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?
When Parker Tyler identified the cinematic desire to “provide a documentary showcase for the underdog’s spontaneous, uncontrolled fantasy,” he was surely thinking of Jacobs’s desperately beautiful immersion in childish behavior and political despair. Jacobs began shooting Star Spangled in the late ’50s, and the movie has become his life’s work. Over the years, he’s screened it in various versions—for the 1976 Bicentennial as Flop, heavily Reaganized in 1984, and a few years later for his AMMI retro. The movie has always been “too long,” but this six-hour, possibly definitive, version, showing at the New York Film Festival, adds even more found footage—including a 30-minute prologue drawn from a documentary of Osa and Martin Johnson in Africa—while updating sections with references to the war in Iraq.
Jacobs alternates between marshaling evidence and showcasing manic performance. The young Jack Smith appears variously as a sheikh, a matador, a bishop, and an odalisque. Smith is fearless in making a public spectacle of himself. Repeatedly mixing it up with his environment—erupting on the Bowery in gauze-festooned splendor or materializing on St. Marks Place with a paper-bag crown and brandishing a mop—he provides a constant Feuillade effect, introducing wild fantasy into the sooty neorealism of ’50s New York. Jacobs provides him with a foil—an emaciated piece of human wreckage, Jerry Sims, typically seen amid the creepy clutter of his Lower East Side hovel. (In the last chapter, Sims’s misery is redeemed—he’s permitted to set fire to a campaign poster for the movie’s bête noire Nelson Rockefeller.)
Jacobs uses movies throughout—a Warners short made to publicize the NRA; an early, scummy Mickey Mouse cartoon; an excerpt from Kid Millions in 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 Children to 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.”