Star Spangled To Death, Part 4

01/01/2004
  |  Book Tickets: 01/01/2004
  |  Watch Now: 18/11/2010
  |  120 min
Rated TBC by the BBFC
Star Spangled To Death, Part 4 Film Poster

Synopsis

Part 4 of 4. Aired in numerous formats for over four decades, New York underground filmmaker Ken Jacobs’ assemblage of 16 mm fictional footage, public service announcements, and snippets of Hollywood films didn’t achieve mainstream critical acknowledgement until 2003, when the New York and London Film Festivals premiered its definitive, six-hour version. Star Spangled to Death is an abstract, political-philosophical treatise on the contradictions of life in America in the latter half of the 20th century, using excerpts from other films and news footage to touch upon issues of race, religion, and warfare. In the filmed material that punctuates the “found” footage, two characters referred to only as The Spirit Not of Life but of Living (Jack Smith) and Suffering (Jerry Sims) share conflicting views on day-to-day existence. —allmovie guide Director’s notes: “It’s September 2010 and except for myself and The Future / Jim Enterline, and The Impulse To Order / Laurie Taylor (I only hope this is true of her as we’re long out of touch) the cast of this movie has parted. The very living people you see cutting up onscreen are no more. Filming, with a Bell and Howell 16mm. camera originally designed to survive WW2 battlefields and that could literally drive nails, began in 1957. I was 24. The camera had been chosen over the elegant Swiss-made Bolex because, impressed by Helen Levitt and James Agee’s In The Street, I also wanted to document NY street-life and expected trouble. Which happened, it was an easy call, so it was the right camera to get with my Coast Guard mustering-out pay I had seen art-films at Cinema 16, a membership-only film-club patterned after Amos Vogel’s experience in pre-war Europe with film-clubs. It was a way around the censors, mostly men of the cloth and famously touchy on many subjects, among them Jews and normal sex. Maya Deren was shown and Stan Brakhage, Kenneth Anger and Bruce Conner, Shirley Clark and Marie Menken among other American avant-gardists. The rough non-arty films by news photographer Weegee was another influence on my choice of camera Both the Depression and WW2 had ended and the electorate wanted no reminders. Democrats were out, mixed bag that they were, and unadulterated fascism re-surfaced. Hollywood movies only rarely surmounted the gathering fear and sterility but then they did so magnificently, with Sunset Boulevard and Sweet Smell Of Success, Champion and The Setup among the exceptions. Post-war Italian street-cinema showed us the facts of life, and there were also important English and French films, Von Stroheim’s 1925 epic Greed, seen as a teen at NY’s Museum of Modern Art, first showed me the living world could be captured on film. The criminal reduction of this masterpiece to convenient length decided me then and there to bring to film the total creative liberty of the easel painter. SSTD became this out-size thing because of what was done to Greed. Jean Vigo’s Zero For Conduct was another eye-opener. Jack Smith for different reasons was as alienated from dreary America as I was. He would follow his experience with this film and with Bob Fleischner’s direction (my composing) of Blonde Cobra with the making of Flaming Creatures. Jerry Sims, my Two Evils Gib Taylor and Bill Carpenter, were painters willing to lend themselves to a fellow painter’s cinematic expression. Cecilia Swann was a cellist, foolishly stuck on Jack to begin with but who then more sensibly paired with Gib. Jim Enterline was a bricklayer who made himself into an early computer whiz and later wrote a book on Viking discoverers of this continent. No-one identified as an actor and the last thing I wanted was “good acting”. I wanted displacement, embarrassment, things out-of-place so as to alert consciousness. The transitional fascinated me, things caught between recognizable stages. From first inception cheap discarded found-films were to interrupt the tenuous storytelling of SSTD. During the protracted filming (no money; I had moneyed relatives who thought economic punishment would bring me to my senses) a tenant in the brownstone I janitored asked if I was a beatnik, a new word for me, and so we learned there were others, and the others learned there were others. The Sixties were gathering. Winter of 1959 I made a multi-hour rough cut. A screening of the movie earned 2 dollars towards its completion, but from a fellow, Bob Stewart, who only had 2 dollars. I lived on fish dropped to the pavement at the nearby Fulton fish-market. Then, from out of the blue, Jonas Mekas contacted me and paid lab costs for Little Stabs At Happiness and Blonde Cobra. In 1962 he organized a screening of SSTD to raise final lab costs for SSTD; better than 2 dollars but not near enough. Even as things improved for me, especially after Flo and I got together (I eventually taught cinema at SUNY Binghamton), there was never the money needed to complete the work (we chose to have children). I did not labor at it for 50 years as legend insists but put it aside to work on more affordable films, even moving to really cheap but vital investigation of cinema possibilities via live performance. Every so often there’d be a “concert presentation” of SSTD. (The 1976 Bicentennial performance was named Flop). It was painful, I felt like a faker for failing to complete the work, put it out of mind as best I could and it’s a wonder it survived my neglect. Somehow the almost-movie acquired a reputation. 2000 and the Donnell Center of The NY Public Library wants to purchase a print, money upfront! The film technician Bill Brand is given the money and we get to work. Less than halfway into it he announces the money is spent. Flo and I are devastated but by this time there has come about a new less costly medium that lasts and can be taken seriously, digital video. We adjust and go on. Working with Nisi Jacobs at the computer and counting on Flo’s yes or no the countless parts fly together in a reverse explosion and in a mere 2 years the monster steps forth—all done!—to greet the public. There’s no pretending the movie is being completed in the Fifties. Events from across the years enter. That USA now opts for torture and assassination—even of American nationals—is mentioned. Another previously unthinkable thing enters: flash-texts. Not subliminals but many single-frame texts that viewers with remotes in hand are invited to pause at and to read, certainly not on first viewing but eventually. And now SSTD takes another unexpected step, it goes on-line for world-wide streaming. I couldn’t be happier. It’s a trying movie. Much difficult territory must be traversed (the entire film is a Wilderness Trek). Loathsome Nixon’s Checkers speech (it saved his career) spills forth in its entirety in lugubrious 50’s tv-gray. A long inert election promo for his political rival Nelson Rockefeller plus much more evidence follows of the living dead dwelling amongst us. My friends in their various personifications do gradually take over the screen and the mood lifts, to a degree. 440 minutes! In 3 chapters, 4 DVDs. Absorb what you can at each viewing and go on. The USA of the Fifties was dreary enough to make the Sixties an epoch that had to happen and what follows here, also emerging by necessity from the Fifties, is a gathering of peculiar and even funny movies indicating a hellish past. M O N E Y C H A N G E S H A N D S WHEN THE PYCHOPATHIC FATHERLAND TORTURES, MURDERS, MUTULATES RAPES, STARVES, DISPLACES, LIES AND can it be? STEALS BUT NOT AS IS THOUGHT FROM AFGHANISTAN OR PAKISTAN OR IRAQ BUT FROM US, FROM USA KIDS NOT YET BORN. CHINA INVESTING IN DOLLARS ENABLES OUR STEALING-CLASS AS THESE PRETEND-WARS FOR EMPIRE GO NOWHERE, A LESSON LEARNED ATTACKING KOREA AND VIETNAM. MORE OIL IS NOT THE OBJECTIVE, TIGHT OIL IS WHAT’S PROFITABLE, DRAINING USA OF ITS WEALTH IS THE OPPORTUNITY UNDER GUISE OF PROTECTING IT. WAR ITSELF IS THE OBJECTIVE, FACILITATING THE MONOPOLIZATION OF WEALTH." —Ken Jacobs