The capricious career of experimental filmmaker Ken Jacobs has produced a lot of inscrutable cinema. His best known movie is Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son from 1969 and it’s the sort of avant-garde project that is probably best experienced on drugs. Jacobs re-cut and altered part of a 1905 silent film, at points actually filming projections of the film so the viewer is watching a movie of a movie. It’s all very meta I suppose, but it goes on for 115 minutes, and the novelty wears down to crushing boredom after the first ten. His 1986 project, Perfect Film, was a far less avant-garde—and far more watchable and entertaining—use of found footage.
Of course, this is probably because Jacobs’ source material was way more interesting. Perfect Film consists of footage and interviews from the day of Malcolm X’s assassination, including an off-the-clock journalist who actually witnessed the shooting, a local Harlem man, a besuited police investigator and clips of Malcolm himself just prior to his death. It’s really an unnarrated documentary composed entirely of unedited raw footage, and it’s compelling as a historical artifact (rather than art), just as Jacobs intended. He explained his decision not to edit thusly:
I wish more stuff was available in its raw state, as primary source material for anyone to consider, and to leave for others in just that way, the evidence uncontaminated by compulsive proprietary misapplied artistry, “editing”, the purposeful “pointing things out” that cuts a road straight and narrow through the cine-jungle; we barrel through thinking we’re going somewhere and miss it all. Better to just be pointed to the territory, to put in time exploring, roughing it, on our own. For the straight scoop we need the whole scoop, or no less than the clues entire and without rearrangement. O, for a Museum of Found Footage, or cable channel, library, a shit-museum of telling discards accessible to all talented viewers/auditors. A wilderness haven salvaged from Entertainment.
Perfect Film was actually released in 1986, well before the modern Internet and its tendency to catalog a de facto media archive. At 81 years of age, Jacobs is still kicking—perhaps pleased to witness this dream take shape.