Academic journal article Afterimage

I Miss You Already: A Phenomenological Understanding of Ken Jacobs's Circling Zero: We See Absence

Academic journal article Afterimage

I Miss You Already: A Phenomenological Understanding of Ken Jacobs's Circling Zero: We See Absence

Article excerpt

  I Never Met You; I'll Never Forget You.
  I Didn't Know You; I Miss You Already.

These words, taken from a poster prominently displayed in Ken Jacob's film Circling Zero: We See Absence (2002), crystallize the amorphous trauma of large-scale loss, bridging the gap between the unknowable "Other"--the strangers inside the film frame who now forever wander the streets of Manhattan in the aftermath of 9/11--and the individual cinematic witness who remains stunned and awake, thrown by the film into the past in a resurrection of endless grief. Appearing as letters on a sign, without a body giving utterance to sound, these words beautifully distill the countless moments of inarticulate pain--the thousands of sudden gasps of recognized loss, the weeping bodies dissolved in tears--and resolve them into clear, matter-of-fact truth. Because these words leap off the page, and are delivered without a speaking body, they create an empathic, collective resonance. They achieve meaning only when a willing viewer gives them voice, and through the beauty of iconic language they give us community: thousands of voices speaking the same phrase, articulating pain in the same way, transforming the individual experience into a common body of pain and loss. At its heart, the film revolves around this issue, exploring the incarnation of the collective that arises out of grief. "I never met you; I'll never forget you. I didn't know you; I miss you already" thus becomes only one refined version of what is in fact a core truth spoken and seen in a thousand iterations.

Quite appropriately, in Circling Zero Jacobs offers a moving communal process through a personal vision carefully constructed to emphasize the place of his seeing eye in the movement of the film. We know from the very first frames of images and voices (from Binghamton, New York, where Jacobs was teaching on the day of the attacks) that the film will explore his private journey home to Manhattan. The despairing voice-over in the car as it speeds toward the devastation indicates that the film was itself another bit of fallout from the attacks.

It is important to note that Circling Zero is not reportage filmmaking: one never feels that the gesture of picking up the camera was cynical. Instead, it seems necessary to the act of survival, a sort of "How do I understand unless I can see?" In picking up his camera, Jacobs activates a third eye, and the film is much better for the gracious and truthful kindness in his gesture. He offers no explanations, no trite interpretations, no answers of any kind, just long scenes that document the effects of the attack on the city and its people. The documentation is limited by proximity, as he can only see so much and makes no other claims. The motion of the camera--quiet, slow, a little jittery at times--allows for a relatively unmanipulated and very careful exploration of loss. It is easy to forget that Jacobs is behind the lens, so the viewers feel as though it is them seeing--until the camera lingers over something that might otherwise have been overlooked, and they remember that Jacobs is in control.

By working this way, Jacobs re-opens certain philosophical questions that lie at the heart of experimental film, deftly weaving the relationship between the viewed and the viewer into a phenomenological understanding of the embodied experience of the world. Circling Zero is particularly reminiscent of Maurice Merleau-Ponty's ideas about horizonal interactions, and the relationships between figure and ground discussed so beautifully in his The Intertwining--The Chiasm (1968). These are relationships of potentiality, as opposed to fixed, dualistic relationships with abstract boundaries: horizons move as we move through a landscape, while figure and ground blend and reverse depending on individual, experience. As Jacobs's camera moves through its rarely cut shots, the relationships between figure and ground and self and other begin to blur in ways that are appropriate to an understanding of trauma, which brings about new orders of community. …

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