I don’t think I can top the wonderful posts by many fellow bloggers on Azazel Jacobs’ beautiful Momma’s Man, though it isn’t for a lack of trying. My closeness to the film, not necessarily to the production or Aza Jacobs, is my largest hurdle: I had Ken Jacobs as a professor in 2002, have been to his Tribeca loft, and correspond with him from time to time.
Indeed, the approach Momma’s Man has to Ken and Flo Jacobs, one of awe, or even befuddlement, is reminiscent of my own first impressions. The loft, stuffed with paracinema toys, archived Americana, and flea market finds caught my eye as well. Its comfortability in the midst of a plasticized world, wooden, precious, and thoughtful, would make any curious weirdo linger on as long as Matt Boren’s Mikey. The warmth of both Ken and Flo, their rigorous life philosophies, as well as welcoming approach to any curiouso willing to listen, is marvelously captured in the film.
In the fall of 2002, when I took Ken’s Paracinema course at the State University of New York at Binghamton, the war in Iraq was a distant threat, the intellectual air was all but gone, and winter came early. Ken’s commanding class, quite different from his passivity in Momma’s Man, weeded out those expecting an easy A and a pass on aesthetics and politics. Ken showed his masterful short Window at least twice, demanded that we watch Michael Snow’s Wavelength at least twice, and criticized those who thought the rough cut of Aza’s Nobody Needs to Know was tedious (I loved it).
It was in this class, I believe, that I discovered what cinema was. Ken suggested that Peter Kubelka, Robert Bresson, Godard, Brakhage, and Cocteau all got it, that they rebuilt cinema to their needs. Cinema, to Ken, was an experience above all, but also stressed a structuralist, carpenter’s approach: “Buster Keaton began building and never stopped doing so.” A terrific one liner by him, something along the lines of “don’t take pictures of interesting things, take interesting pictures” became (and still is) a pointed guide to filming in the field.
What any of this has to do with Momma’s Man is anyone’s guess, I suppose. However, skimming through my notebook from 2002, I was struck (nostalgically perhaps) by some of the similarities to Mikey’s quest for answers in regression: his old letters to girlfriends and naked punk lyrics all written on the same paper. Below are some images from that notebook:
What does Mikey’s regressive, irresponsible stay at his parents’ loft accomplish? His sulkish responses to the prying parents, calling his ex-girlfriend and awkwardly meeting with her, or finding an old buddy who recently got out of prison? One wonders if the 35 year old Mikey, playing the 15 year old one, is a something of a test on his parents as much as himself. As a recent father, who nearly abandons his new family, Mikey is learning how to parent from the only guides he has, at the expense of his present situation, and perhaps his working career. His dodging of phone calls, poor excuses and inevitable lying is Mikey’s way of buying time, not just with his parents, but in the loft and city where he was born.
The moments of joy that Mikey experiences at home, namely watching his parents sitting in a tent with a light switch or discussing films, or just sitting with Ken and Flo reading, speaks volumes to his discontent. They have leisure and their respected arts, and his home in Los Angeles, bright as it is, is in some kind of stuccoed Los Angeles suburb, with inoffensive interiors, and a lovely child. His future, or even present, is something of a blank, while his family has their joys archived and stacked to the ceiling.
As cinema, Momma’s Man is quite successful. Jacobs’ isolates many moments outside of its plot, especially centering around the loft as a character, or his parents sharing moments before sleep. When it steps outside of its plot, the film truly comes to life; when the plot is overly explained (Mikey unable to walk down steps), it becomes elementary. As an object, it feels like it has no place in the digital world, even though it hints on the present day quite often, namely Ken reading Chris Hedges’ American Fascists. The abundance of film grain, often times to lovely, ambiguous ends, cements the tone in some kind of suspended, outdated time, perhaps on the cusp of Stranger Than Paradise.
I know Momma’s Man hit some on a personal level, but it took some time for me to realize the same thing. Having yearned for greater education, which my current financial situation cannot support, I was thrown back to the moment where I realized I wanted to be a filmmaker. Watching Momma’s Man, with its mournful approach to change and nostalgic views of intellectual and creative life once valued by our gatekeepers, reminded me why I go to the movies.