An optical phenomenon. When there's a small hole in cloud cover, sometimes the sun's rays shine through his hole, creating a beam of sunlight that you can see. It often looks like a spotlight.

A children's toy named after the Biblical vision of Jacob; of a ladder reaching from heaven to earth along which there were angels ascending and descending. In short, the toy can be described as a series of thin wooden blocks connected by three rows of ribbons, two on one side and one on the other, which can be arranged in such a manner as to produce the illusion of one block's flopping and flipping down the chain. The following amended instructions cannibalized from FamilyFun Magazine tell you all you need to construct a Jacob's Ladder of your very own for endless hours of en'tainment:
    Needed: a 1 1/2-foot length of 1-by-3-inch pine board (actual dimensions: 1/2 inch by 2 1/2 inches), a handsaw, sandpaper, craft paint, 3/8-inch-wide ribbon (1 1/2 feet of colour a and three feet of colour b), 18 thumbtacks and a pair of scissors.

      1. Cut the board into six 2 1/2-inch blocks. Use the sandpaper to smooth the edges. Then paint the blocks on all sides and let them dry.

      2. Tack ribbon a to the first block. Center the end of the ribbon on the left edge. Then pull the ribbon toward the right side so that it lies across the top of the block.

      Cut ribbon b into two pieces of equal length. Then tack the b ribbons to the opposite edge of the same block, spacing them 1/4 inch from the corners. Lay the b ribbons across the block, in the opposite direction from the a ribbon.

      3. Place a second block on top of the first one. Pull the b ribbons up over the top block and tack them to its left edge. Tack ribbon a to the right edge, then lay it across the top of the block.

      4. One at a time, stack on the remaining blocks and attach them using the same method. When the last block has been attached, trim off the excess ribbon.

    To set your Jacob's Ladder in motion, pick up the top two blocks and hold them together along the long edges, using your index finger and thumb. The bottom four blocks should hang freely. Then let go of the block that is second from the top. As it falls, it will appear to tumble down the chain of blocks.

Also a very entertaining little exercise in playing with string. You can get a kid fascinated with a loop of string if you just show 'em a couple of simple tricks, like cup and saucer. Jacob's Ladder is not one of the simpler ones, but they'll get it if they stick with it.

Hell, if you can hack into the FBI's web site, you can make a ladder out of a piece of string, can't you?

Also a traditional folk hymn, which we used to sing at my church when I was a kid. As with many traditional folk songs, the lyrics and melody are a bit repetitive, but kind of soothing. And you can dress it up with harmonies.

We are climbing Jacob's ladder
We are climbing Jacob's ladder
We are climbing Jacob's ladder
Brothers, sisters, all

Every rung goes higher and higher
Every rung goes higher and higher
Every rung goes higher and higher
Brothers, sisters, all

We are dancing Sarah's circle
We are dancing Sarah's circle
We are dancing Sarah's circle
Sisters, brothers, all

Every round a generation
Every round a generation
Every round a generation
Sisters, brothers, all

We are climbing Jacob's ladder
We are climbing Jacob's ladder
We are climbing Jacob's ladder
Brothers, sisters, all

The Biblical vision of Jacob (Genesis 28:10-22):

(10) And Jacob went out from Beersheba, and went toward Haran.
(11) And he lighted upon a certain place, and tarried there all night, because the sun was set; and he took of the stones of that place, and put them for his pillows, and lay down in that place to sleep.
(12) And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it.
(13) And, behold, the LORD stood above it, and said, I am the LORD God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac: the land whereon thou liest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed;
(14) And thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and thou shalt spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south: and in thee and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed.
(15) And, behold, I am with thee, and will keep thee in all places whither thou goest, and will bring thee again into this land; for I will not leave thee, until I have done that which I have spoken to thee of.
(16) And Jacob awaked out of his sleep, and he said, Surely the LORD is in this place; and I knew it not.
(17) And he was afraid, and said, How dreadful is this place! this is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.
(18) And Jacob rose up early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put for his pillows, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it.
(19) And he called the name of that place Bethel: but the name of that city was called Luz at the first.
(20) And Jacob vowed a vow, saying, If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and raiment to put on,
(21) So that I come again to my father's house in peace; then shall the LORD be my God:
(22) And this stone, which I have set for a pillar, shall be God's house: and of all that thou shalt give me I will surely give the tenth unto thee.

The vision of Jacob is the only place in the Bible where the word "ladder" appears. One of the general exegetic interpretations placed upon this passage in the Bible* is that the steps of the ladder are an allegory for the path of good works and faith that leads the believer to heaven. In this exegesis, the sides of the ladder are then interpreted to symbolise Christ, as that which holds together the entire process, from start to finish.

The Rule of St. Benedict interprets Jacob's Ladder thus:

...if we wish to reach the greatest height of humility, and speedily to arrive at that heavenly exaltation to which ascent is made in the present life by humility, then, mounting by our actions, we must erect the ladder which appeared to Jacob in his dream, by means of which angels were shown to him ascending and descending. Without a doubt, we understand this ascending and descending to be nothing else but that we descend by pride and ascend by humility. The erected ladder, however, is our life in the present world, which, if the heart is humble, is by the Lord lifted up to heaven. For we say that our body and our soul are the two sides of this ladder; and into these sides the divine calling hath inserted various degrees of humility or discipline which we must mount.
- The Rule of Benedict, Ch. VII: "On Humility"
As translated by Rev. Boniface Verheyen, OSB (1949)

Disclaimer: While I am a Christian and a reader of the Bible, my faith is not particularly strong - I am secular in viewpoint. I am an historian, and as such, my approach to the Bible is as an historical remnant of the past, not as Scripture. Whatever interpretations you may place upon the Biblical passage quoted above are your own - I am merely noding it for your reference.

Egad. All this information and none on the Tim Robbins film which is, nevertheless, referenced above (/me rolls up sleeves).

Jacob's Ladder is a bit of work that is quite difficult to classify. I'd say it's everything M. Night Shyamalan (izzat how it's spelled?) wishes he could pull off, late at night, in the throes of self-realization about how much his (derivative) films suck. (So I don't like 'em. Sue me.)

The problem with this film is that it's difficult to discuss without giving away spoilers; so, this, then, is your first, last and ONLY warning: there will be spoilers in this writeup. I will, however, warn you by indicating them with the word of confusion which, even though you can't see it, will warn you off, like this: Spoilers ahead! (That was an example. You're still safe). Note also: user nosce informs me that the IMDb page for this movie spoils it as well, so BE WARNED.

Okay, finally, on to the movie.

The film is a biopic about a Vietnam War veteran named Jacob Singer. When the movie opens, he's a relatively normal New Yorker, holding down a job at the Post office, reading what books he can, and loving his girlfriend (played with verve by Elizabeth Pena). He has some chronic back pains, which he copes with through the chiropractic services of his therapist Louis (Danny Aiello).

The problem is, his life begins to get progressively stranger.

One of the best visual pieces of this movie (for me, the New Yorker) was the faithful reconstruction of the 1970s New York subway. Jacob rides these to get around this his hometown - and it's on these rails, poorly-lit and smelling of (to quote Vinny) "The funk of forty thousand years!" that he begins to lose control of his reality.

As with most good mindgame movies, there are always more than enough plausible explanations for what's happening to him. At one point in the film, he in fact develops an extremely high fever, and comes to his senses in his bathtub, covered in ice, as Jezebel tries to wrest him back to consciousness. Visiting the VA Hospital, he is assured by the docs that it was a near thing; the infection and fever might have killed him had the fever not broken.

Of course, that can't explain what's going on, not to us. We've seen too much of his life to accept that explanation. At this point, reality begins shifting for him wholesale, and in the worst way - not through hallucinations, but through sudden changes in the fundamental basis of his world. It's the 'normal' things that become the dangerous ones, and it's the normal that Jacob learns to fear.

Anyhow, the film (directed by Adrian Lyne, whose CV includes the - IMHO - commercial and weak Fatal Attraction, the cringeworthy Flashdance, and the failed Jeremy Irons version of Lolita) is not a neat package. Whether or not that's by design, I can't say; however, it fits well. Lyne does an amazing job of recreating the New York City of the latter 1970s - the crushing summer heat, the stink of people, trash, vermin and vehicles, the unrelentingly beige sense of style, and more. Speaking as someone who lived through that at an impressionable age, it's entirely possible some of the goosebumps I get from this flick are from its entire visual mood.

There are a raft of folk who later went on to do memorable stuff. Ving Rhames is here. Eriq La Salle as well. Jason Alexander and, as mentioned (I believe), a very young Macauley Culkin who has a small but critical part. S. Epatha Merkerson looks quite at home in the city she'd later protect in Law & Order.

The movie is, at base, an elaborate retelling of a famous short story. I'm not going to tell you which one; you'll know when you see it. It's not a pretty film; it's a dark and seamy one. Not in terms of the evils of man, but the darkness of the psyche, in the parts of the head you don't sweep out and spray with Lemon Fresh Pledge on a regular basis. This film is the Place Under The Stairs in your skull. It doesn't try to scare you; it doesn't even think you're worth that much effort. In fact, it didn't scare me, so much as disturb the hell out of me.

I couldn't stop watching it when I first saw it. I am extremely glad I did see it, and am adamant that it will be a good few years before I see it again, if at all. I do, however, highly recommend it if you enjoy cerebral thrills.

The data:

Thanks to IMDB for the hard factoids!

Hah! Kidding about the spoilers. Had you going, though, didn't I?

A simple artificial lightning producing device. Two conductive rails are connected to a high voltage power source and arranged in a tall V configuration. What will happen is an arc will strike at the point of minimum distance between the conductors. Since the arc heats up the air around it, this air will rise and carry the arc up the V until the distance is too great for the arc to be maintained. At this point, the arc will break off and the process will repeat itself.

Jacob's ladders are pretty impressive for their simplicity. They can usually be constructed out of an old pole pig wired backwards with proper current limiting on the secondary windings.

The Wrong Side of the Tracks:
Visual Imagery (and other things)
in the Second Five Minutes of Adrian Lyne's “Jacob’s Ladder”

The first five minutes of Jacob's Ladder rival the opening fifteen minutes of Saving Private Ryan in terms of being a horrific portrayal of war. That’s not all that amazing - what is amazing is that Jacob’s Ladder really isn’t a war film. The next five minutes are some of the most interesting in contemporary cinema. Literary allusions abound, from ancient myth to existentialism. It is an emotional piece of cinematography in that it flawlessly provides the viewer with a snapshot of the main character’s mental state through the rest of the film - really confused and really, really scared. But even better (especially from an analysis standpoint) is that this extended scene is a contained five minutes of film, a fully developed scene with a beginning, a middle and an end. It works on its own just as well as it fits the rest of the film.

The scene opens with Jacob waking up in a subway car. From the first moment the scene smacks of Amiri Baraka’s The Dutchman, the essential theme being two people (possibly Adam and Eve) in Hell, with Hell represented by a subway train that never reaches a station.

The last we saw (and Jacob experienced) was Jacob getting bayonetted in Vietnam. He is disoriented, and so are we. Moviegoers are used to a perpendicular frame of reference, so to underscore this disorientation the camera is slightly tilted. It’s a subtle technique - the audience become slightly unsettled but can’t put their finger on why.

The book Jacob holds is The Stranger, by Camus, the concept of the novel being man’s tendency to impose a rational order on the world in the face of evidence that the world is absurd. Applied to the film, we can say that it is death that is inexplicable and that we therefore create an intellectual and emotional framework to make sense of it instead of just letting it exist as a fact of life. That structure is the ‘world’ that Jacob is currently experiencing - a rationalization of his own mortality.

We get a shot of two subway posters. The first reads “New York may be a crazy town, but you’ll never die of boredom. Enjoy!” which is essentially the movie poking fun at itself, and the second reads “HELL” and says that being on drugs is living in it. This, like the Camus reference (which recurs later - the book turns up in a desk drawer), is the whole plot of the movie in one quick shot.

He moves to the next car and tries to find out if the train has passed his stop yet. An odd woman stares at him as he talks at her, and her oddness is amplified by the lighting going in and out. Every time the lights come back on she’s still staring and doesn’t so much as blink at him. Adrian Lyne uses extremes of light and dark throughout the film, usually implemented with strobe lights, to further disrupt the audience’s linear perception of time and to reenforce the surrealist feel of the work.

On the way out of the subway car he passes a homeless man lying on a seat, and we get a glimpse of a tail. This is this first sign that something’s not at all right in Jacob’s world, but the image is so briefly seen that he assumes he’s imagining it. These demonic visions get worse and worse until they eventually step in and take over as realistic.

Jacob’s attempt to get out of the subway station is filmed so that the audience knows that he’s in a prison. Practically every time he’s shown until he jumps down to the tracks he is behind bars or pillars or fences, and usually from below. That’s an interesting use of an angle shot - When a person is filmed from a low-angle it makes them appear bigger than life (not surprisingly it's been nicknamed the superman shot). But in this case, he’s not heroic - he’s trapped in an abandoned subway station and there’s little to no chance of him punching his way through a wall to escape.

As noted, the other use of a low-angle shot is to make what a person represents seem larger than life. Jacob’s problems are completely internal so the low-angle shot makes his problems seem larger-than-life and, by contrast, make him seem helpless even though his delusional state is visually represented by him, in essence, towering over himself.

The station functions as a metaphor for Jacob’s mind. It’s a prison that he can’t escape. At the end of the scene, after the train comes, we cut to Jacob entering his apartment. We don’t actually see him leave the station. Most scenes in this film don’t have logical endings, implying that all the horrors he is experiencing are happening simultaneously and that we are jumping tracks to aid the narrative, and he is jumping the same tracks to avoid intense physical or emotional pain. This isn’t a murder mystery - the point isn’t to discover which reality is true, it’s to come to the realization that they’re all true.

The only way out of the station is to cross the tracks, a feat which Jacob attempts. As he crosses them (carefully - a wonderful detail is Jacob testing each rail with his foot in case it’s electrified) a train comes. As he crosses he puts his foot squarely into a canal of water that runs the length of the track. The reference is to ancient Greek mythology - crossing the river Styx to enter the underworld.

We don’t see the train itself initially so much as we feel it - it is represented by swaying lamps and dancing lightbulbs. When Jacob sees the train there is a moment of panic - he is standing in the middle of a switch in the tracks and doesn’t know where the train is going to go; there is no ‘safe’ side. Again, demons appear on the train - people with no faces, pressed up against the glass. The audience never sees one of these visions for more than a few seconds - by keeping them briefly shown and ambiguously placed and lit, the audience is kept in a state of confusion as to what is ‘real’ and what is in Jacob’s head. The joke’s on them, of course, as they realize that both sets are true. The demons are as real as Jacob makes them because they, and the world, reside in his head.

These five minutes are so wonderful because they are amazingly detailed. It’s the little things that make it great, and those details conspire to create a completely engrossing world. That’s quite a feat considering that Jacob’s world is almost completely unbelievable. Lyne succeeds in crafting a universe in a little under two hours - and succeeds in making a disbelieving audience believe the inherently unbelievable.

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