Finished—or perhaps abandoned—after nearly half a century of work, Ken Jacobs’s monumental, monstrous Star Spangled to Death receives its first ever theatrical run this week at Anthology Film Archives. The movie is a six-hour assemblage of found audio-visual material ranging from political campaign films to animated cartoons to children’s phonograph records, interwoven with gloriously eccentric original footage shot mainly on the streets (and in the dumps) of late-’50s New York.
Do these underdog antics gloss the evidence Jacobs has gathered? Or is it vice versa? The movie is a vast, ironic pageant of 20th-century American history and consciousness. Fantastic street theater alternates with classroom hygiene films or dated studies of behavioral modification; Jacobs’s performers, notably the young Jack Smith, hobnob with Mickey Mouse, Al Jolson, and American presidents from Franklin Roosevelt to George W. Bush. Obsession overflows as Jacobs’s private mythology and outspoken cultural criticism merge with relentless documentation of America’s ongoing military mobilization and institutionalized racism. I reviewed Star Spangled to Death when it was shown once last October as part of the New York Film Festival; since then Jacobs has made it even more topical in his references to our current war.
Jacobs has availed himself of advancing technology by adding all manner of annotation, some even subliminal. As a work of art, Star Spangled to Death has as much in common with the Watts Towers or the Barnes Foundation as with cinema as we know it; still, its theatrical run is most likely the movie event of the year.