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Movie Review: Azazel Jacobs’ Momma’s Man

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In a self-indulgent tribute to the world in which he grew up and to which his current career is obviously indebted, Azazel Jacobs’ third feature treads a fine line between alienating and welcoming the audience to his lead characters’ thirty-something life crisis. Set in the New York loft apartment which Azazel himself grew up in, Momma’s Man tells the tale of Mikey, whose short visit to his parents’ home is constantly extended for no apparent reason much to the concern of his parents and the anxious confusion of his wife, in California with their baby girl.

Beautifully unhurried in every way, we watch as Mikey indolently decides not to catch his flight home, instead returning to his parents’ cluttered apartment with an excuse about airline troubles. This same excuse translated into different varieties keeps Mikey in New York for an unspecified number of days during which he rummages through boxes of memories from his younger years, eventually stops taking his wife’s calls, visits a now ex-con old friend trying to stay off drugs and even tracks down an old girlfriend. With no narrative rhyme or reason, we follow Mikey’s lethargic days and nonsensical behaviour; a man filling his time with getting drunk on his parents’ cheap booze, playing video games and killing time with ludicrous shaving and singing enterprises.

Jacobs himself admits that he originally wanted merely to document this space he grew up in and one can clearly understand why. The home of his parents, experimental filmmaker Ken Jacobs and painter Flo (geniously cast as the mother and father in this film), truly is a sight to behold. With piles of books, filmmaking and projection equipment, toys, knick-knacks, boxes, and almost anything else you can think of cluttering this space, it truly is a treasure trove of information, art, and memories standing testament to the two bohemian parents and their son who was raised there. No photograph could have shown what Jacobs has captured within this film and it’s possible that it would have been interesting enough to document nothing more than this collection of ‘things’ all telling a tale about the inhabitants and their lives. However, as this is plainly a personal project, Jacobs’ narrative details how he himself reflects on it all.

A ‘chip off the old block,’ Jacobs has adopted his parents’ imagination and more specifically, his father’s line of work. Momma’s Man can be seen as a project of coming to terms with the fact that despite an artist’s ambition to be nothing but original, Azazel Jacobs, like everyone else, is a product of his parents and their physical and metaphysical influences. Each of his inspirations, memories, and characteristics can be tracked back to one of the hundreds of books, paintings, wall hangings, gadgets, and most especially the people in this one apartment. And just as Mikey does, Jacobs revisits the location of his creative and literal origins to rediscover, play with, and pay tribute to it.

At the risk of turning to a somewhat traditional reading, it is almost impossible to ignore the metaphor of Jacobs’ return to the womb; the place from whence he came both literally and artistically. Apart from the obvious revisit of his teen years as Mikey reads comic books and love letters, sings hilarious angst-inspired teen songs, and adopts a teen-like physicality in the hours of lazy time-wasting in his mezzanine bedroom, there is much referencing of the earliest years and the biological prenatal period during which the molecules of his father and mother were combined to create him. Mikey stays in his thermals, y-fronts, and long-johns just as a child would toddle around in its underwear. He crawls around the apartment after getting himself drunk, appearing particularly small amongst his parents' ceiling-high piles of intellectual and creative materials. Having not shaved for some time, Mikey eventually decides to do so but in his distracted state of mind proceeds to rub shaving cream all over his face. Considering the gradual regression to childhood that we have witnessed up to this point, one cannot help but think that now Mikey has crawled all the way up into the womb and is lathering himself with a form of endometrium to protect himself from all that is outside.

As his parents grow increasingly concerned and his wife increasingly desperate, we see that whilst interesting to watch, Mikey may have gone too far in this self-indulgent return to his comfort zone. He too seems to be aware of this and attempts to leave the apartment in an extended scene of numerous efforts to take the initial step down the first of many staircases out of his parents’ apartment building. The ‘Exit’ sign is clear but Mikey struggles time and time again to begin the journey down the many hallways leading him away from the apartment. Eventually he does manage to do so, but only by throwing himself down the stairs head-first; the allegory of childbirth/expulsion from the womb need not be explained any further.

So in a lovely poetic homage to his genetic and creative origins, Jacobs uses Mat Boren’s Mikey to virtually submerge himself in the warmth and wonder of his own beginnings and equally takes the reluctant step away from it. Even once he is gone we are furnished with another reminder that the physical removal from the home does not and never will represent a complete detachment; Ken and Flo look on at one of Ken’s many instalments, what appears to be an antique wedding dress draped widely over a large light. As Ken switches the light on and off the visual matching with the image of a fertilised womb again is unavoidable, but most importantly this is Ken’s creation and it is he and his wife who hold the controls to its illumination.

On this note, it is only fair to commend the performances of Ken and Flo Jacobs to an infinite degree. The extent to which their performances involved ‘acting’ is questionable but irrelevant as they play so perfectly within this world and this window of Mikey’s life; and why shouldn’t they, when the scene is their own. Even the sceptical and frustrated colleague beside me at the London Film Festival’s screening of this masterpiece could not deny the power behind the moment when Flo, with few words and the one small gesture of making Mikey sit on her knee makes him break down in uncontrollable tears. Nothing needs to be said and for all her peculiarities, the close-up on Flo’s melancholy and understanding face as she strokes Mikey’s shaking back perfectly exemplifies the universal adage that your mother “just knows” and understands you the way no one else will. The esteem of this production belongs mostly to Ken and Flo's performances within the film and before the film was even conceived. This is their world, their personae, their imaginations, their love, and their son whose journey home is as fascinating and charming to watch as their own idiosyncracies and individuality are to behold.

This is certainly not to discredit Azazel Jacob’s own masterful summary of the all-too-common theme in mainstream and independent film nowadays of a man’s arrested development. Reflecting on parenthood and childhood, origins and developments, the film’s final scene reminds us that any building blocks a person may have arranged before this time in their life, will be knocked down by children who force you to reassess your plans and understandings to their very core.

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