The substance of Matthew Mahler’s What Jack Built is in the process. As the film builds on itself, the viewer is taken on an enjoyable journey with Jack – his chaotic workshop seems to have been comprised over years, and with years’ worth of stuff. One is swept up in the excitement of the protagonist, who possesses a frantic and obsessive enthusiasm for what he is doing. The film focuses in on everything: the crucial discovery of an old keyboard (what will he use it for?) the plans in the manual outlining Jack’s construction (what one only imagines is some sort of trap) and the unearthing of an old, half-smoked cigar that accompanies us on the way through Mahler’s strange film.
The way Mahler puts enormous effort into the smallest things is perhaps what makes the film unique. One moment that really stood out for me was the coat. Before Jack ventures outside to set up his creation, he puts on an old raincoat over his overalls that he picks off a hanger attached to an odd device in his workshop. Timothy J. Cox’s performance is entertaining; everything about his performance is childlike… The wide, shifting eyes that never stop moving, the moments leading up to the first puff of his cigar, the way he lights up with great excitement when something adds up, or when he discovers something he might be able to use.
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A big part of the 8 minutes running time is the music, and original score written by Mahler himself. Without the music, the film would feel a little odd – it would lack the crucial urgency that What Jack Built possesses. The music score softens and builds up, fluctuates and manipulates the pace of the film. The soundtrack drifts over the protagonist. And in the closing moments of What Jack Built, the score settles, as does Jack, and focus moves to the contraption in the woods. Jack sits in his workshop, in a large armchair with a drink and his cigar. It is at this point that the film rests, that the tempo slows, and that we can feel Jack’s relief upon quenching his thirst. This is a rare moment, and finishes almost as soon as it begins.
I opened this review by saying that the substance, the meat of the film is in the process; one gets the impression that it is to be watched in anticipation of what Jack is building, and to a certain extent, this impression is true. But it becomes apparent by the end that the worth of the film, and there is worth there, has already been found in each moment of Jack’s creation; all the smaller details. And as a bonus, the creative process behind the creative process, the Matthew Mahler behind the Jack, so to speak, starts to stand out. It’s my impression that there’s a lot to be discussed in Mahler’s 8 minute short that has, or could potentially be left undiscussed.
Watch What Jack Built – the full film – here:
What Jack Built at IMDb