Star Spangled to Death

Ken Jacobs was feeling uneasy. In the sleek Pathé theatre he stood a few feet from the microphone and looked up at the full audience before him, his hands clasped together. Moments before, Simon Field, Rotterdam’s Festival co-director, had introduced him, with no exaggeration, as one of the most important experimental filmmakers of all time. The audience, already well aware of Jacobs’ achievements, murmured agreement. He started to protest. “These are modest, intimate works”, he explained. “This”, he said, waving his arms at the theatre and the Festival world beyond it, “this is formal and very grand, and I’m a little rattled by it”. He spoke for a few more moments, introducing the program, “Featuring Jack Smith and a Found Film” and the lights come down before he could finish. As Saturday Afternoon Blood Sacrifice (1956) shined to life, Jack Smith leading a spirited Pied Piper procession down a New York City street, he instinctively ducked and hurried away like a late-arriving moviegoer, trying not to disturb or be seen.

By the time the opening march of Saturday Afternoon Blood Sacrifice reappears in Hunch Your Back (1963) as a clip on the ’60s television quiz show, Play Your Hunch, I had started to doubt Ken Jacobs. Perhaps because I didn’t live through the quiz show era, or perhaps because it would’ve been beyond me anyway, everything seems too ironic to be true. When did avant-garde film clips ever appear on network television game shows? But there’s Jacobs standing next to Carolee Schneeman, looking like a clean-cut Beatle. The moment he is about to name Star Spangled to Death, the station cuts out unexpectedly. I wondered how many times this had ever happened to him, how many times the money stopped or the police interrupted filming (as they did in Saturday Afternoon Blood Sacrifice), or the censors came down or audiences just didn’t get it. Jacobs didn’t seem like someone easily rattled. Watching Jack Smith prance wildly through New York streets and junkyards in film after film, the scenes vibrant with Dionysian frenzy and curious-to-frightened onlookers, it seemed more like Jacobs relished chaos and disruption, anything to shake up people’s expectations of the world around them.

Star Spangled to Death

The centrepiece of Jacobs’ Rotterdam appearance was the sprawling and until recently unfinished Star Spangled to Death. Billed as an “epic film costing hundreds of dollars”, it was begun in 1957-59, and following its first cut in 1960, Jacobs continued to edit sporadically, the infrequent times he could afford to do so. Finally completed in 2003 on DV, the film contains added reference to the wars on terror and Iraq. It is timely no matter what decade when viewed, and no doubt it stands as a singularly important vision that chronicles American society of the past 50 years. Star Spangled to Death is like a sponge, absorbing into itself political advertisements, patriotic songs, home movies, television programs, soft porn, newsreels, early cartoons, and the delirious street antics of Jack Smith and Jerry Sims. The March 20th protests of the Iraq war, an indictment of George W. Bush as the “Twentieth Hijacker”, and a horribly banal radio broadcast of televangelists healing common ailments merge easily with a special television program on the psychology of love featuring infant monkeys in a university lab, a musical mob of children clamouring for free ice cream, and the libidinous cartoon Pincushion Man who terrorises (pricks) the round and shiny inhabitants of Balloonland. Though the film originally included more autobiographical sections than in the final cut, Star Spangled to Death easily lends itself to a broader experience. It is recognisable for the fears and concerns it invokes of a particular era that perhaps translate too easily into our own. There are also some startlingly prescient moments, as when Nixon, defending himself against allegedly illegal campaign contributions, stumbles on the word “integrity” or when a grim-faced man demonstrates the “buried alive box”, a scene edited in long before Saddam Hussein was ever found. Jacobs calls the film “a wound that festered”, and hearing him rail against what was happening in Haiti, it was hard to imagine that his affliction had been remedied. But Jacobs maintains that the film is done, with the exception of slight tweaks, once the final DVD is released.

Did I mention that the film is six and a half hours long? It is also incredibly entertaining, funny, and accessible – perhaps more so than any avant-garde film I’ve ever seen. Nothing’s sacred for Jacobs, except perhaps film itself. Often Star Spangled to Death is bitingly, even sophomorically funny. There’s a certain satisfaction you get when you hear a burp in the middle of Nixon’s speech, or the cutting in of “his conscience directed him to give back the money”, heard previously, over an ad for Nelson Rockefeller. It is a “triumph of whimsy” (Jerry), and for all its misery, a good time celebrated with friends. The neck strain that the idea of so long a movie conjures does not do it justice.

In Star Spangled to Death, Jacobs has his ear to the ground, listening through the celluloid surface of “throwaway” film – the discarded, forgotten remnants of an America that didn’t want to remember itself. “One lives in a swirl of this stuff”, Jacobs told me, and yet it consistently surprises me how blank our memories become when we try to remember what we watch on TV from day to day. Found footage isn’t simply found. It is ignored, if deemed superfluous, or destroyed if thought to be potentially disastrous or unprofitable. This was the story of von Stroheim’s Greed (1924), of which eight hours had been cut and destroyed from the original version. When the young Jacobs learned of this, his passion for the film mixed with outrage, and he definitively decided “I had to find another way of making films”. In this way, Star Spangled to Death, along with every other film or performance in Jacobs’ oeuvre, can be considered an investigation of what cinema is, has been, and could be.

In his notes for Star Spangled to Death, Jacobs talks about letting the images he uses “self-indict”. Lies expose themselves, as when Harry Truman enthusiastically proclaims, “the world will note that the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, a military base”. One of the film’s great moments is a segment on conscience produced for television. It features dramatic scenarios and commentary from a priest and a housewife. Conscience, the priest explains, and as we’ve so often heard, is an inner sense of right and wrong. But as the scenarios grow more complex, the pat explanations turn to questions. By the time you examine conscience at work in a classroom of cheating and complicit students, you’re wondering if it even matters. When I saw Castle Films – Movie’s Greatest Headlines (1946–47), exhibited as part of Mark McElhatten’s program, “The Tranquility of Influence”, I couldn’t tell it wasn’t a joke, at least not intentionally. The film, as well as other Castle productions seen in Star Spangled to Death (Jacobs recounted to me a show he did in the ’70s called Theater of Unconscionable Stupidity Presents: Camera Thrills of the War, borrowing the last half of the title from the original Castle film), seems too terrible to be real, a tasteless prank cheerfully challenging viewers to a ticking clock trivia quiz while horrific scenes play in the background: atomic tests explode at the Bikini Atoll, the Hindenburg Zeppelin erupts into flames, and the hung body of Mussolini swings over a rabid crowd. In Star Spangled to Death, everything seems like a parody of itself, and the only believable moments are the street theatre scenes with Jack Smith and Jerry Sims, alive and noisy, flashes of brilliance from one of the dingiest-looking stairwells in New York City.

Operation Double Trouble (2003), by Keith Sanborn, is a powerful example of self-indictment. Sanborn reedited a commercial for the US Navy and Marine Corps, replaying a shot immediately after it appears. The strategy fragments and upsets the advertising logic of the original video, and the doubling effect – planes taking off only to take off again, young cadets repeating words of conviction – destabilises any meaning the singular shot might have accomplished. Does the plane ever go anywhere? Do these people actually believe what they say? Operation Double Trouble plays like a broken record whose convulsive hiccupping destroys the tight little song it was supposed to play. It’s a party-crasher, not because it frustrates the original cut, but because it reveals the intentions behind it. The shots actually sharpen. Without itself to hide behind, it forces you to reconsider what you are seeing.

Dichtung und Wahrheit

Dichtung und Wahrheit (2003) also uses advertising footage, but Peter Kubelka instead chose to show the variation within takes for the same commercials. Here, the most scripted act, a commercial for hair products, takes on radical variation. The plot is simple: a man walking down a street pauses to admire his reflection in a storefront window. He winks at himself. He stops too early, the next time too late. He runs his hand through his hair and then straightens his jacket. The smile turns to a grimace. He’s at once a businessman in his prime and a lounge singer on the verge of desperation. He is Narcissus, feeding on his own image. Each take, though meant to be the same, is different. As with Operation Double Trouble, the repetition Kubelka uses takes us beyond the pointed intentions of the original footage and extends to a realm of “poetry and truth” (the translation for the film, taken from the title of Goethe’s autobiography). Kubelka, who delivered a lecture alongside his film, marvelled at the phenomenon. Despite their intentions, the hair product, floor polish, and chocolate ads in Dichtung und Wahrheit reveal the most basic of human aspirations. “How did they know?” he wondered.

In Star Spangled to Death, the found footage segments are thoroughly woven in as part of the action. They are more than context: they are the wallpaper come alive. Jacobs explains: “I choose to pluck from [the world of cinema around us] and have my characters weave around. That’s the real life of New York and the cultural life of New York. The inner life of the people of New York: the movies that make up our minds, are our minds in large part”. The fortuitous find and instant conception of Perfect Film (1986), a found footage film of eyewitness accounts of the assassination of Malcolm X, is a perfect allegory for Jacobs’ notion of “the movies that make up our minds, are our minds in large part”. The footage was being sold for the reel on which it was spooled. Jacobs found it, and didn’t touch it at all. The drama of shock reveals itself, first in the animated account of a journalist who happened to be in the auditorium, then in the grave and weary non-answers the police chief gives reporters. The story changes, the number of shots fired rises, and the lone newsman in the auditorium refines his story, growing with its power. There is a crowd around him, half of them listening intently, the other half trained on the camera. One man is smiling like an idiot. The film is historically potent, to be sure, but Jacobs perhaps recognised it for its darker suggestions, that in the instant of shock we forget and succumb to the storyteller.

The Tranquility of Influence program further explored the complex interplay between filmed images and our sense of reality by tracing the same shot through three different films. Opening with Castle Films – Movie’s Greatest Headlines, the program moved onto the seminal A Movie (1958), by Bruce Connor. A Movie, with leader cut in during the film, seems unsteady, unsure of when it begins and ends. Are we too early, too late? It revisits some of the horrific moments seen in Movie’s Greatest Headlines but meshes them with surfers, native women carrying jugs on their heads, and a boudoir scene. Morgan Fischer’s Standard Gauge (1984) scrutinises film stock frame by frame the way another might flip through a photo album to recount a wedding or a first birthday party. Reminiscent of Hollis Frampton’s Nostalgia (1973), he tells stories of would-be scenes that fell on the editing floor, film scraps saved from studio shears, the “China doll” woman who, with her sisters, appears in nearly all films for colour balance but who is never seen, and “scene missing” intertitles that vibrate and dance from generations of reproductions grown imprecise. Standard Gauge is a story told from the true margins of film, its leaders and sprocket holes, usually seen only by technicians and projectionists. When we see a nitrate strip of the Hindenburg Zeppelin already visited in Castle and Connor’s films, Fisher reflects on the deterioration of nitrate film, as if the gradual fade (or sometimes violent destruction) of the nitrate Hindenburg imparted a fatality to the previous films as well, and the only act of preservation is literally one of resurrection.

Avant-garde filmmakers have often seen themselves at odds with the commercial film industry, and no found footage investigation would be complete without a critical examination of Hollywood. Thom Anderson’s Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003) studies the way in which the city, one of the most filmed cities in the world, views itself. A compilation of mostly studio films made in Los Angeles, what is startling about Los Angeles Plays Itself are the countless explosions, murders, and acts of corruption that take place. Though obviously and often sensationally fictional, Anderson reveals the pathos of the city’s self-destructive zeal. As in Liza Johnson’s Falling (2004), a vertigo-inducing montage of skydives, cannonballs, and high-rise suicides, or Dominique Gonzales-Foerster’s Atomic Park (2003), which grafts the haunting sound of Marilyn Monroe screaming “murderers!” (from The Misfits [1961]) onto a picnic scene at the first nuclear test site, the seemingly innocuous (or at least vapid) world of commercial movie-making tumbles to a darker and scarier end than we’re willing to admit.

Light Is Calling

Bill Morrison worked directly with the film stock of The Bells (1926) to create Light Is Calling (2003). The film is stripped to an elemental scene: a woman’s face, a man arriving in a coach. They are awash in the roils of optically printed and manipulated film, their surroundings billowing around them as if brushed on. To be sure, the effect lends itself to nostalgia in its acknowledgment of the medium’s physical deterioration. And yet this scene conjures more than loss. It is both the instant of a woman and man coming together, and their breaking apart, the simultaneous hope and loss of love. In Jeanne Liotta’s Loretta (2003), the miniature doll was stirred to life by animating her flash-lit movements. Her silhouetted hand, outstretched against a crackling yellow background, seemed to reach for the edges of the film, perhaps to go beyond it. “Loretta insisted upon herself”, Liotta recounted in her notes. Another simple device, mirroring, took on spiritual reverberations in Nicholas Provost’s Papillon d’amour (2003). In Kurosawa’s Rashomon, the story of the murder in the deep woods changes with each telling, and in Provost’s version the film image itself loosens. You remember this scene. The murdered man testifies through a possessed medium who wails his testimony in front of a stark courthouse, bystanders kneeling quietly in the background. The wide sleeves and scarves of her kimono flap terribly in the wind; in Provost’s version, she is enveloped in a torrent of violent fluttering. Faces merge and pull out from each other. The mirroring effect seems to unleash the fury of the wronged husband, who appears in another shot Janus-faced, suggesting that there might yet be another side to his story, another inhuman contortion in the ever-shifting story.

Jacobs’ Disorient Express (1995) used mirroring to a different effect, which was to displace the viewer and induce a kind of hallucinogenic experience. A camera mounted on the front of a train hurtles forth, passing through tunnels and trees, twisting around curves and arriving at a station. The image inverts, folding onto itself. In Rotterdam the projectionist, to Jacobs’ chagrin, accidentally “corrected” the film by showing it right side up (it is meant to be seen upside down). Tom, Tom the Piper’s Son (1969), on the other hand, had no such problem, and was arguably more trance-inducing for its frame by frame scrutiny of the original 1905 film. The actions are slowed, frozen, and magnified; we read characters’ expressions and then lose them as the grain enlarges. The narrative breaks down completely. The film is obsessed with its materiality to the point that we lose almost all recognition of the original piece. Almost. It’s important to note that during the course of Jacobs’ version, the original film is shown twice, once at the beginning and again at the end. Without a reference for where we began, we cannot know how far we have gone, or can go.

Though the entirety of Star Spangled to Death came about in various versions over the course of a nearly 50 year period, all of the filmed segments were made between 1957-59. Like Saturday Afternoon Blood Sacrifice, Little Cobra Dance (1956), Little Stabs at Happiness, Blonde Cobra (1959-63), The Death of P-Town, and so many of Jacobs’ films, there’s an immediateness that carries through. With a surrealist trust in the artistic impulse, he experimented with in-camera editing, believing that “there was something that had its own urgency to emerge. And that I had to be sensitive to it but I could trust it and it would tell me the right thing to do from moment to moment, from shot to shot”. Jack Smith and Jerry Sims, playing the Spirit not of Life but of Living and Suffering, respectively, were essentially playing themselves, and evidently had a good time doing it. Jacobs, always filming (with the exception of one shot), often had to try to restrain himself from laughing so the camera wouldn’t shake. And Jack Smith, parading around in veils with dismembered doll parts and a toilet plunger sceptre, leaning against decorative pagan statues, is a marvel: flamboyant, mischievous, and insane. The closest thing to him I saw at Rotterdam was the wilfully silly Cop Festival (2003), a collection of short cop films made by well-known Japanese directors such as Kurosawa Kiyoshi and Shinozaki Makoto. These were no-budget films organised by a few anti-rules: 1. the protagonist had to be a cop; 2. they could only be ten minutes long, and 3. in every minute of running time something stupid had to occur. What Makoto brought to Rotterdam included titles like “Small Elephant Cop”, “Coming Out Cop”, “Atopy Cop”, and “Love Juice Cop” – you can guess what they were about. These films were outrageous, unpredictable, and turned a typically serious Rotterdam film audience into a rowdy but good-humoured mob. Cop Festival made for one of the most enlivening film experiences I had at the Festival.

The takes in Star Spangled to Death are rough, to be sure, but freed from that stiff, scripted feeling that we encounter so often at the movies. As in Kate Dollenmayer’s The Whole Other Side To My Busyness (2003), there is no such thing as an accident. The Whole Other Side To My Busyness began as a double exposed filmstrip shot on a visit home for the holidays. The result was a dream-like flurry of basketball hoops, a cactus patch, and Dollenmayer’s rapping teenage brother, all of which made for a surprisingly touching sibling portrait. Certain Women (2003), by Peggy Ahwesh and Bobby Abate, was loosely based on Erskine Caldwell’s 1957 pulp novel of the same name. Set in upstate New York in the ’50s, the film quickly departs into its own territory. More than acting or scripts or sets, it is the camera that rules this nowhere, no time place, from the distorted spycam close-ups to the cold, tripod-mounted DV shots of a basement S&M scene. As with Ahwesh’s Star Eaters (2003), a glimpse of hedonism finally catching up to itself as two women wander a run-down Atlantic City, it is the moment, the impulse of filming that matters. Though Certain Women and Star Eaters have definite storylines, it is as if they too are caught up in the frenetic motions of Ahwesh’s camera, wondering where it will take them next.

Meditation on Revolution Part V: Foreign City

Robert Fenz’s Meditation on Revolution Part V: Foreign City (2003) is a film-poem that captures a similar sense of immediacy. A journey is taking place, though you can only barely sense it. Its scenes are suggestive and fleeting: a man sweeping a wet Chinatown street, the blur of subway cars as they pass each other, faces seen through scratched plastic windows, the low moon hanging above New York’s rooftops. You visit jazz musician Marion Brown in a Bronx hospital and hear him talk about his life, about music and cooking. The camera intently focused on the detail of Brown’s face, you feel how the film allows for a distance between the man you see and the man you hear about, between a moment and its passing. Fenz made Foreign City during a period of grieving, an in-between time. Song of Avignon (2000), by Jonas Mekas, was made at the end of an ordeal. From the violent heaving of a lightening storm to the gentle entreaties of the cat nibbling on Jonas’ croissant at a café, we see in Mekas’ face a sense of arrival, the entirety of a life, the intimacy of the camera.

Sharon Lockhart’s No (2003) is immediate in unexpected ways. The film is composed of a single shot, a field in rural Japan. A man and a woman enter from opposite sides of the camera to lay down piles of hay. Lockhart, a structuralist, has the piles evenly distributed for her camera depth. Though the piles in the back are taller and more spread out, they appear in the camera the same height and distance as those in the front. The rigidity of form plays beautifully against the setting, but what stands out are the man and the woman who work silently and with determination, with passion even, making poetry out of a task to be done and the doing of it. Through them, it becomes less important to understand the film than to simply watch it. In Philippe Parreno’s The Boy From Mars (2003), you can sense the watching that takes place within the film. This is a film of lush enchantment: the gradual lighting of a greenhouse at nightfall, the skyward drift of floating lanterns, and the slow progression of cows wading through muddy water. And the stunning Letter (2002), by the 17-year old Sasaki Yusuki, is a real-time drama played out entirely on a boy’s cell phone, painstaking messages typed only to be erased, and the agony of waiting for messages which might never be returned.

It was a year of impossible feats for Rotterdam, with the film that would never be finished, complete (Star Spangled to Death) and the film that would never be found, located (the first version of Cassavetes’ Shadows [1957]). The discovery of Shadows was part archaeology, part lunatic faith (even Cassavetes thought it had been destroyed) and Ray Carney, the bow-tied professor who had unearthed the film after years of searching, could hardly contain his excitement. Only slightly dismayed that Sundance had turned down the film, he told his story of tracing the film from a lost and found bin of the New York subway system to a woman’s attic, where it sat undisturbed for nearly 50 years. The first version, immortalised by Jonas Mekas as having “caught more life than Cassavetes himself realises”, proved a little more complicated than a matter of mere spontaneity. It has a tighter storyline than the second version, which included two-thirds new footage, but includes more freely experimental moments, as when a trumpet solo replaces one end of a phone conversation. In Carney’s relentless research, the improvised moments, like the stolen kiss in the subway station, seemed to be more planned than originally thought. Semi-scripted or not, Shadows still has the feel of jazz, a movie orchestrated on intuition. You could understand how Mekas thought the film exceeded itself.

Robert Beavers brought some quieter, but no less remarkable, accomplishments to the Festival. Both Early Monthly Segments (2002), a diary of the teenage Beavers shortly after he moved to Europe with Gregory Markopolous, and Still Light (2000), an investigation of in-camera colour and light, were the culmination of 30-year processes. In Early Monthly Segments I saw Beavers as I never have before – as the young man carefully laying out filmstrips across a lampshade, and as the older man who returned to the film, cut it again, and let it be done. Beavers’ more recent The Hedge Theater (2002) is an austere, elliptical study of dense trees, cathedrals, fountains, and the careful stitching of a buttonhole. Shot in rich detail on 35mm, the film quivers on the balance between merely revealing and revealing too much.

We were with Jacobs and Field again in the Pathé theatre, sitting behind but frequently turning around to check out the strange and bulky projection apparatus. It took up a few rows, and Jacobs had to climb over seats to operate it. A fan whirred and a sheet of paper gently flapped in front of it. This was Polemics on Ice (2004), a Nervous Magic Lantern performance, and through the projector shone an enigmatic image of nothing and everything, a catalyst for collective dreaming. Because the Nervous Magic Lantern was equipped with a shutter, the image moved, or appeared to. It slowly turned and in its three-dimensional depth, revealed faces, a set of teeth, an amoeba. It was, as Jacobs described in his notes, “the trick of it as trick and still drinking up pleasure”. When the performance was over, it was like waking. Some were actually sleeping. The floor opened for Q&A and all the questions seemed more like expressions of gratitude. People were asking Jacobs about the sublime, not because it needed explaining but because they wanted to talk about it. With Polemics on Ice, Jacobs gave the audience an experience he encourages of his students. “Get lost”, he said, “and get lost again”.

About The Author

Genevieve Yue is a writer and a Ph.D. student in Critical Studies at the University of Southern California. She lives in Los Angeles.