Sunday Editor’s Pick: Star Spangled to Death (1957-2004)

by on March 25, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Sun April 1 at 1:30* at Museum of the Moving Image [Program & Tix]
*Ken Jacobs in-person
Over one weekend MOMI screens “Ken Jacobs: Recent Works,” with the avant-garde icon in-person at all films. A great opportunity to view this behemoth statement, voted the third greatest experimental work of the decade by Film Comment. You can read Alt Screen’s considerable coverage of Jacob’s antics, including Jesse P. Finnegan’s feature on his 3-D work, here.

J. Hoberman for the Village Voice:

The ultimate underground movie, Star Spangled to Death, Ken Jacobs’s epic, bargain-basement assemblage, annotates a lyrical junkyard allegory with chunks of mainly ’30s American movies—or is it the other way around?
Jacobs uses movies throughout—a Warners short made to publicize the NRA; an early, scummy Mickey Mouse cartoon; an excerpt from Kid Millionsin which Eddie Cantor opens a “free” ice-cream factory—to ground the action in Depression flashbacks. This found material, often layered with added sound, allows Jacobs to brood on human programming, military triumphalism, and—most insistently—American racism. There’s a devastating progression from a virtual Nazi-toon version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin through Al Jolson’s infamous “Going to Heaven on a Mule” and an excerpt from Oscar Micheaux’s God’s Step Childrento Khalid Muhammad’s speech in praise of LIRR gunman Colin Ferguson. The Holocaust figures here as well—although Jacobs ultimately apologizes for typecasting the outcast Sims as suffering ghetto Jew.
Although the movie’s collage structure is designed to boggle the mind, individual shots can be breathtaking. Jacobs’s dynamic compositions use mirrors, scrims, and random debris in a manner anticipating Smith’s Flaming Creatures. (Indeed, shown as performance, Star Spangled to Death provided the model for Smith’s own unfinished epics—particularly No President.) In the end, the movie turns mournfully self-reflexive. With its intimations of aesthetic utopia amid the rubble of social collapse, this is a tragic meditation on what Jean-Luc Godard called “the film of history.”



Hoberman in another review for the Voice:

Do these underdog antics gloss the evidence Jacobs has gathered? Or is it vice versa? The movie is a vast, ironic pageant of 20th-century American history and consciousness. Fantastic street theater alternates with classroom hygiene films or dated studies of behavioral modification; Jacobs’s performers, notably the young Jack Smith, hobnob with Mickey Mouse, Al Jolson, and American presidents from Franklin Roosevelt to George W. Bush. Obsession overflows as Jacobs’s private mythology and outspoken cultural criticism merge with relentless documentation of America’s ongoing military mobilization and institutionalized racism. I reviewed Star Spangled to Death when it was shown once last October as part of the New York Film Festival; since then Jacobs has made it even more topical in his references to our current war.
Jacobs has availed himself of advancing technology by adding all manner of annotation, some even subliminal. As a work of art, Star Spangled to Death has as much in common with the Watts Towers or the Barnes Foundation as with cinema as we know it; still, its theatrical run is most likely the movie event of the year.


Dave Kehr for The New York Times:

With a running time of 6 hours and 42 minutes, this movie is the magnum opus of the independent filmmaker Ken Jacobs. Begun in 1957 as a backyard bohemian romp starring the avant-garde legend Jack Smith — an amazing proto-drag performer who later directed his own underground classic, “Flaming Creatures” — the project grew over the years to include huge chunks of appropriated material, including, for example, the entirety of Richard Nixon’s 1952 Checkers speech and what seems like most of an early 1930’s documentary on what was then known as “darkest Africa.” For this provisionally definitive version, Mr. Jacobs has brought his film up to date with topical references to the war in Iraq and the Bush administration. Whether or not this is the final cut of “Star Spangled to Death” (Mr. Jacobs is a youthful 70, with plenty of time for further modifications), it stands as a rare living, breathing example of American avant-garde filmmaking, a species unfortunately well on its way to extinction.


Mark McElhatten for Film Comment:

A monumental anti-monument begun during the Cold War and completed during George W. Bush’s “sovereign” reign of terror, underground luminary Ken Jacobs’s nearly all-singing, all-dancing version of A People’s History of the United States is an incendiary critique of American capitalism, racism, and adventurism. Just as Charles Ives created ear-bending symphonies of highly original music colliding in time with quotes from hymns, patriotic anthems, parlor songs, and stage tunes, Jacobs’s visual “symphony of profound social disgust” combines self-indicting religious and patriotic ephemera, cartoons, science documentaries, paid political announcements, and Hollywood musical numbers with his own stellar footage of proto-happenings. The incomparable live wire Jack Smith (as “Spirit of Life But Not Living”) and forgotten man Jerry Sims cavort with an opposing cast of co-stars: Cagney, Rockefeller, Dick Powell, Mickey Mouse, Eddie Cantor, Al Jolson, and an array of dead presidents, all put to “fair use” in this nearly seven-hour masterpiece. An avant-garde Fahrenheit 9/11 for those who refuse to compromise one iota of cinematic and human intelligence

Time Out Film Guide:

One of the last surviving giants of avant garde American cinema, Ken Jacobs spent 50 years assembling this six-hour epic video commentary on a half century of US mischief, mistakes and occasional downright madness. This found-footage feast of cartoons, information films, documentaries and musicals, given fresh context and impact when threaded with Jacobs’ own sequences. Primarily from street-level late ’50s NYC, these chart the emergence of a new cinema, society and way of being. It’s a panoramic vision of a country’s schizophrenic stumbling towards this delirious now. Moments to savour include a pre-presidential Nixon seeking the modest man’s vote with a telling lift from Abe Lincoln: ‘God must have loved the common people, he made so many of them.’


A Jacobs handout to accompany the film here.



The Seventh Art:

Whatever one attempts to say about Ken Jacobs’ sprawling, pointed, majestic, self-deprecating, playful, serious, enrapturing, frustrating underground work Star Spangled to Death (1957-2004), apart from becoming contradictory, only turns out reductive, for it is an unwieldy beast of a film. A relentlessly fragmented and remarkably sustained reflection on war, xenophobia, imperialism, religion, ideology, racism, resistance, justice and truth – although always in the American context – Jacobs’ film is simultaneously an anarchist critique of the USA and a celebration of its (possible) glories. Constructed using a dizzying amount of news reels, second rate TV specials, Disney cartoons, excerpts from early Hollywood productions, political speeches and amateur footage, among others, Star Spangled to Death is both a history of America constructed using its mass media and a deconstruction of historiography based on mass media. Rather than trying to write an inevitably insufficient review of this massive film, I chose to embark on a much more mechanical, much more pointless, much more painstaking, much more fascinating and, really, much more rewarding exercise.
For the uninitiated, Jacobs plants hundreds of single frame flash texts – besides equally elusive shards of images and sounds – throughout the seven hour film, each of which lingers for about one twenty-fifth of a second on the screen, into the film. These texts perform the paradoxical function of aggravating the slippery nature of the film and presenting its ideas cut and dried. Of course, this hit-and-run approach is anything but subtle. It’s more like Freudian seepage from the film’s unconscious to its surface. Much like how Jacobs counterpoints narratives of the establishment with the film’s overall structure and trajectory, these texts prove to be the perfect foil to whatever assertions these dominating materials make. There’s another paradox at work here. One one hand, Jacobs’ film – specifically these flash texts – is one that’s uniquely encoded in the film format. These frames – with fixed position in time and space – are much easier to zero in on a reel of film than on an intangible stream of binary numbers. One the other, it’s only a home video that provides one the luxury to navigate the film with ease in order to grab these frames. If cinephilia, in a sense, is defined as an odyssey to capture for life that elusive frame, Star Spangled To Death literalizes the notion and takes it to its extreme.



Genevieve Yue for Senses of Cinema:

It is timely no matter what decade when viewed, and no doubt it stands as a singularly important vision that chronicles American society of the past 50 years. Star Spangled to Death is like a sponge, absorbing into itself political advertisements, patriotic songs, home movies, television programs, soft porn, newsreels, early cartoons, and the delirious street antics of Jack Smith and Jerry Sims.

Did I mention that the film is six and a half hours long? It is also incredibly entertaining, funny, and accessible – perhaps more so than any avant-garde film I’ve ever seen. Nothing’s sacred for Jacobs, except perhaps film itself. Often Star Spangled to Death is bitingly, even sophomorically funny. There’s a certain satisfaction you get when you hear a burp in the middle of Nixon’s speech, or the cutting in of “his conscience directed him to give back the money”, heard previously, over an ad for Nelson Rockefeller. It is a “triumph of whimsy” (Jerry), and for all its misery, a good time celebrated with friends. The neck strain that the idea of so long a movie conjures does not do it justice.

In Star Spangled to Death, Jacobs has his ear to the ground, listening through the celluloid surface of “throwaway” film – the discarded, forgotten remnants of an America that didn’t want to remember itself. “One lives in a swirl of this stuff”, Jacobs told me, and yet it consistently surprises me how blank our memories become when we try to remember what we watch on TV from day to day. Found footage isn’t simply found. It is ignored, if deemed superfluous, or destroyed if thought to be potentially disastrous or unprofitable. This was the story of von Stroheim’s Greed (1924), of which eight hours had been cut and destroyed from the original version. When the young Jacobs learned of this, his passion for the film mixed with outrage, and he definitively decided “I had to find another way of making films”. In this way, Star Spangled to Death, along with every other film or performance in Jacobs’ oeuvre, can be considered an investigation of what cinema is, has been, and could be. In Star Spangled to Death, everything seems like a parody of itself, and the only believable moments are the street theatre scenes with Jack Smith and Jerry Sims, alive and noisy, flashes of brilliance from one of the dingiest-looking stairwells in New York City.



Edward Crouse talks to Jacobs, also for the Village Voice:

To paraphrase the opening of his six-and-a-half-hour magnum opus, Star Spangled to Death, Ken Jacobs has got a lot of explaining to do. Why here? Why now? Why on video? Jacobs fielded questions while tweaking and lording over an army of slats, projectors, wires, screws, and wheels that make up his Nervous System apparatus. “Yes, Star Spangled must get out there. It must save the world—or play its little role in doing so,” he said.

Two weeks later, at the Cuban cafeteria he lives above on Chambers Street, Jacobs looked a little deflated. He shook his head at the military recruiting station recently installed down the street. Upstairs, he said, he was re-editing Star Spangled, his first (1957) and most recent (2004 and beyond) movie. Back on native turf, Jacobs addressed those who may have found Star Spangled ill-mannered. “What kind of manners can you expect from someone who feels like they’re being pushed off the planet?” His eyebrows raised. “A reign of invincible stupidity is descending!”

Jacobs’s desperation spans nearly 50 years and multiple technologies—from nihilo-realist filmed street theater, when he and Jack Smith would gambol down St. Marks Place with their pant legs rolled up, up to SSTD’s closing footage of a dreadlocked drum circle warrior (“the spirit of Jack Smith”) at last year’s enormous anti-war rally. Star Spangled‘s time zones lean on and leap over each other like drunks on the street after last call. These self-destroying shreds of oft appalling history mingle in weird ways. The black-Jewish-WASP power exchange is among the major strains. What did Jacobs think of Robert Alda (né Alphonso Giuseppe Giovanni Roberto D’Abruzzo) playing George Gershwin? “God, that was humiliating. It’s like suddenly Gershwin spoke Shakespearean or something. Rhapsody in Blue was a reaction to the WW II Jewish genocide, trying to say, ‘Hey, we’re Americans, too, we’re just like you. Don’t kill us.’ The movie is easy to mock, but that survival instinct is there. It’s a shitty movie, but should be understood as part of the dialogue of the time.”



Jonathan Rosenbaum for the Chicago Reader:

One way of justifying the unwieldy length of Star Spangled to Death would be to see it as a way of expressing the congealed no-exit feeling of the late Eisenhower years — the sense of uniformity stretching into infinity, marked by semicomatose complacencies such as the TV shows of Perry Como and Ed Sullivan as well as Your Hit Parade and I’ve Got a Secret. For all their adolescent and even infantile mugging, Smith and Sims are often clearly decrying the way their urban playpens resemble prisons — a point often underscored by Jacobs’s decor and mise en scene — before collapsing into abject despair. “The Future decides this is no place for The Future,” reads one intertitle, which is soon followed by “Another day without a future, but what the hell, another day.”

Within such a morose context, Jacobs looks back nostalgically to the 30s — to the deprivations, the kitsch, the crazed dreams of plenitude — and sees a kind of paradise. And within the same context, the frenzied yet bored dress-up games of Smith and Sims seem like stabs at transcendence. By the 50s, Jacobs writes in the program notes, “Hollywood with some few exceptions had gone numb, frantic and numb in this time of fascist ascendance and cultural impoverishment. The enemy had switched from Right to Left at the end of World War II and the owners had returned with a vengeance. Their message was simple: ‘Shut up and do what you’re told.’ War had done the trick of loosening industry from its Depression fix and war would now be America’s raison d’etre.” One might even say that Jacobs’s inability to finish Star Spangled to Death in its own era — the lab costs were prohibitive — is yet another symptom of the frustration and inertia the work as a whole is describing.

I can say that Jacobs’s current marathon undoubtedly benefits as well as suffers from its lack of definition. The advantage is that by eluding and even confounding all generic categories, it fulfills the traditional aspiration of the antibourgeois avant-garde to shatter certainties. But it also takes on a recognizable shape and purpose once it belatedly manages to define its political focus, and that makes the earlier sections look a bit like waffling. Though I’m touched by Jacobs’s evocation of 50s angst, I’m even more moved by his crystal-clear anger about America today — and by his refusal to succumb to despair.



Doug Cummings for Film Journey:

The film is a lively concoction, jumping from one clip to another while sporadically returning to its narrative in counterpoint, and at times, its stylization makes it nearly impossible to comprehend. But the film’s intentional Beat messiness also has its patterns and recurring motifs. It begins with a ’50s documentary describing a safari that treats the African people and their customs with the same patronizing preciousness that it regards the exotic flora and fauna around them. Just when the footage seems like one of many random parts to the film (apart from its obvious datedness and the Western cultural solipsism it conveys), Jacobs returns to to it in later sections of his overall work, juxtaposing it with clips of Al Jolson singing or extravagantly mounted blackface musicals, conveying an expanding image of implicit racism. One of the latter productions shamelessly depicts blacks singing in heaven, where roasted chicken and watermelon is offered aplenty.

Jacobs cuts from the droning narration of the safari documentary to a heartrending scientific film depicting Harry Harlow’s notorious psychological experiment with infant monkeys and substitute wire “mothers” to study the effects of attachment and deprivation. The certainty of language and coldly inhumane treatment of the monkeys seen on CBS is virtually shocking by today’s media conventions, but the connection between the safari’s Western pride and Harlow’s self-satisfied analysis of “love” through imprisoned creatures is readily clear.

In fact, a large part of the moral force of Star Spangeled to Death is precisely its watchability: from exuberant, racist cartoons to Jolson’s melodious voice to the eerie religious rhetoric of television faith healers, the clips are perversely engaging viewing, fashioning their drama with undeniably virtuosity while embodying scandalously poisonous or sensational content. It’s a critique of pop culture that allows room for the viewer to do the critiquing. “It was supposed to lie in a jumbled heap,” Jacobs writes, “errant energies going nowhere, the talented viewer inferring form. A Frankenstein that fizzled but twitching and still dangerous to approach.” Given Jacobs’ penchant for continual additions, we may not have yet seen the final version. At present, it’s a stimulating, labyrinthine experience provided by a master of the American avant-garde and an historical artifact that is nevertheless piercingly contemporary.



Jacobs for The Cultural Society:

I got out of the Coast Guard, and I had thoughts of making American films like The Bicycle Thief, and things, in some cases, more fantastic, more fantasy-ideas. And I did think in terms of working with actors and telling stories. Italian neo-realism was enormously impressive upon me, impressive to me, and so was World War II combat footage, where, for the first time,in the local movie theater and the newsreels, one began seeing hand-held images on the screen; cameras going out and moving in space, free of dollies and all these other things that meant weight and rootedness to the ground. It was amazing. Sometimes the world would tilt to the side. You know, a camera would move in another direction and the whole world that was presented to you in this vertical/horizontal way would be awry in an astounding way. So these were some of the things that excited me, and also I was political from the very beginning; a leftist from my teenage years. I wanted to do things that were going to expose and instruct, and try and better the world.

You’ll see in the end of this thing there’s no way you can really make sense of it. This long six hour film does have a logic to it, which you are going to be deprived of. I hope you come back and see the movie some day. Here’s the end of it.

One more thing: in this twenty-first century, that’s when I’m beginning to actually completely finish this long, impossible work. The one thing I didn’t quite finish saying was I did see the struggle as life against death. And I meant for this work to be alive, above all, alive — okay? That’s what I was going to preach, being alive.



Colin Beckett for Union Docs:

“Restrained” is probably not the best word to describe Star Spangled to Death — Ken Jacobs’ forty-plus-years-in-the-making, 6 hour and 45 minute screed about the failures and hypocrisies of American government– but it is more apt than you might imagine. Jacobs is not one to hold back. He is best known for his aggressive manipulation of the film image, and the colorful rhetoric that often accompanies it. Given the size of his canvas here, and the wealth of outrages to air, the film could easily have become a long, bilious rant. Instead, Jacobs has crafted a multivalent historical epic.

Instead of targeting a single thesis, Jacobs’ sights pass over varied abuses of power by the U.S. government and by a mass media happy to serve as its ideological organ. The film’s chief examples are the war machine that has operated, openly or in secret, since World War II; institutional and cultural racism; the overwhelming influence of religious fanaticism (and, in the film’s most simplistic moments, the idiocy of religion itself); rampant poverty in the shadow obscene wealth; and the tyranny of a majority kept uninformed by design. “Give socialism another chance” reads one of the film’s closing salvos. But Star Spangled to Death does not unfold like a revolutionary’s pamphlet. It is a living scrapbook of injustice kept by someone who can no longer believe it will ever be punished.

“Let’s assume this movie is for you”, begins the film’s opening text. “This would mean you hardly stand a chance”. Star Spangled to Death addresses itself to a disaffected minority audience. But despite its own protestations, the film’s real miracle is its accessibility. To appreciate it, you might need to share some of its political sympathies, but you don’t have to be conversant with its lineage or all the traditions that inform it. You don’t have to know who Jack Smith is. You just have to be comfortable not knowing. The film will be intelligible to anyone willing to give it half a day of their life. Without sacrificing his integrity or lowering his ambition, and probably without even intending to, Jacobs has created a seven-hour non-narrative film open to anyone ready to give it a shot. Those who do will find a monument constructed in opposition to the substance from which it was made: moving images seductive enough to compel their audience to trade agency for unsatisfying distraction. But the film’s very existence serves as a Smith-like antidote to the despondency that informs its creation. “The Spirit Not of Film But Of Filmmaking”, the pun might go.


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