Time Machine: Victor Jessen, Time’s Surreptitious Splicer

By Francis Dougherty, Barbara Goldsmith Preservation Division
December 12, 2014
The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

Still from Jessen’s animated credit sequence for Theme and Variations.  The filmmaker's name descends with wisps of cotton clouds.

Like the ever branching dendritic pattern water takes in its descent, human obsessions take random alternate paths.  One branch comes to an impasse (like a stone or a twig in water's path) and leads to a room full of newspapers, another leads to a room where artisan dilettantes assemble and catalog their collections, and the naive product of this love is cherished.  There are enthusiast fans who have pirated and hoarded bows and pas de deux in 8mm and 16mm home movies, and then there are balletomanes who have filmed entire works in snippets of seconds recorded over multiple performances painstakingly spliced together to compress months and even years of time into a few minutes.

Still from Jessen’s animated credit sequence for Theme and Variations.  Cottonball clouds continue to descend with more text.

Victor Jessen, (1901-1995), who supported himself as a bored, dispirited and often absent draftsman, was an artist by disposition who failed to find a satisfying medium of expression before devoting himself to filming ballet.  At home in Denmark he was a child impresario with a table top theater, paper marionettes and a phonograph for his orchestra.    His enthusiastic recollection of the little theater suggests that what followed this high point was a series of disappointments.  He took a stab at being an inventor with mediocre modifications of items like cigarette lighters and automobile turn signals. Unhappy as a musician he sold his grand piano and built a massive record collection that expanded to a rented garage. He recorded radio concerts with two transcription disc cutters, so there would be no loss from changing discs. He bought a Leica and decided to be a still photographer of dance, but the camera obscured the performance for him and he wandered on stage out of the wings.  It was not until he discovered filmmaking that he achieved the omnipotent viewpoint he had had as a child with his tabletop theater...  I have included frame grabs of the animated credit sequence from his 1954 filming of Theme and Variations which reveal an innocent delight that must come from his childhood pastime.

Still from Jessen’s animated credit sequence for Theme and Variations 

In his 1968 interview with Marian Horosko, Jessen describes a state between terror and compulsion. Dressed in black with his homemade blackened blimp, his pockets are stuffed with exposed and unexposed film; he is in constant fear of discovery. He sounds more like a scarred veteran of Cold War espionage than a concealed filmmaker. Finally, they come for him, it's over, he is resigned to his fate… they remove the woman seated in front of him; she had been taking pictures with a still camera.

Still from Jessen’s animated credit sequence for Theme and Variations .  An obvious letter shortage has put us on a last name basis here.

His autobiography, Without Permission, is dedicated to three individuals and a film lab.  Choreographer Leonide Massine, who reprimanded him for not using a blimp on his camera; the indulgent usher, who looked the other way; Miss Genevieve Oswald, first curator of NYPL’s Dance Collection, who purchased his films as the Victor Jessen Collection; and Kinolux (1932-1991), his obviously patient film lab. The book is out of print and only appears to be in a few research libraries. There is no eBook, there is no Wikipedia page for Victor Jessen; his name shows up in an entry for the Massine ballet Gaîté Parisienne. It is in plain text, there is no link to tell us more.  If you scroll down to the bottom, there is a link to the VAI (Video Artists International) page for Gaîté Parisienne. There you will find information on Jessen and the 10 year project.

Still from Jessen’s animated credit sequence for Theme and Variations.  The end of the sequence, a credit for ABT.

When I think of Victor Jessen (or any of the secret filmmakers) inconspicuously filming dance fragments, "from various angles," with his Bell and Howell camera, coat pockets stuffed with up to 15 preloaded 16mm film magazines,  I immediately  think of Woody Allen's character Virgil Starkwell in the film Take the Money and Run.  Virgil, gathering intelligence on a bank lobby in preparation for a robbery, conceals a movie camera in a loaf of bread, but then conspicuously holds the loaf of bread to his eye as he pans about the lobby. There are more earnest splicers who have saved these ephemeral moments: Ann Barzel, Francis Fitzgerald, Lucia Wayne and various stage hands.  I hope to cover some of them in future posts.