeking of fun is a deceptively serious mission—to derail oneself from “what you’re supposed to be doing” (or as the genius of the kid mistakenly put it, “not being what you’re supposed to be doing”). Goofing off is the giving up of all things Western Civilization worked so hard to make soul crushing: progress, work, betterment of self, basing everything on the future and linear time and the always wanting that time to be faster and more convenient. Not to mention the primacy of the plot and drama at all costs in storytelling, the anything-less-than-success as shameful construct, and the sadness as failure feeling, and the exploitation of any and all substances you can gather to ease all the worries us European-descenters are so prone to.
Yes, this is what this kid show addresses. And this little confrontation was happening on public television, broadcast across the airwaves in 1971. It’s handmade absurdism was mixed in the airwaves with Nixon, the Vietnam war, with the Weather Underground bombing the U.S. Capitol in protest of the invasion of Laos, with Apollo 14 landing on the moon, with Willie Wonka’s theatrical release, with Evan Goolagong winning Wimbledon. The Fine Art of Goofing Off was pushing its gooey red paint into antennas, and the imaginations of children/adults.
We won’t dwell on how impossible this show would be now, but actually we will for just three small points: 1. The great contemporary tendency to protect children from everything would not allow something so “dangerous” and “adult” to be on the air. 2. Our cleaned-up “professionalized” visual culture would never allow so much felt-tip-pen animation out in the world. 3. The positivity-openheartedness-vulnerability expressed in this show would be mocked by most mainstream and counter-culture makers of today. Softness is so easily beaten-up. But this is a digression, and really, how scary is it to digress, to not know what you’re doing, or what’s going on, or what’s next, or worse, to not have anything next. But this is the space Goofing Off was trying to make, the rich and conscious digression from what we’re supposed to be doing.
The end of episode three has a thank you list which includes: Walt Disney, Sigmund Freud, Leonardo DaVinci, The Beatles, Ray Bradbury, Federico Fellini, Marcel Marceau, Rene Magritte, Dali, Picasso, Alfred E. Neuman, Krishnamurti, Marshall McLuhan, John and Yoko, D.T. Suzuki, Jacques Tati, Benito Mussolini, Oral Roberts, Buckminister Fuller, The Eames, Corita Kent, Charlie Chaplin, J.R.R. Tolkien. What a party that would be. And while this list is playfully implausible, part of the magic of the whole show, it’s funny to see how many of these people thought of a different world, or, our world differently. Freud, populizer of the unconscious as the real source of all our actions. Marceau, the mime that explained his art as “documentaries” of human behavior mirrored back to us so we can transform. Suzuki and Krishnamurti (still trying to finish those books). The utopian popular modernism of Fuller-Eames-Kent. Alfred E Neuman’s scope of satire, nothing was beyond Mad’s reach. Disney, the maker of “the happiest place on earth,” maybe the most powerful shaper of “childhood” for any of us born after the Fifties. Henry Jacobs, Bob Mcclay, and the community that made this were playing at influencing imaginations on this big scale while not falling for the seriousness that turns revelations into rules. They disguised their insurgency in felt-tip pen and construction paper cut-outs. The revolution will be funny, inventive, unprofessional, small-scale, for children/adults and televised.
Mike Mills is a filmmaker and graphic artist living in Los Angeles. His latest graphics can be seen at humans.jp