Star Spangled to Death

(Ken Jacobs, USA, 2004)


American Mess


How does one make oneself a little territory, a life, a warmth, a childhood, in this American mess, in this mishmash spread out all over?


When Todd Haynes’s fantasia on Bob Dylan, I’m Not There, hit the world in late 2007, many viewers and reviewers rehearsed a familiar anxiety. How much do you have to know, going in, to be an ideal viewer of this film? Do you have be a lifelong fan, a Dylanologist, a child of the ‘60s? A student of semiotics, as the director once was?


The commercial movie industry is, as a rule, phobicly scared of any film that demands prior knowledge – of culture, politics, history, world events … in fact, just about anything. The niche market of those in-the-know about any topic that is deemed specialist is far too small to be of significance to large-scale capitalist enterprise. This enterprise prefers to think of each audience member as a tabula rasa, empty of a past and of particular sophistications. Epic historical works by Oliver Stone or Ridley Scott strenuously reassure us: the film you are about to see will tell you everything you need to know about Queen Elizabeth, the Vietnam War or the CIA – no need to swat up beforehand.


And, over time, this industry attitude has been ruthlessly internalised by many viewers, who are wary or downright dismissive of any film that expects them to bring some prior education to the cinema-going experience: nobody who proudly considers himself or herself part of the mass of those average moviegoers likes to get a whiff of anything elitist, something that is not “for everyone” and hence excluding of them … Even Haynes, on the promotional trail, obviously felt the need to play it safe on this point: the ideal viewer of I’m Not There, he gently advised us, is someone who knows nothing  – or as little as possible – about Dylan, who just goes with the flow.


Ken Jacobs’ Star Spangled to Death – a true monument of cinema – poses the question of the make-up of its audience, indeed of every individual viewer, very starkly right up front. A mock trailer for the near-seven-and-a-half hours to follow (spread across four discs in its DVD edition) begins with these words printed on the digital video screen: “Let’s assume this movie is for you. This would mean you hardly stand a chance”. At trailer’s end – after some angry political analysis of the Bush administration – the text returns to this theme: “If this is a movie for you / I would commiserate / if I didn’t think it would be worse / to be among the sheep”. Haynes could have used that line in interviews, because it is a dare, a provocation to every viewer: don’t be a sheep, rise to the occasion of this movie! For me, it was an irresistible entrée to Jacobs’s singular masterpiece.


Where I’m Not There makes it pretty easy for an audience to go with its flow, Star Spangled to Death offers no free pass whatsoever. And the difference is, precisely, on the level of what each film assumes of its spectator. It is not hard to scrabble up, from any recent magazine, newspaper or website, some information about Dylan before (or after) seeing I’m Not There. After all, the film, with the pitch-perfect pastiche that Haynes has mastered since the late ‘80s, plays to our possibly vague but inescapable familiarity with a vast repertoire of Dylanesque icons, emblems, famous scenes, historic moments – and, in this, it is not so far from Vanilla Sky (2001), in which Tom Cruise’s epiphany that his entire life has been a virtual-reality simulacrum includes the realisation that his fondest memory of love is a restaging of Dylan’s and Suze Rotolo’s pose from the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963)!


Star Spangled to Death, on the other hand, tells us exactly nothing (in a journalistic, backgrounding way) about its central human subject – a figure (I presume) as iconic to Jacobs and a small but influential cabal of artists and critics around the world, as Dylan is to his rather larger fan-base: filmmaker and performance artist extraordinaire, Jack Smith (1932-1989). If you don’t know anything about Smith, the film seems to say, either get lost or get educated – and be ready to dig for that knowledge in places beyond a cover story in Time or an American Masters TV bio-doco like Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (2005 – which uses a fragment of Jacobs footage). That stance alone, in the face of Hollywood’s valorisation of the know-nothing posture, is revolutionary.


We do see a great deal of Smith – and several of his compatriots, especially Jerry Sims – during Star Spangled to Death. “Jack Smith and Jerry Sims are truly odd”, another of the film’s written titles informs us – but beyond that, we have to use our own eyes and ears to make any sense of who they were and what they did. We see them dancing in odd costumes, engaged in near-autistic ritual gestures, and we hear them talking, singing, babbling. (Naturally, those images and those sounds never go in sync.) This is the material that Jacobs began with, shot between 1956 and 1960, and finished with almost four decades later – and since it is now a kind of fond memorial (although Jacobs, like many of Smith’s collaborators, eventually had a hard time maintaining personal and creative relations with him), the footage usually hits us in lyrical slow motion. Watching these images – as tantalising and poetic as they are devoid of conventional documentation – many Dylanological themes in fact sprang to mind: especially the “old, weird America” beloved of Greil Marcus or Robert Crumb, that America conjured by songs on scratchy 78’s, or ancient, faded postcards.


But the relentlessly experimental spirit of Smith triggers other, higher-brow associations as well. The German culture-critic Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), for instance, for whom (as his friend Siegfried Kracauer suggested in 1928) “knowledge arises out of ruins” – someone who “hardly ever tackles constructs and phenomena when they are in their prime, preferring instead to seek them out once they have entered the realm of the past”, because alive they “seem jumbled like a dream”, whereas “once they are in a state of disintegration they become clearer”. Or French philosopher-psychoanalyst Félix Guattari (1930-1992) who, in 1994, followed the statement quoted at the opening of this piece with: “Look at the power of American culture to produce a more than tolerable and comfortable subjectivity, warm, passionate, exciting, in this pile of metal, this heap of shit, this load of stupidities. Isn’t that really quite a feat?”


Ruins, metal, shit: Dylan may have (as he proudly tells us in the first instalment of his autobiographical Chronicles) pilfered a rare blues album from a friend whenever his Muse insisted, but Smith systematically went straight to the street, its refuse dumps and garbage cans, for his material. To watch Star Spangled to Death is to be plunged back into the very origin of a funk art that created its magic from, literally, whatever junk was to hand, from American mess – a true no-budget endeavour.


Another kind of cultural garbage – the found footage of forgotten science documentaries, newsreels, war propaganda shorts – takes up the lion’s share of Star Spangled to Death’s mammoth running-time. Compared to the inspired magnifications, distortions and reworkings that Jacobs frequently performs on his meticulously amassed archive of old photos, stereoscope slides and motion-picture reels – see the splendid New York Ghetto Fishmarket 1903 DVD (2006) and its bonus short, The Surging Sea of Humanity – here the samples are left whole and largely intact, save for some fairly discreet montage juxtapositions. Jacobs has commented that he expects these clips to “self-indict”, that no commentary or analysis is really needed from him on their “load of stupidities”.


This expectation is a little naïve; no film (or, indeed, any cultural object) naturally self-indicts for, if it did, it would never have held its ideological grip on anybody. Rather, it takes a particular kind of spectator – the avant-garde spectator who well knows that something called Star Spangled to Death is “a movie for me” – to be in the right position to see the veil of rational objectivity fall from a prime audiovisual exhibit like Mother Love (from CBS’ Conquest series, “prepared in cooperation with The American Association for the Advancement of Science” in 1960) as plopped into Jacobs’ flow, and appreciate its ghastly, underlying truth. If this is, in a certain sense, preaching to the converted, Jacobs raises it to the finest art of revelation.


There is a third Ken Jacobs DVD that (like New York Ghetto Fishmarket) is available thanks to John Zorn’s specialist/independent label Tzadik. Celestial Subway Lines/Salvaging Noise is edited from documentation of four of Jacobs’ legendary (for those in the know) Nervous Magic Lantern 3D live performances. (Fishmarket comes under the category of Nervous System 3D.) Everything that is written by the filmmaker between the covers of this DVD release is instructive and enticing; but, because of the work’s relentlessly stroboscopic nature, I can watch no more than a minute or two before needing to lie in a dark room with some migraine medication in my own nervous system. (This a common occupational hazard of devotion to the avant-garde.) I’m a Jacobs fan as much as I am a Dylan fan, but on this one occasion I had to sadly admit: the movie, quite simply, is not made for me.

© Adrian Martin January 2008

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
home    reviews    essays    search