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Second Time Around 

Wednesday, Feb 10 1999
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Revelatory Reality
Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son, a 1969 film by Ken Jacobs, begins by presenting the entire eight-shot, 10-minute 1905 short film Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son, and then rephotographs it in detail for 90 minutes more. Segments of the original are run in slow motion, rerun in detail, and enlarged into close-ups and freeze frames. Jacobs photographs the screen, the projector the film is playing on, and at one point torments us with 10 minutes of blur as images slip off the sprocket holes. The entire film is an act of imaginative rediscovery of "the vivacious doings of persons long dead," as Jacobs once put it, as well as being an exploration of the nature of cinematic storytelling.

In many ways the anonymous 1905 original version of the nursery rhyme about the pig-stealing piper's son -- credited by some to Billy Bitzer -- is stranger than what Jacobs does to it, taking place as it does in a series of tableaux through which a scrum of players rush. One's eyes are not directed toward any particular place -- a narrative technique developed just five years later -- so you don't really notice the pig theft in Scene 1 until Jacobs has rephotographed it in detail for you. "Reverently examined here, a new movie almost incidentally comes into being," said Jacobs, and his movie is full of revelatory moments of reality peeping through multiple layers of artifice. We see in detail just what it looks like when you smash through a prop door, the flight of a real bird through a fake window, a Jacobs-created close-up as "a person, confused, suddenly looks out of an actor's face."

When, at the end of Jacobs' version, he replays once more the complete original, one sees it very differently, as a documentary of life in the year 1905, telling a story that now makes sense, "each cold still ... stirred to life by a successive 16-24 frames per second pattering on our retinas ... to form the always-poignant-because-always-past illusion."

-- Gregg Rickman

Tom, Tom the Piper's Son is presented by the S.F. Cinematheque Sunday, Feb. 14, at 7:30 p.m. at the San Francisco Art Institute, 800 Chestnut (at Jones). Admission is $7; call 558-8129.

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Gregg Rickman

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