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Storm of a century: Ken Jacobs's outsize anthem of discontent

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? In early February at the Rotterdam Film Festival, 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 Spangledmust get out there. It must save the world—or play its little role in doing so," he said. Jacobs recounted Star Spangled's caroming history, one as impoverished, outsize, and strangely barnacled as the movie itself. In the late 1950s, after a screening of some of the rushes at the Charles Theater on 12th and Avenue B, Jacobs found himself on a pay phone with Jonas Mekas, who wanted to adopt what he saw. Mekas—bolstered by the cash of fellow Anthology Film Archives founder Jerome Hill—opted to make prints of the shorts Blonde Cobraand Little Stabs at Happinessinstead. In 2001, the New York Public Library began funding a print, only to have money fizzle after 9-11. Jacobs stepped over the "money hurdle" by premiering this latest cut on video at last year's New York Film Festival.

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 Spangledill-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!"

Fighting a reign of invincible stupidity
photo: Anthology Film Archives
Fighting a reign of invincible stupidity

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."

 
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