Friday, March 09, 2007

Star Spangled To Death

[The brief, brief notes that follow refer to the 405-minute dvd version of Ken Jacobs' Star Spangled To Death (1957-2004).]

A monumental "life's work" (its making spanning almost half a century) by one of avant-garde cinema's most enduring figures, Star Spangled to Death is the colossal exhale that it always promised to be. A stimulating experience with equal measures of vitriol, humour and heart, the film finds its structure somewhere in the third hour (with still more than three hours to go before the final chapter) in its finding of a balance between Suffering (played by the fascinating, haunting Jerry Sims) and The Spirit Not Of Life But Of Living (played by the incomparable Jack Smith).


They are the core of the film, and their dazzling guerrilla street theatre forms part of the assemblage on display here, alternating with found footage of early documentaries, animated films, political ads, educational films, most of which play out in their entirety, and most of which form Jacobs' critical objects, exhibits of 20th-century American history. Everything is punctuated by the political exclamations of the intertitles, many of which are flash-texts, inviting the viewer to pause and read the film as a text when seen on dvd.



The film does find some sort of coincidental closure towards the end: Ken Jacobs is in the centre of the 2003 New York City anti-war protest and he sees a young protest leader swaying to a pulsating drumbeat as the group chants ("Drop Bush, Not Bombs!") and his camera absorbs him as "the spirit of Jack Smith", before we return, finally, to the image of Jack Smith himself as a source of ... life and energy. And soon after in that rally, Jacobs' DV camera suddenly dies on him, and (like the ending of his 1969 experiment, Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son, when you can hear the original film finish its run through the projector) there is only a black screen left to contemplate while the hovering sense of incompletion reveals itself - with a hint of optimism ("Despair is collaboration with the enemy!") in the cosmic balance of his performers.

"Limbo is where
where outtakes drift
in no apparent order."

To see more images, view clips, or order the dvd, go here.

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