Wonder and Despair

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“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.

Jacobs began shooting the film that would become Star Spangled to Death in 1957. Preferring improvisation to careful planning, he wandered the Lower East Side with Jack Smith, not yet the notorious director of Flaming Creatures, and their friend Jerry Sims, a gaunt,  frowning bohemian. They staged scenes on sidewalks, in empty lots, and on top of trash piles. Eventually they had their own makeshift soundstage: the courtyard of a building maintained by a friendly superintendent, in which Sims arranged a chaotic landscape from disfigured dolls, old newspapers, and other abandoned scraps. Smith, draped in costume accessories and garbage, plays “The Spirit Not of Life But of Living”, a hyperactive wraith who animates the city’s dreariest patches and disrupts the orderly routines of its 9-to-5ers. Sims is “Suffering”, a complaining, downtrodden outcast who serves as a receptacle for all the indignity to which America has subjected its marginal. The pair appear in vignettes throughout the film, traipsing through the city, and posing with friends in their fenced-in set. These sections are brief compared to the long stretches of found footage that make up the bulk of the film.

On top of all of this is text. Lots and lots of text. This is “a film for people who like to read”, Jacobs informs us in the introductory titles. That promise is fulfilled by chunks of commentary, history, and citation, all related in Jacobs’ forceful, informal style. Alongside the passages left onscreen long enough to read are “flash texts” — long paragraphs that speed by almost imperceptibly, designed for the home viewer’s pause button. Jacobs said a friend told him that the complete experience took him 15 hours.

Jacobs started adding archival footage to this material early on. After running out of money in the early 60s, he set it aside. He returned to the project throughout the years, and various iterations popped up under different names, all of them clocking monumental run times. In the early 2000s, goaded by the excesses of the Bush administration, and aided by his children and the economy of digital editing, he produced this final version, and released it in 2004.

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 Cheap 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.

During the Q&A with J. Hoberman that followed the UnionDocs screening, Jacobs said that in 1957, the only precedent he could name for the film he envisioned was von Stroheim’s Greed. The resemblance was philosophical, not formal. Still, Star Spangled to Death is not sui generis. The autobiographical lyricism that characterizes the street segments was a relatively recent cinematic development. While a few films here and there had been produced from appropriated material, Bruce Connor was just getting started cementing the found footage film as a genre unto itself. By the time Jacobs finished Star Spangled to Death, both of these modes had become commonplace. And while he may have been short on filmic inspiration, he had no trouble finding it in other media. The film is packed with allusions to various manifestations of (mostly American) Modernism: the maniacal formalism of the Disney animations, the Jazz and Blues songs that populate the soundtrack, Sims’ and Smith’s beatnik swagger, and the Hans Bellmer-like Surrealism of the severed doll parts in the courtyard. Jacobs’ mentor was Hans Hoffman, the abstract expressionist painter. The film is informed by a heroic conception of the artist that was perhaps picked up from him. Jacobs’ work didn’t come from nowhere, but the film is novel in its formulation of these now familiar strategies, and through its unique configurations of Jacobs’ aesthetic forbears.

Many critics have seized on Jacobs’ atypical deployment of the archival footage. Rather than cut it into small bits and assemble them in dense layers of ironic juxtaposition, the most common tactic of filmic assemblage, Jacobs lets lets his material run long. He gives us whole cartoons, television programs, and non-fiction film strips, as well as long excerpts from features like Micheaux’s God’s Stepchildren, DeMille’s The Crusades, and the Eddie Cantor vehicle Kid Millions. He is deeply invested in the form and content of the documents themselves, not just their semiotics.

This involvement enables the film to perform a particularly rich sort of media critique. The risible sobriety of a racist documentary about Martin and Osa Johnson’s African explorations bristles against the immediacy of Jacobs’ own recordings, Smith and Sims’ liveliness standing in direct contrast to the unreality of official non-fiction. Instead of hiding in the fog of associative indeterminacy, he presents his borrowed material in the fullness of its implication, if not its original context. Where he could have shown us a single image from The Jazz Singer to call upon our preexisting discomfort with minstrelsy, he gives us whole blackface performances, by performers white and black, photographed and illustrated, on record and on film. He replaces kneejerk assent to his condemnation with the full dehumanizing violence of the minstrel act, along with a hint of its knotted history. It’s like the difference between a Pop-Up Video factoid and a footnote.

This method enlivens more than the critique. Jacobs’ patience leaves his material the room to trigger a whole range of emotions. He includes an episode of the 1950s CBS science show  Buy buy clonidine online overnight delivery Conquest that details Harry Harlow’s “Mother Love” experiment, in which he removed Rhesus monkeys from their mothers and gave them them two inanimate approximations, one wire and one cloth, to test the comparative affective power of nursing versus that of contact comfort. By presenting the entire episode, Jacobs is able to provoke horror, laughter, disbelief, and ethical contemplation rather than just comment on the experiment’s cruelty. When footage of Smith and Sims writhing on a fire escape rhymes with the “autistic” behavior of the motherless monkeys, the metaphor of the state’s role as abusive caretaker is one among many variegated meanings.The film is ironic and opinionated, but it is never knowing.

Star Spangled to Death’s subject is the whole sweep of 20th century American life, but through its idiosyncratic emphases and its reliance on Jacobs’ early footage, it often suggests autobiography. “This is not a young person’s movie” Hoberman noted on Saturday. True enough, the 2004  Pills Pills Star Spangled To Death Pills catalogs five decades worth of disappointment with U.S. democracy, and carries in it the echoes of a lifelong political engagement. It also serves as a memorial to its stars: Smith died of AIDS in 1989, and Sims has remained obscure.

But much of the film’s impact issues from the tension between the project’s youthful inception and the hard-won maturity of its final execution. Sims’ and Smith’s mythopoetic archetypes would have seemed simply products of vernal pretension had Jacobs finished the film in the late 50s. Appearing now, they stand not only as totems to time past, but also as lived impulses within Jacobs, not just grandiose metaphysical abstractions. The film retains the young performers’ authentic abandon and dramatic abjection while the implications of which have ripened. The opposition between Suffering and the Spirit of Living resonates throughout the borrowed media — in the contrast between nihilistic violence and anarchic freedom in many of the cartoons, or between ghettoization and community inGod’s Stepchildren. Sims’ anguish becomes an embodiment of the text’s defeated anger, and Smith’s wild physicality speaks for the mystery and joy it obscures. It’s as if Jacobs, to whom it seems despair comes as naturally as it does to Sims, is pushing himself to remember the wonder Smith represents.

“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.