KEN JACOBS: STARRY STARRY NIGHT
Text by Kristin M. Jones
(born 1933)is an American experimental filmmaker. A pioneer of the American film avant-garde of the 1960s and ’70s, Ken Jacobs is a central figure in post-war experimental cinema. From his first films of the late 1950s to his recent experiments with digital video, his investigations and innovations have influenced countless artists. He taught at the Cinema department at Harpur College at Binghamton University and retired in 2003. He is a recipient of the American Film Institute’s Maya Deren Award. Jacobs currently lives in New York City.
Kristin M. Jones
is a writer and editor living in New York. She covers film and art for magazines and newspapers including Film Comment, Frieze, and The Wall Street Journal. She has also contributed to Artforum, Millennium Film Journal, and Travel + Leisure, among other publications.
Last fall I took a walk by the New York harbor with the brilliant underground film artist Ken Jacobs, not far from the loft he has long shared with his wife, Flo. He talked about his freshly completed reedit (on digital video) of his sparkling yet searing social critique Star Spangled to Death, a collage of mass-cultural detritus and guerrilla theater with which he has wrestled for over four decades. It is, he said, an expression of real anguish, in which hearty doses of humor and antic energy highlight what is eclipsed by the forces of death. On our way back, as we passed the colossal scar that marks the site of the former World Trade Center, he gestured disconsolately toward Stuyvesant High School and said, “Can you believe what those kids had to see?” And things, he insisted, were only getting worse. He said that after the invasion of Iraq he’d considered adding an intertitle to Star Spangled reading, “Now they’ve done it.” When I asked him recently about the remark, he couldn’t remember using those exact words but pointed out that his fears over the aftermath of 9/11 are reflected in the film in the line—an allusion to Von Stroheim’s Greed—“We’re dead men…and dead everything else.”
A passionate fixture in New York’s noncommercial film community for years, Jacobs has followed an uncompromising trajectory. Many of his radically inventive works defy categorization: Blonde Cobra (1958–63) reworked an abandoned film by his friend Bob Fleischner of the late performer, filmmaker, and photographer Jack Smith; Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son (1969–71) closely examined a 1905 nursery rhyme one-reeler through rephotography (one of its mysterious frames graced the cover of Artforum’s 1971 special film issue); The Sky Socialist (1965–67) evoked young love, political consciousness, and the Brooklyn Bridge; and Perfect Film (1985) was a found reel of news outtakes on the Malcolm X assassination. He is also admired for a string of revelatory ephemeral works—shadow plays, and numerous found-footage performances deploying a patented system of altered stop-motion projectors that create flickering depth effects. Jacobs himself may have been the first to use the term “underground film.” As a professor at SUNY Binghamton for thirty-two years, he left an indelible mark on many in his classes. In a 1989 review, one of these students, Village Voice senior critic J. Hoberman, dubbed him “one of the most extraordinary unknown personalities in the history of American movies.”
Inevitably, Ken and Flo found themselves in the front lines of the cinematic underground. Against considerable odds, in the mid-sixties they launched New York’s Millennium Film Workshop, where they provided classes and equipment free of charge. More dramatically, along with the filmmaker and poet Jonas Mekas, they were tried and convicted of obscenity charges after screening Flaming Creatures—an archly voluptuous orgy fantasy featuring an array of downtown angels—by a fellow avant-garde meteorite Jack Smith, in an East Village theater in 1964. (The case, which reached the U.S. Supreme Court, became a cause célèbre, with such luminaries as Susan Sontag rushing to defend Creatures in print.)
The heart of Star Spangled is footage Jacobs shot of Smith, whom he met in 1956, and Ken’s personal find, the unemployed eccentric Jerry Sims. (Smith died of AIDS in 1989; Sims’ trail vanished in El Paso some years back.) Filmed in black-and-white and color 16mm. stock between 1957 and 1960, this delirious stream of theatrical provocations “stars” Smith and Sims, though it features other friends/collaborators. Playing The Spirit Not of Life But of Living, Smith prances around Sims’ character, Suffering, and celebrates him as an unavoidable ingredient of life. Cast as the ultimate outsider—sensitive, artistic, whiny, broke, unphotogenic—Sims mopes, mugs, kvetches to Jacobs, and wrings his hands. Armed with accessories like bowler hats, a pope’s miter, and broken umbrellas, art stubbornly collides with life. The pair’s clowning has a Happening-like messiness, sharpened by Jacobs’ political convictions and obsession with the notions of failure and incompletion. At one point Smith, festooned with junk, cavorts on a sidewalk near a nervous-looking woman waiting for a bus; when the bus arrives he tries and fails to dance on to it. In his vivid program notes for a screening of Star Spangled at the American Museum of the Moving Image, Jacobs wrote, “Its proto-Beat sensibility refuses to keep moving ahead, so at odds with the lemming drift of the 1950’s when chauvinist anti-Communism threatened us all with a final star spangling to death.”
He doesn’t see today’s situation as less dire, however.
Funny, scathing, and aggrieved, the sub- and intertitles that punctuate Star Spangled include such choice lines as “Capitalism sold them a bill of bads” and “Privilege will remain, cheered on by suckers.” Nearly as thick with words as it is with images, Star Spangled suggests a flood of humorous, poetic, and despairing communiqués from an underground cell, peopled perhaps by Berlin Dadaist John Heartfield, Cocteau’s Orpheus, and assorted forgotten vaudevillians. And the layers run deep. Some titles flicker on the screen so briefly that they are illegible; these “flash texts,” as Jacobs calls them, will be available for viewing on the DVD version by using the pause feature.
That the interspersed found material represents a serious indictment of U.S. culture is apparent right out of the gate with an excerpt from a documentary on the self-styled explorers and safari enthusiasts Martin and Osa Johnson (accompanied on their African travels by a dog named, incredibly, Whitey). An early Nixon speech is layered with strategically placed burps and moans. Intricately edited, Star Spangled is haunted by an array of ghosts, including Al Jolson, Josephine Baker, Nelson Rockefeller, chemical agent–poisoned Vietnamese children, tortured lab animals, and a fledgling Mickey Mouse. Uncannily reanimated, they float out of newsreels, soft-porn snippets, promos for preening politicians, shockingly racist early Disney cartoons, ghastly scientific footage, and other gaudy or deadly shards of twentieth-century ephemera. Over the years Jacobs periodically gutted and renovated his masterwork (at one point it served as a critique of the Reagan administration), adding enough wings and turrets to swell it to a current running time of … over six hours, but despite its formidable length—and its aim “to exhaust, perhaps even shake off the viewer”—it is grueling only when he most directly stares down such ugly realities as war and racism.
Throughout, the original footage dazzles: the black-and-white sequences are rich in tones and textures, the color sections radiant. Jacobs continually undercuts his impressive formal intelligence with intimations of chaos or breakdown, end flares brazenly coexisting with dynamic compositions and manic swirling or panning held-held movement. A former Action painter who studied with Hans Hofmann, he brings to moviemaking an exquisite talent for activating the film frame and exploiting the illusion of depth. Cannily arranged layers of plastic, fabric, or toilet paper—draped, floating, thrown on the ground—are an impoverished version of the silvery veils that fill the shallower spaces of Josef Von Sternberg’s films, and function as fluid props. (They also resurfaced in the crowded mise-en-scène of Smith’s movies.) Such charming bits of refuse as a papier-mâché cat head, found signage, and a shattered mirror limn a rat’s-nest-like parallel world in which intellectuals and other outcasts patch together a shaky existence. Redolent of urban grit, the locations include the ravaged Lincoln Center construction site, an uptown backyard, a downtown rooftop, and Sims’ squalid, if creatively jam-packed pad. (The shoots were a creative milestone for Smith as well: Jacobs not only helped shape his aesthetic but also loaned him a camera, which he used to make his first film on one of the same sites.)
Star Spangled’s final chapter, titled “The Height of Folly,” is at once the most joyful and tragic. We are told it opens in Limbo, where “outtakes drift…in no apparent order.” Jacobs introduces recent color footage of an antiwar rally by suggesting it shows Smith’s spirit brought back to life: chanting “Drop Bush Not Bombs!” an elegant young man wearing beads and a turbanlike hat sways to a hypnotic drumbeat alongside a knot of kids sporting face paint, tinsel, wigs, and foil horns. Time respools like the wind and we see Smith swinging from a fire escape decked in a fez and plastic cape before a heartbreaking intertitle alludes to his religious upbringing and feelings of guilt over his sexual orientation. Gorgeous black-and-white images flow by: Jack in masked shots that confine him to rectangles in a field of black; glistening, rain-soaked streets, the anxious din of cars honking, and Jerry standing alone in a downpour. Then, as compensation for playing the stereotype of the suffering Jew, Jerry is allowed to burn a Nelson Rockefeller poster and a poignantly idyllic “cast party” ensues. Color footage shot years later shows an older Jerry, munching on a roll—and looking as painfully vulnerable as people down on their luck can while they are eating.
After this beautiful paroxysm of mourning for Jacobs’ lost performers—and the rest of humanity—Star Spangled concludes with a determined, only faintly Beckettian, call to optimism: “There is plenty of reason to despair. We can’t despair. Despair is collaboration with the enemy.” In a recent e-mail Jacobs sent after presenting the film in Europe with Flo, he wrote, “Being socially pertinent has been a bust, and—that being the aim of SSTD—I’m ready to rack up another failure. But we do enjoy seeing the work however null its social effect. Beat then, the Fifties, beat now.” Then he sent a correction: “Wait. The first first aim was to make something alive. And that I did.”
Ken Jacobs’ film Star Spangled to Death
Star Spangled to Death was recently screened at the Museum of Modern Art and Anthology Film Archives, among other venues. It is also forthcoming on DVD from Big Commotion Pictures, LLC (NervousKern@aol.com)