Unreproducible: The Life and Work of Visionary Filmmaker Roger Jacoby
If you’ve ever shot film, you know how tricky it is to get the colors, the lighting, and the look of the image just right. As any cinematographer will tell you, it requires incredible patience and concentration to get a clean, crisp-looking visual. Years of training, trial-and-error, and careful study of the masters often helps, too. But what if you didn’t want to create beautiful images, and you let go of controlling the way they looked? Might there be interesting reasons to experiment with the visual material? What would happen if film looked completely different from how we ordinarily perceive the world?
In the 1970s film-world, these sorts of questions were being asked by artists all over the globe. Some of them, the so-called “structuralists” like Hollis Frampton, Ernie Gehr, or George Landow, created a body of work that analyzed the building blocks of film: editing, framing, camera movement, and motion itself. Instead of telling dramatic stories, imagining spectacular fantasy-worlds or sweeping up audiences with glamorous Hollywood movie stars, these filmmakers pressed pause and said, “Wait a minute!” What if we took note of what is happening in modern art movements like Minimalism and Conceptualism, and tried to make films about what it is like to make films? What sorts of new insights might result?
Among the most interesting film-artists experimenting with medium at the time was Roger Jacoby (1945–1985), a Pittsburgh resident and a pioneer in artist-processed film during the 1970s and 1980s. Roger lived on welfare and bits of money from odd jobs in the city, and rented a small apartment in Shadyside (described then as a “mini-Greenwich Village”). But he became famous in the art-world for investigating an area that was relatively unexplored at the time: the photochemistry of celluloid film processing.
It is almost impossible to appreciate nowadays in an era of instantaneous photography and digital moviemaking, but if you were a filmmaker in the 1970s and you wanted to make a film—narrative, home movie, or experimental—you were forced to send your raw footage to a commercial film lab. There, your film would be “corrected”; that is, the colors and qualities of the image would be treated according to a standard model put out by Eastman Kodak.1 It resulted in a fairly boring look—boring if you wanted the film to be one-of-a-kind, something out of the ordinary.
Roger decided he could just process film himself, as many others did. While he did so for budgetary reasons, he realized the potential artistic uses. Trained as an abstract painter at Mercedes Matter’s New York Studio School in the mid-1960s, he was preoccupied with the spontaneous results of chance operations once the artist let go of conscious control. Roger said about hand-processed film: “It’s actually better than taking your film to a commercial processing lab. With them you always get out exactly what you put in. You don’t get the unexpected.”2
He started using a simple and cheap Morse G3 developing tank, intended for the amateur and home-movie market. Then, upon receipt of his first NEA grant in 1974, for $10,000, he purchased a more sophisticated Cramer film processor used by schools and hospitals. Roger and his partner, Ondine, would sit at home and watch television for hours while winding film, back and forth, through a variety of chemical soups.
Over time, Roger began to “hack” the film processor. For instance, he would pour color chemicals into the Cramer, though it was designed for black-and-white film. Or, he re-used the same developer to the point of exhausting the reactive properties of the chemical. Roger figured out that commercial machines could be used against the (figurative and literal) grain.
Through his experiments with the photochemical nature of film, he produced a dazzling range of visual and textural effects on the celluloid material. Critics and reviewers marveled at the sense of dynamism generated by Roger’s chemically bathed film stocks. The material substrate of film came alive, always changing. As one admiring observer put it, “The sometimes lovely, and sometimes not beautiful, but nearly always exquisite collisions of light and shadow upon the screen seduces us and takes us into a whole new world.…With a quickness of breath and dryness of the throat one is apt to say ‘What is that!’ as if peering into some exotic fog, not sure if one may trust his own eyes.”3
“It’s something I’ve never been able to figure out, how to reproduce those dots,” Jim Hubbard, a filmmaker and Roger’s partner in the 1980s, told me, recalling the unique look to Roger’s films. “There’s something about film processing that’s incredibly personal. Everyone who does it, it looks different.… That’s what’s so wonderful about film processing. Roger’s film doesn’t look like mine, and my film doesn’t look like Peggy Ahwesh’s.”4
Indeed, Roger became well known for two unreproducible aspects of his hand-processed technique. First, the black dots or amoeba-like specks, which were the remains of the anti-halation backing on the film. The anti-halation layer absorbs light that passes through film; without it, a distracting halo-like effect appears around bright points or edges in the image. When he processed film, Roger applied a weak, incomplete wash to the anti-halation layer. Instead of a smooth, clean, and well-lit image, hundreds of tiny black particles remain visible on the film’s surface.
Another effect Roger achieved was reticulation, a sort of “crackling” or wiggly-worm texture that makes the film resemble stained glass. Roger discovered that by simply putting film in hot water and then cold (and vice versa), the gelatin of the emulsion enlarged or contracted, and a series of ridges and valleys appeared on the surface of the film. He realized he could edit portions of film treated with or without reticulation to stunning effect. In his film Floria, for instance, live-action footage of Betty Aberlin (the character Lady Aberlin from Mister Roger’s Neighborhood) is juxtaposed against large segments of green, purple and blue reticulation. The pattern resembles chunks of coral reef with complexly interlocking bumps and grooves.
As word got out about his innovative techniques, the press circulated stories about a strange, local filmmaker who did all his hand-processing in a darkened bathtub.5 Curious about his methods, critics and artists from around the country visited to see the elaborate apparatus he had set up in his home. “Walking into his Shadyside apartment is like stepping inside a discombobulated grandfather clock,” is how one writer described Roger’s workspace. “Spools, reels, and cans of film are scattered about. A rackety 16mm projector stands aimed at a tiny cardboard screen taped to the wall. The corners are cluttered with light stands, cords, film splicers, and other utensils, and everywhere—everywhere—are tangled piles of unraveled film.”6 Roger approached film as a mystic or witch doctor might brew alchemical potions.
His most well-known and regularly shown work, Dream Sphinx Opera (sometimes incorrectly titled Dream Sphinx), illustrates Roger’s fusion of materialist investigation with his love for the feminine, the playful, and the simple pleasure of watching bodies in motion.
The first segment is a teaser film, showing an attractive woman dressing and undressing in some kind of bedroom space. She exhibits herself for the camera—her gaze looks back at the viewer, she smiles and laughs, waving her hand longingly. On the soundtrack, soft operatic music lulls us into a dream-like state of absorption.
Ever the experimenter, Roger cannot help but fiddle with the color processing to create shocking effects. He plays with reticulation, solarization, and chemical temperature, producing gorgeous swathes of red, pink, and blue. The result is what critic Carmen Vigil aptly described as an “exotic fog” that forms a curious extension of the female form depicted.7 Thanks to the erratic color-processing and solarization effects, a bright halo obtains around the woman, giving her the profile of an angelic being. At other times, the human figure fully submerges in a vortex of black dots and swirling fields of color.
The rest of Dream Sphinx Opera giddily proliferates the gestures, performances, and art forms linked with Roger’s undeniably queer sensibility.8 Roger was what his friends called “an opera queen.” He spoke of his films as operas and film scripts as librettos; fittingly, the single, overriding emotion he wished to share in his work was one of excessive sentiment. You were swept away by the efflorescence of color, of shimmering film grain, and music. To this end, an operatic score accompanies a pas de deux between Ondine and Carnegie Museum curator Sally Dixon, who are dressed in theatrical 19th-century costumes. We watch them frolic, play, and kiss within the flowery surroundings of the Phipps Botanical Conservatory; they sit and watch a group of schoolchildren pass by and wave for the camera. All the while, fields of color—blue, purple, orange—offer a visual correspondence to what they all must have felt: joy.
According to fellow filmmaker and longtime admirer, Janis Crystal Lipzin, Roger’s film footage emerged from these methods of processing almost as Abstract Expressionist paintings. She recalls, “I loved viewing the films slowly…frame by frame so I could see the individual ‘paintings’ that made up the works. To this day, I think that this is the best way to experience his aesthetic.”9 Roger showed independent-minded artists that painterly aspects of line, color, noise, rhythm, and spontaneous creation could be pursued in the moving image; for him, painting and film blended into one.
But perhaps the most radical aspect of Roger’s treatment of film as painting, besides the hand-processing, was his philosophy of the original film print. For about five of his films, he made 400-foot-reel, self-processed films using extra-tough Estar film stock that only existed as an original; that is, he didn’t make any copies of them at all, and what he showed at film screenings was the only version in existence, anywhere.10 Some believe that the notion of making originals came out of his relationship with his aunt, the art dealer Rose Fried, who reportedly sold Andy Warhol the last Marcel Duchamp she owned, revealing to Roger the previously unknown wealth of the art world.
Roger thought that by treating film as a unique, rarefied object, he could get into the gallery system. (Slightly earlier, in the 1960s, galleries did sell film; today, video and media installations are ubiquitous in galleries.) As ephemeral artifacts, film would be valued the same way paintings are valued in the art economy: as scarce, authentic, unreproducible works of art.
Hubbard recalls, “I remember it being kind of fraught to show them—‘Oh my God, what’s going to happen to it?’”11 Philosophically, the idea behind the originals was that these objects would break down from usage—self-destruction was a feature, not a bug. Watching one of these originals after it had sustained deterioration from over-usage (scratches, warps, missing frames) was consistent with Roger’s broader interest in the visual aesthetics of degradation and ruin. In this respect, one might say he outdid the structuralists who were exploring film-as-film by intervening in the wider circulation of film itself: instead of making reproducible copies, he made precious works that lived and died depending on how they were handled. As a result, he produced an entire body of work that was existentially precarious, destined to break down and disappear.
And much of it has disappeared.
As Hubbard explained to me: “Roger had an idea whose time had not yet come. The film original existed, and it was shown, and over time it deteriorated until it couldn’t be shown again. So it was lost.” Indeed, only one such original has survived.
After an extraordinarily fertile period in Pittsburgh, Roger eventually moved to Minneapolis before settling in Seattle. In the early 1980s, he discovered he was infected with HIV. The tone of his filmmaking turned sharply, becoming more concerned with the struggle of gays and lesbians. KUNST LIFE parodied the homophobia of the straight world. His final works, How to Be a Homosexual, Parts I and II, depicted Roger confronting illness a few years before AIDS worked its way through his system. His calling card—the black dots, the corrupted beauty of the physical film material—was tragically recast in a different light.
Roger died of AIDS in 1985, only forty years old.
Today, the Jacoby estate works hard to acquire the funds necessary to preserve his films. Through the efforts of his sister, Susan Chainey, several of these works have been preserved by Pacific Film Archives and can be seen, affordably, on DVD.12 Unfortunately, it remains difficult to raise funds from foundations to support the preservation of experimental film.
Against a contemporary backdrop of spectacle and reproducibility, Roger’s work stands in stark relief. In our culture of high-gloss movies, photos, and Instagram, creating a rough-hewn and “ruined” image seems no longer unthinkable, but desirable, as the many filters in modern phone apps attest. Even less strange is the thought of making films that gradually fade and disappear. In a certain sense, Roger’s revolutionary original prints—images that disappear after being created—anticipated the current interest in ephemeral storytelling using apps like Snapchat.
Roger broke many rules of filmmaking, owing to his education as a painter rather than his experience as a movie-maker. His fierce independence influenced many younger artists, both working in the city at the time—Stephanie Beroes, Peggy Ahwesh, Margie Strosser, and others—and beyond. Like other cutting-edge artists who sought to make art outside the system, Roger tried to break free from the “tyranny” of the commercial film laboratory. He treated film as precious and time-bound, a handmade artifact instead of an industrial product. By challenging photographic realism as the basis of film, he also anticipated today’s return to painterly approaches to the moving image, as reflected in digital special effects and computer-manipulated animation.
Roger was, in Lipzin’s words, “a true renegade and original.”
The author would like to thank the following individuals who participated in interviews about Roger’s life and career, and without whom this work would not have been possible: Susan Chainey, Jim Hubbard, Peggy Ahwesh, Jerry Tartaglia, Bill Judson, and Janis Crystal Lipzin.
- Several critics have written about Jacoby’s resistance to the Eastman Kodak guidelines on commercial lab processing. See, for instance, Bill Judson, “Reflections on the Films of Roger Jacoby,” Field of Vision 2 (Summer 1977): 15–18. ↵
- Roger quoted on hand-processing in Mike Vargo, “Don’t Shoot Roger: He’s the Film Maker,” Pittsburgh New Sun, September 9, 1976. ↵
- On the “exotic fog” in Jacoby’s films, see Carmen Vigil, “Roger Jacoby’s Films, and Aged in Wood,” Field of Vision 5 (Winter 1978–79): 4–5. ↵
- Jim Hubbard, interview by Ben Ogrodnik, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, March 23, 2017. ↵
- Edward L. Blank, “Homemade Movies Processed in Bathroom: Grant Subsidizes Shadyside Filmmaker’s Ongoing ‘Kunst Life,’” The Pittsburgh Press, February 27, 1976. ↵
- Jay Suszynski, “Film: But What’s the Story?” Pittsburgher Magazine, January 1978, 13. ↵
- Vigil, “Roger Jacoby’s Films,” 4–5. ↵
- Roger is cited as a critical, early proponent embodying the queer turn in 1970s avant-garde film in Jerry Tartaglia’s “The Gay Sensibility in American Avant Garde Film,” Millennium Film Journal 4, no. 5 (1979): 57. ↵
- Janis Crystal Lipzin, interview by Ben Ogrodnik, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, April 3, 2017. ↵
- Robert Haller, the former executive director of Pittsburgh Filmmakers Inc., explains that “as unique and durable objects, Jacoby contends the Originals ought to be valued apart from the pricing system that applies to most other films, which are, in effect, issued by editions, rather than individually.” Jacoby sold “the films by foot—like tradesmen who three-quarters-of-a-century ago bought and sold Méliès and Lumière not by the subject but by the length of film on the reel.” See “Paul Sharits and Roger Jacoby,” Field of Vision 3 (Winter 1977–78): 26; and Haller’s Crossroads: Avant-garde Film in Pittsburgh in the 1970s (New York: Anthology Film Archives, 2005), 39. ↵
- Jim Hubbard, interview by Ben Ogrodnik, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, March 23, 2017. ↵
- Chainey worked with film preservationists Gary Adkins and Jon Gartenberg to put out a DVD of her brother’s work in 2012, titled The Films of Roger Jacoby, Volume 1, available for $50 from Amazon.com. It contains five short films: The Futurist Song, L’Amico Fried’s Glamorous Friends, Dream Sphinx Opera, Floria, and Pearl and Puppet. ↵