by Allan Fish
(USA 2004 402m) DVD1
A film for people who like to read
d/w Ken Jacobs ph/ed Ken Jacobs
Jack Smith, Jerry Sims, Gib Taylor, Bill Carpenter, Cecilia Swan, Ken Jacobs,
Ken Jacobs’ magnum opus is a time capsule of a movie if ever there was one. It constantly harks back to the past, both America’s past and his own. As such it opens a window to a period of American underground avant garde filmmaking that so closely resembles the fate of extinct species that it’s like viewing footage of the dodo. It has no stars, only a series of sequences of free-form clowning featuring Jerry Sims and Jack Smith (as the Spirit Not of Life but of Living), the same Smith whose Flaming Creatures lit one of the brightest flames in the avant garde movement in the early 1960s. Jacobs himself had made other films around that time, most notably Blonde Cobra, in which Smith again appeared, and it’s masturbatory cinema in its purest form, nigh on unwatchable now.
While Star Spangled to Death’s core footage was shot in the late 1950s, the arc which spans its seven hour running time is most definitely from 2004. In its way, it’s a companion piece to Adam Curtis’ exposés of the media-corrupted society in which we live, but Jacobs’ film is far more personal, taking in numerous other subjects, from racial bigotry and its depiction in old Hollywood movies and cartoons, the patronisation of white imperialism and the corrosive nature of hard-line religion.
It may not be your cup of tea, but Jacobs is honest with you from the get go. “Let’s assume this movie is for you”, an opening captions reads. “This would mean you hardly stand a chance. You want to know where you stand. Here’s a simple test; take a radio or TV and sample each station or channel. No skipping, give it some time. How many are to your taste or in approximate accord with your perspective on things as against how many that send you up the wall? That probably tells you how you stand in the electorate and of your chances of genuine democratic representation in a winner-take-all arrangement.”
What we get is a seemingly random juxtaposition of individual images and movie footage. There’s Mickey Mouse on the/in Chain Gang, an ethnological documentary of embarrassing condescension in which two white missionaries are treated as altruistic messiahs instructing backward native Africans. Al Jolson in blackface sings ‘Goin’ to Heaven on a Mule’ in Wonder Bar and finds that pork chops grow on trees in the clouds to illustrate the depiction of race in Hollywood in the 1930s (as Jonathan Rosenbaum observed, it’s surprising that the likes of Tex Avery’s Pint-Sized Pigmy or one or two of the banned Warner Bros cartoons didn’t make the cut). Throw in extended sequences from Cecil B.de Mille’s wonderfully camp The Crusades, in which Jacobs finds time to superimpose captions mocking religious self-righteousness – “a fight to the death over whose imaginary friend is bigger and best”, the conflict between Christians and Moslems is summed up. There’s even time for a few finger points at the Bible Belt; “the bright side of ecocide, Jesus returns!” one caption reads, while in another referring to one of his friends saying “there’s nothing Christians loved more than a crucified Jew.”
There are numerous cinematic references, including to Von Stroheim’s Greed and Cagney cynically assessing the corruption of the American dream in The Oklahoma Kid, but other references pass by in a flash; some captions appear only for one frame, like the flashes of Tyler Durden in Fight Club, as if written into the subconscious fabric of the piece, but making a full appreciation in a cinema impossible. Not so much interactive cinema then as interactive video, where, armed with a freeze frame advance, we can read the subliminal and often controversial flashes. Not all of it works; indeed, barely half of it does, and there are long stretches that verge on tedium that would be enough to send you over the edge if watched in one sitting. It’s best watched in small instalments, then put down and come back to, like a book you read on holiday, or indeed in the manner of its making over nearly 50 years. As Jacobs admits, “if this is a movie for you, I would commiserate, if I didn’t think it worse to be among the sheep.” I am Jack’s furious indignation.