Star Spangled to Death

By Florence Tissot

ken-jacobs.jpgKen Jacobs

Legendary artist filmmaker Ken Jacobs has crafted a dazzling critique of his homeland

Star Spangled To Death is a six hour film containing a huge amount of found footage cut together with Ken Jacobs’ own work. The found sequences have been carefully selected from predominantly American moving images produced in the last century and span cinematic genres ranging from documentaries to fiction, TV shows, cartoons and information films. Jacobs’ own film, which was shot mainly in New York at the end of the ’50s, stars Jack Smith and Jerry Sims. Star Spangled To Death is exceptional not only for its length but also because of the many years Ken Jacobs spent producing it. Since its first screenings in 1957 the film has been constantly reedited, with new footage added.

Its strength lies in its biting critique of American politics and ideology. He has suggested that an alternative title for the film would be "American Failure". What is shocking in the film is the very banality of much of the original footage, making as it does violent presumptions about race, sex, imperialism and capitalism.

One of the films shown in its entirety in the course of Star Spangled To Death is Mother Love, an episode of CBS Conquest, the 1950s scientific documentary series. Set in a university laboratory, it shows scientists using monkeys to study a baby’s love for its mother. The old-fashioned style of filmmaking might amuse today’s spectator but its sexist presumptions, and the authoritative and patronising style in which the so-called science is presented, are rather disturbing. One of the film’s hidden agendas appears to be to demonstrate the true nature of the ‘mother’ and therefore of the ‘woman’, through endless experiments. Meanwhile, silent female assistants hover in the background, patient, ever-present, gentle and comforting: the statement is as nauseating as its demonstration is unreliable.

star-spangled-to-death-ken-jacobs-4.jpgStar Spangled to Death, 2004 

In Star Spangled To Death, the spectator is confronted with a repugnant ideology and shown how its ideas permeate the whole of the media, infiltrating even into the most unlikely of images. God’s Step Children was made in 1938 by the black director Oscar Micheaux, yet even a film such as this unconsciously reproduces prevailing ideas about white racial supremacy. The Black film industry, which got underway in the early 20th century, was aimed at a black audience, and sought to fight segregation and influence how blackness was represented on the big screen.

Although Micheaux presents many of the political and social problems facing the black community in America, God’s Step Children still reflects contemporary clichés about white being good and black being bad. All the main characters in the extract chosen by Jacobs are black, but the morally righteous are light-skinned, while the figure involved in illegal business is dark. By imitating dominant white cinematic hierarchies, Oscar Micheaux reproduces discrimination based on skin colour.

The found films selected by Jacobs variously evoke reactions ranging from fascination to boredom and irritation. In common with other lengthy experimental pieces, Star Spangled To Death allows its images to speak for themselves, and places great importance on the spectator’s own reactions and thoughts. However, Jacobs also intervenes by mixing in other images and sounds.

star-spangled-to-death-ken-jacobs18.jpgStar Spangled to Death, 2004 

In the middle of Nixon's famous 1952 television speech, he adds a mighty orgasmic moan onto an image of Nixon's wife Pat gazing adoringly at her husband.

More importantly, he edits his own footage with found sequences. In his original film, Jerry Sims stars as the character "Suffering" and the performer and filmmaker Jack Smith as "The Spirit Not Of Life But Of Living". Jacobs befriended Smith in 1956 while working on his first films. In Star Spangled To Death, Smith embodies freedom and accuracy of thinking.

Viewed today, his character sums up the freshness, power and energy of the New American Cinema that was emerging at that time. Throughout the film he crosses the frame in mad costumes. Dressed in rough materials and carrying objects found in the street, Jack Smith is fascinating in his poetic elegance. Jacobs' mise-en-scène is exemplary for the way in which it transforms a banal setting (a pavement on a street corner) into a theatrical – even sculptural – space. His images are filled with a multitude of characters and accessories (sheets, barriers). Their depth and richness are the polar opposite of the sophisticated but stiff, lifeless found images selected. Juxtaposed with Jack Smith the Tramp, Richard Nixon seems like the loser.

Through his selection, assemblage and mise-en-scène, Ken Jacobs creates the portrait of a whole country and its ideologies. He undermines existing films, reversing their meanings and subverting assumed wisdoms. The Pincushion Man, a cartoon set into the work, embodies his intentions. It is set in an exotic and colourful country inhabited by smiley balloon-shaped people. They work happily and unquestioningly on the machine that has made and inflated them, as long as they are safe from the Pincushion Man. But when this dreaded character manages to penetrate into their balloon-world, he pierces them one by one, laughing maliciously.

Parallels with the film itself – and with the role of the filmmaker – are obvious. Pincushion Man Jacobs spangles us and our assumptions to death with the spikes of his stars, leaving a limp piece of deflated plastic where once there were the images of a shiny model world.

Florence Tissot is a writer and curator.