Though Ken Jacobs’s Razzle Dazzle is being considered significant in the switch to digital filmmaking, a claim enhanced by the status of its iconic experimental director, its reliance on the medium of film to create a form of discourse within the “film versus digital” debate is what makes Razzle Dazzle a timely film (well...video) capsule of a shifting industry. Jacobs seems confident that digital mode has a firm future, but what makes Razzle Dazzle more resonant is how (and why) it dissects filmic images, specifically Thomas Edison’s 1903 short film Razzle Dazzle and still photographs from the same time period, with digital technology. Razzle Dazzle is, at once, highlighting the values of film and shifting how it is to be viewed and explored. Rather than abandon one medium for another, Jacobs incorporates distinct elements from both technologies only to confound and question the similarities and differences. By situating the two mediums in a form of dialogue, Jacobs cynically removes the negativity from this highly charged industrial debate and makes an assured case that, no matter the technology or desired aesthetic, cinema must continue.
In a body of work that constantly challenges what is presented in the cinematic image, Razzle Dazzle may do the most in furthering Jacobs’s “indeterminate cinema”: a type of cinema in which the viewer reflects and interprets what has been seen in order to create the experience for themselves. Razzle Dazzle extends this cinema across varying formats; in doing so, it attempts to establish a completely indeterminate experience. With the film flicker nonexistant in digital video, Jacobs uses (digital) 3-D effects to (re)create flicker, which bends and refracts the still images giving them a sense of movement and life. The faux-flicker manages to make a similarly dizzying visual effect as to what Jacobs achieved with the Tom, Tom, The Piper’s Son. The use of digital flicker in Razzle Dazzle administers the flicker as part of the cinematic viewing experience and shows that it is not completely lost in the digital foray. The flicker itself creates a visual response. In some ways, Jacobs’s use of flicker reflects the brain responses to flicker explored in Tony Conrad’s The Flicker (1965). Word is that Conrad’s son is recreating The Flicker with digital technology; the pairing of Razzle Dazzle with a digital version of The Flicker would be a remarkable double feature.
Moreover, the political implications Jacobs introduces in the last bit of the film should not be completely unexpected. While it seems out of line with the specificity of the image, Jacobs turns the upkeep of cinema into an issue of political important. Using an interview with Thomas Edison as evidence, Jacobs uses this not just to advance his specific political beliefs (anyone who has seen his magnum opus Star Spangled to Death should know that everything is political in Jacobs’s world) but also reframing the film versus digital debate as one of political importance. However, it is shown to be critical only in that the images and the cinema must continue; Jacobs does little to posture one format over another. Even when he minimizes Edison’s film into a digital 3-D cube and, quite literally, blows the film to pieces, it is followed by a return to the film and the images that hold life, death, and everything in between within their frames. Instead of reading Razzle Dazzle as love letter to the death of film, it should instead be seen as an elegy to the critical importance of Cinema.
by James Hansen