Portrait of the artist as a fallen angel

Indie hero Azazel Jacobs talks about casting his own parents -- and their eccentric, amazing New York apartment -- in his entrancing breakthrough film "Momma's Man."

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published August 20, 2008 9:23PM (EDT)

I could just come out and tell you that Azazel Jacobs, the 35-year-old writer and director whose third feature "Momma's Man" caused a minor sensation at Sundance last winter, is something special on the American indie-film scene, a highly unusual combination of craft, emotion and integrity. But this is one of those cases where showing is better than telling. Here's what you need to know.

Jacobs' first name is pronounced AZ-uh-zel, and it's an ambiguous proper noun found in the Hebrew scriptures and the Christian Apocrypha, often understood to refer to a fallen angel who led humanity into all kinds of godlessness and corruption. (The 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia refers to Azazel as "the most mysterious extrahuman character in sacred literature." How cool is that?) It has frequently appeared in popular culture, often (mis)pronounced uh-ZAE-zel, as in the Denzel Washington thriller "Fallen" or Neil Gaiman's "Sandman" graphic novels. Unfortunately for Jacobs, Paul Verhoeven is filming a Russian-set thriller called "Azazel" right now. Jacobs reports that religious Jews are often horrified that his parents would give him a name like that; it's not that far away from a Christian family naming their child Satan.

But then, Jacobs did not have ordinary parents, or an ordinary upbringing. "Momma's Man" is a fictional feature that intentionally blurs the line between invention and autobiography. It was shot in the lower Manhattan apartment where Jacobs was raised, and features Ken and Flo Jacobs, the parents who gave him his name, as the fictional parents of Mikey (Matt Boren), an adult son who comes home for a dead-of-winter visit and refuses to leave, concocting bald-faced lies about why he's not going back to his increasingly desperate wife, stranded with a baby back in Los Angeles.

And what an apartment it is! The Jacobs household is a labyrinthine loft cluttered with antique toys and machines, working and under-repair filmmaking equipment and vast amounts of books and paintings and films and papers. It's like a modern-day New York equivalent of the magical antique store cum museum owned by Uncle Isaak in another quasi-autobiographical film, Bergman's "Fanny and Alexander." Uncle Isaak's surname, come to think of it, is Jacobi -- that can only be a coincidence, but it's one of those coincidences that makes you wonder about the fabric of reality.

A few blocks away, over lunch in New York's Chinatown, Jacobs explains that documenting the strange private landscape of his parents' rent-controlled apartment -- and the vanishing world of unmoneyed or anti-moneyed 1960s-era New York artists that it epitomizes -- was "first and foremost the inspiration for making 'Momma's Man,' way before I cast my parents and way before thinking of Mikey's story." As an adult, he says, he has come to realize how odd and wonderful it was to grow up in a Manhattan apartment that included a swing and a Batpole, where books on any subject were available and impromptu film screenings were commonplace, where painters, filmmakers, writers and other art-world denizens were likely to show up for dinner on any given night.

Jacobs is a shaggy, lanky fellow who talks rapidly, in a manner that suggests he's distracted or his thinking is fragmented; it took me a while to realize that his long ellipses of talk possess their own rhythm and structure. "It was a good place, a really good place," he says. "Just seeing everybody I know move out of the city, and seeing all their parents starting to leave -- just having an idea what it's going to be like not to have that place -- I really wanted to preserve it on film. I have the feeling I'm not really going to be able to see this movie until I'm sitting there with a kid of my own, showing it to them." Jacobs says that he and his girlfriend Diaz -- they live in L.A., like Mikey and his wife -- are considering having a child, another factor that seems to be drive the psychological narrative of "Momma's Man."

If the physical space was the original inspiration, the people who live in it are important too. All that stuff in the apartment is not just the debris of an eccentric family life, but actually the material of Ken Jacobs' career. The elder Jacobs is a legendary avant-garde filmmaker, a radical innovator whose work is resolutely non-narrative and uncinematic, at least in the usual sense -- and often involves found objects and toys.

"My father's films are really interested in challenging you and showing you things that you wouldn't see otherwise," says Azazel Jacobs. "He's not interested in telling you a particular story. In his work there are many stories going on, especially once you start moving into his 'Nervous System' projections, where he's using multiple projectors or a strobe, and trying to create three-dimensional work without the glasses. He's interested in pushing film toward an extreme of what it could be, and maybe how it began -- how amazing it is to look and to see, what it means to put light against dark." He laughs and adds, "Whenever I hear people say my work is challenging, I say, 'You know, I'm making "Jaws" compared to my father.'"

At first, there seems almost no similarity between Ken Jacobs' abstract and often confrontational films -- he once found an unedited reel of news footage surrounding the 1964 assassination of Malcolm X and released it untouched as a work entitled "Perfect Film" -- and his son's winsome, wistful and often funny movies, which clearly come from the tradition of Jim Jarmusch and Aki Kaurismäki. But "Momma's Man" is unmistakably a work where many stories are going on, most of them below the surface, and in that sense it bears the Jacobs père influence.

It's a profoundly emotional story about a man paralyzed on the precipice between youth and maturity, between a past he can't recover and a future that terrifies him. It's a story about realizing for the first time that someday, a lot sooner than you think, your parents and your childhood home will be gone. It's even a story about the fact that many young filmmakers are finding the outskirts of the Los Angeles movie industry a cheaper and friendlier environment to build their lives and make their work than New York, the traditional headquarters of independent American cinema and every other art form.

While Ken Jacobs' gnomic presence is crucial to the subject and themes of "Momma's Man," he's not the star of the show, and it isn't Boren as the awkward, painfully depressed Mikey either (although he's dead-on). Flo Jacobs, in real life her husband's artistic collaborator, moves with an almost grave loveliness through the film, the center of calmness and warmth in this seemingly anarchic landscape. She constantly produces cups of coffee, bowls of soup or oatmeal and various baked goods, and gradually but inexorably pushes toward a loving intervention that Mikey resists with all his passive-aggressive might. I wrote from Sundance that Flo Jacobs was born to be a movie star, but that's not quite right. She was born to play this gently parodic maternal role, even if, as her son says, she doesn't think it's funny.

When I ask Jacobs whether his real mother would serve us all kinds of goodies if we went over to their apartment, he makes it clear that a reporter would not be welcome. "She wouldn't allow us to come up," he says. "That's a really private home. They know that to the outside world it could be perceived as something crazy. To allow me up there with a film crew, and to allow the world to see it -- and now the movie's going to play in a theater eight blocks away -- it's incredibly generous. I always draw on it as a testament of the difference between me and Mikey. The film is something Mikey could never have done with his folks, you know? I feel that the film is proof of what our relationship is."

Jacobs admits, however, that the sinkhole of memory that Mikey falls into -- a sinkhole of treasured comic books and pop singles, of half-written songs and yearbook photos and tormented missives from half-forgotten exes -- is one he's experienced himself. "I made the mistake yesterday of opening up one of those old boxes in my bedroom," he says. "I feel like I still can't understand time. I can't understand that it's been 15 years or 20 years. I look at pictures and they still affect me. I hope the film is not about nostalgia. If you go back to these things, if you actually remember your high school years, there's as much pain and trauma as anything. I'm not interested in nostalgia. I'm just trying to understand how any film or a photograph or a song continues to be alive, even after the people who made it are no longer living. How is it possible that this kind of life can be contained?"

It's the kiss of death for a critic to proclaim some young filmmaker the heart of a movement -- "mumblecore" seemed to evaporate as soon as it was named, and that's probably just as well -- and that's not actually what I think about Jacobs. But he did graduate from the American Film Institute school with a cadre of peers devoted to low-budget filmmaking. Most notably these include Goran Dukic, who made "Wristcutters: A Love Story," and Gerardo Naranjo, who co-wrote and starred in Jacobs' second film, "The GoodTimesKid," before going on to make "Drama/Mex" and the forthcoming "I'm Going to Explode," which will premiere at the Venice, Toronto and New York festivals next month.

There isn't necessarily an aesthetic that ties those three filmmakers and their friends together, but arguably they're trying to follow the DIY maxim Jacobs applies to himself: "I should just try my best to keep doing things I care about," he says, without worrying too much about whether they're saleable commodities or whether they're positioning him for future gigs. This is a guy whose central formative experience, as he tells every interviewer, came from seeing the Clash play in 1982, when he was 9 years old. "I looked up at Joe Strummer and said, 'There's something here that I want.' I saw them communicating to a ton of people -- but really communicating. People were really listening. I was really being spoken to and really being respected. My parents said I came back different, and I did. That energy, from that memory, has been enough for me to get to this point, as an aim to shoot for."

He and Naranjo made "GoodTimesKid" for about $10,000, but Jacobs declines to congratulate himself for his thrift. "If we say, 'Wow, you made a movie for $10,000,'" he says, "well, to play with $10,000, when you don't come from money and you don't have money, is an incredibly rich thing to do. I'm going to play with my friends for the next two weeks and I'm going to spend $10,000 -- that sounds like an extravagant thing to me. I try to hold onto that perspective. 'Momma's Man' was by far the most expensive situation I've ever been in, and I know that in the real world that was supposedly a super-low budget. In fact, it was the correct budget. I like being contained. I only shot about 17-1/2 hours of film, but that was a good thing."

Since the premiere of "Momma's Man" last January, critics have been busy anointing Jacobs as a messiah of independent film, but in fact the film will be released by Kino International in a handful of cities, and will quickly go to DVD. Jacobs says as long as he's not punching out the DVD inserts himself, as he did for "GoodTimesKid," he'll have arrived. Look, artists are well known for professing false modesty, and I think Jacobs has a plenty high opinion of his own talent, or at least of his potential. But he seems sincere when he says he's still an unfinished artist at 35, and at peace with the fact that the path he's traveling is not likely to bring him vast fame or fortune.

"Look, I don't feel that I know enough about film to create something that I would consider a perfect film," he says, "something like Jarmusch's 'Dead Man,' where there's not a missed frame and it talks about everything. I don't know enough about life or film to even try for that. Or 'La Strada' or 'Playtime,' films that are flawless, at least in my world. That's not what I'm doing. I'm just looking for accidents. First and foremost, I'm thinking about me sitting in the theater with my friends and family. I'm just so excited that people are watching this stuff and taking it seriously and caring about it. That's enough to ask for."

"Momma's Man" opens Aug. 22 at the Angelika Film Center in New York, Sept. 5 at the Laemmle Sunset 5 in Los Angeles and Sept. 12 at the Northwest Film Forum in Seattle, with more cities and DVD release to follow.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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