Although Stan Brakhage died in 2003, another icon of Beat Generation experimental filmmaking, Ken Jacobs, has just released the latest iteration of his Star Spangled to Death, a fabled project he began in 1957 but didn’t complete, reworked as a performance piece in the ’70s, and decided to go ahead and finalize on digital video for last year’s New York Film Festival with new footage from the 2003 anti-war demonstrations in New York; my screening of it this week at the REDCAT theatre in L.A. included George W. Bush’s comments opposing an International Criminal Court during the presidential debate of September 30, as well as Jacobs’ critique. By my informal estimate over seven hours long, the film incorporates the footage Jacobs shot in the late-’50s involving Jack Smith and Jerry Sims performing improvised abstract performances in the back alleys of New York juxtaposed with archival footage (from Mickey Mouse animation to US propaganda films to musicals to Richard Nixon’s “Checkers” speech) that offers a grab bag portrait of 20th century media and American culture. Compulsively watchable even at its extraordinary length (with three built-in intermissions), Jacobs’ film is a strident protest against corporate media and its popular illusions, with a special focus on racist stereotypes and religious mediocrity.
“Star Spangled to Death is an epic film costing hundreds of dollars!” Jacobs begins his screening notes, and one can appreciate the truth of that statement on seeing the film. Allowing most of his found footage to run its individual lengths with little commentary (although later clips, like the Nixon speech, are laced with mocking sound effects), Jacobs saves his authorial voice for streams of texts raging against the capitalist system, texts which on many occasions have been recorded on individual frames of the film and flicker unlegibly for mere fractions of a second, suggesting he has much more to say than time allows. “I would happily greet cheap DVD home distribution (when my flash-texts can be read)” he writes in his notes, and attributes the advent of DV filmmaking as the sole reason the film was completed. “In the winter of 1959 editing facilities were two nails in a wall holding two film reels and an enlarging glass and in 2003 a G4 with Final Cut Pro. . . . At age 71, I have to attend to cine-demands other than matching film to video.”
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. Smith apparently plays The Spirit Not of Life But of Living and cavorts in alleys wearing intensely bohemian garb and celebrates Suffering, played by Sims, two “clowning” responses to an America that seems entirely removed from their everyday plight, caught up in its own diversions and greedy interests. “Here, in these notes, ” Jacobs writes (and he might as well have included his acerbic textual diatribes contained in the film), “you get gravity. The movie achieves levity.”
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.