A paradigmatic New York indie of the kind that cannot be accused of star-slumming or dependie bloat, Azazel Jacobs’ “Momma’s Man” tells an incremental tale of modern regression, and as such it is patient and stinging. Mikey (Matt Boren), a flabby thirtysomething man of undefined profession, gets laid over in New York and bunks in his aging parents’ loft instead of waiting at the airport. At least we’re told so — the next day Mikey invents a few more excuses to linger in the house in which he grew up instead of going home to his wife and child in California. The days pass, his enabling mother (Flo Jacobs, the director’s mother) caters to him sympathetically (her priceless first note left at the breakfast table tells him there’s cereal, there’s fruit, “put fruit in the cereal”), his distant father (Ken Jacobs, Azazel’s father) wonders silently what the hell’s going on, and Mikey slips semi-consciously off the grid, rummaging through his old toys and comics, erecting a battery of lies to all concerned so he can simply avoid returning to adult life. It’s a crafty variation on a pungent contemporary theme (only recently have filmmakers considered the middle-class husband/father surreptitiously on the run from his responsibilities, and they’re at it now with a vengeance). Jacobs adroitly connects the impulse to vanish with the desire to regress into youth, and Boren underplays the breakdown perfectly, knowing that Mikey is lying to himself every moment as well.
But there’s more to “Momma’s Man,” more ambivalence and context, than a plot summary suggests. Ken Jacobs, of course, is one of the founding figures of modern American experimental film, an influence on Jack Smith, Andy Warhol, Ron Rice, Robert Nelson and many more, and remains, in his 70s, a prolific and restless visionary. He has, over the last 20 years or more, been exploring the meaning of images by subjecting found footage to his “Nervous System” shows, which involve a dueling pair of projectors manually controlled by the filmmaker. Likewise, the home featured in “Momma’s Man” is the real Jacobs homestead, a massive downtown labyrinthine warehouse packed with artstuff, effluvia, plywood partitions, endless boxed archives, old toys, film editing equipment, improvised electrical wiring, convex store mirrors and so on. You can only wonder what it was like to grow up in this gargantuan curiosity shop, and it’s no surprise that Jacobs fils realized his familial crib was in fact a giant, natural movie set, no less fecund and seductive than the basement of Xanadu and evoking all sorts of eccentric history.
In fact, it creates a bizarre particularity around Mikey’s unexpressed psychological balancing act — how has a childhood spent within the collection-obsession orbit of one of the greatest found-footage filmmakers shaped him? (In the movie, Jacobs pere essentially plays Ken Jacobs, and works on Jacobs’ projects.) Does Azazel Jacobs avoid this question (Mikey is conceived as a kind of schlubby everyman, while Azazel is a safety-pin-eared indie moviemaker), or does he simply consider his family and home to be unexceptional? The anxiety of influence is seeping up through the water table: Ken Jacobs’ father figure is a quiet, reticent observer to the film’s narrative crisis, but one look around that maniacal workshop-catacomb tells us he’s the family’s and the home’s defining force, and hardly a marginal player, like so many fathers who go away to work each morning and return only peripherally involved with what’s been going on at home all day. Certainly, theirs couldn’t have been an orthodox, placid father-son relationship.
What’s more, you get the sense that much of what Mikey does while skirting his bourgeois existence — read, doodle, daydream, try to make sense of the past, idly experiment with making stuff — is what Jacobs pere has in effect done his whole artistic life, albeit with driving ambition. (He certainly has avoided being a member of the bourgeoisie.) Mikey’s sole evidence of creativity is a song he wrote in high school after getting dumped (the chorus begins “Fuck Fuck You”), and when he gives it a go on his old guitar, Ken Jacobs pipes up from somewhere, “Please play quieter!” Whatever documentary anxiety we may sense in “Momma’s Man,” it’s obvious too that Azazel is a wise explorer of his own world — he dares to include on the DVD a new short by his father, “Capitalism: Child Labor” (2006), which optically prints-dissects-hyperventilates a short piece of early-century footage of children at work in a thread factory, and in 14 dazzling minutes puts most of last year’s features to shame.