Underworld U.S.A.


The ultimate underground movie, finished (or perhaps abandoned) after nearly half a century of work, Ken Jacobs’s monumental, monstrous assemblage is six hours of found audiovisual 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. Fearless in making a public spectacle of himself, the young, manic Jack Smith appears variously as a sheikh, a matador, a bishop, and an odalisque. 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 sooty neorealism. Do these underdog antics gloss the evidence Jacobs has gathered? Or is it vice versa? Star Spangled to Death is a vast, ironic pageant of 20th-century American history and consciousness in which the artist broods on human programming, military triumphalism, and—most insistently—American racism. Jacobs has made his magnum opus even more topical with his references to our current war and has availed himself of advancing technology by adding all manner of annotation, some even subliminal