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Star Spangled to Death

Posted by martinteller on March 4, 2012

If you look up reviews for this movie, you’re likely to come across the words “epic,” “sprawling” and “ambitious.”  These are often used by reviewers as code words for “really really fucking long.”  And Ken Jacobs’ epic/sprawling/ambitious historical/political manifesto collage is really really fucking long.  The film is broken into three chapters (with a designated break at the halfway point of the first two) and runs for nearly 7 hours.  But that’s not all.  Frequently, onscreen text will flash for a single frame, requiring the viewer (if one is watching from the comfort of home… I guess theatergoers are shit outta luck) to pause, rewind, step through frame by frame to find the text, read it, and move on.  This happens a lot and adds significantly to the time investment.  The last 60 seconds of the film includes about 10 minutes worth of reading.  If you care about the whole experience, you’ll need to block out an entire day for this one, folks.

In the landmark film Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son, Jacobs deconstructed an old silent to hell and back, picking it apart and recontextualizing it in every possible fashion.  Here he works again with found footage, presenting an assortment of sources that obfuscate the truth, highlight hypocrisy and distract us from our real problems.  Cartoons, Nixon’s “Checkers” speech, cheesy patriotic fluff, skin flicks, one-reelers, “educational” shows and films… all thrown together to create a massive quilt of media bullshit.  Sometimes they contain comical interjections, either with juxtaposed sound or text (not all the text races by quickly) or a brief clip to create contrast or allegory.  At the other times the pieces are presented entirely, or almost entirely, intact.  These tend to be more problematic.  For a non-narrative film of this length it’s astonishingly engaging for the most part, but some of the components try the viewer’s patience, going on for a half hour or more with few interruptions.  At these points it feels more like assemblage than collage.  But to be fair, even these segments (again, for the most part) make for pretty interesting material, sometimes repugnant, sometimes amusing, often both.

Jacobs’ targets are many: racism, exploitation, capitalism, greed, Nixon, Rockefeller, Islam, Israel, religion, the Crusades, the Iraq War and especially the Bush administration.  Sometimes his approaches are complex.  His screeds on Israel recognize the very real problems it was trying to solve and the very real problems it created.  In tackling racism, he includes the horrifyingly offensive cartoon “Uncle Tom and Little Eva,” but also includes clips from Oscar Micheaux and Al Jolson.  Is he aware that Micheaux was one of the first black filmmakers or that Jolson was far from a racist, or is he indulging in white guilt knee-jerk reactions without doing his research?  I’m not sure.

But wait, there’s more.  Interspersed throughout the film is footage Jacobs shot of his friends in the 50’s, Jack Smith (who I’ll be discussing in my next review) and Jerry Sims.  Smith comes off like kind of a free-for-all pixie spirit while Sims is extremely bitter, and practically a hobo.  The images mostly involve them cavorting around, doing a kind of Dada-esque street theater.  I got tired of this footage pretty fast.  I think it represents a kind of security blanket for Jacobs, a small comfort among all this cynical doom and gloom.  But like watching someone else’s home movies it’s only fun for a few minutes (I don’t like when Brakhage pulls this shit, either).

It’s certainly an exhausting experience.  I’m not kidding, I am beat.  And it’s definitely not for everyone.  As the content rages against passivity and complacency among the American public, the film itself will be torture for the passive and complacent viewer.  It requires patience, attention, and even interaction.  And I won’t pretend I enjoyed every second of it.  Parts of it really tried my patience, not to mention my DVD remote fingers.  But despite some frustrations and some wishing for a little more self-editing, I was absolutely compelled to keep pushing forward, to see what Jacobs had to say, to see what footage would be next, to see how it would be reconfigured or juxtaposed.  He makes the political personal, the personal historical.  A very trying but frequently rewarding film.  Rating: Good


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