Ken Jacobs’s Razzle Dazzle: The Lost World, which a number of critics have described as a worthy annotation to his own seminal avant-garde masterpiece Tom, Tom the Piper’s Son (which, regrettably, I haven’t seen), is a maddeningly persistent, surprisingly direct revel in the eerie dilapidation of a medium that still manages to outlive the peoples, events and political subtexts they depict. Without meaning to limit two separate, worthy works of art by drawing simplistic comparisons, it’s a laptop Decasia with its conscience raised and its volume turned way down.
Jacobs takes a piece of elderly film originally shot for Thomas Edison’s studio in the medium’s infancy—A.C. Abadie’s Razzle Dazzle, basically a one-take depiction of an arcane amusement ride allowing people to sit on a giant ring as it gyrates drunkenly around a maypole—and gives us the chopped n’ screwed version. More than that, he performs a resuscitation slight-of-hand by turning a piece of film most people today would unhesitatingly categorize as functionally dead into (for some) a more penetrating contemplation of the American industrial-military complex’s obstreperous legacy, especially in recent years. (Sure, it’s probably only there if you’re really looking for it, but the soundbites extolling a “great war” and Jacobs’s own liner notes will have you looking.)
While the bulk of the film exhaustively dissects, ramps and rolls the Abadie clip, Jacobs also interjects a series of Rotoscopic images, again suggesting life—in one case, perhaps too much life: one shot of turn-of-the-century public beach bathers all smiling at the camera in their full-bodied swimsuits has the unintended, hysterical head-snapping motion of SNL‘s Night at the Roxbury boys. But both eventually segue from carnivalesque motion into the musty dread of mortality as period details (i.e. kids putting together Tinkertoys while lying atop a craze-eyed bearskin rug) become more pronounced.
A glimpse of the film relatively unaltered (at least sans reddening) occurs fairly early on, allowing both viewers and Jacobs to take note of some of the original clip’s hidden details: you capture a glimpse of a young man leaning in for a peck on his lady friend’s neck; you see the bored men caught in the center of the ring manually pushing it to send riders into fits of joy and nausea; you realize the entire structure is absolutely covered in American flags. It’s at this point that Razzle Dazzle‘s political implications begin to emerge, and the ride’s symbolic value as a representation of America’s oblivious devotion to diversion becomes manifest. And then the riders’ faces start to resemble skulls.