Why not distract yourself from your fast tomorrow by sitting through Ken Jacobs’s epic, 40-years-in-the-making Star Spangled to Death at UnionDocs tomorrow? Jacobs will be there all day to talk you through the intermissions, and he’ll talk about the film with J. Hoberman after.
Earlier this spring, Family Bookstore of Los Angeles created a 30-day pop-up shop in Tribeca, hosting (along with screenings, musical performances, a couple residencies) “a conversation” with Art Spiegelman and Ken Jacobs. While the event was a bit of a mess (malfunctioning AV equipment, uncomfortable seating, awkward segues), the former student and teacher still had their moments: as Spiegleman praised street art for its deftness and ingenuity, Jacobs responded by calling Shepard Fairey “a fucking idiot” and Banksy’s work “one more fucking ugly thing I have to see.” For those unfamiliar with Jacobs’ work, this bon mot reveals more about his aesthetic/persona than anything you’re going to read on Wikipedia. Unlike Mr. Fairey or Banksy, Star Spangled To Death does not fit into a negative space that currently exists, but authentically, obstinately configures its own.
As a 7 hour epic takedown of nearly everything (Racism! Religion! Capitalism! Politics! War!), it is perfectly suited for a marathon screening on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Comprised of found footage, crackling 78RPM records, and a lot of Jack Smith and Jerry Sims wearing garbage and Marsha Graham-ing it up on the LES, it’s less a mashup than Abstract Expressionist mixtape. Jacobs lets his source material (racist ethnographic documentaries, political speeches, educational films, minstrel cartoons, to name a few) play at full length. Instead of the choice moments being curated and spliced into dynamic montages, you must observe (or suffer through) every moment of lies, ignorance, and the spaces in-between. Divided into four more or less equal chapters, the unapologetically leftwing opinions expressed may or may not parallel each other. While Smith is ostensibly the star as “The Spirit Not Of Live But Of Living”, Sims squawks and sings like a broken bird throughout the minutes and hours about rent problems and death, the longer-lasting impression of psyche.
For those with Nintendo-addled attention-spans, the expansive runtime is countered with “flashtexts”. These single-frame excerpts, quotes, or aphorisms are best suited for at-home viewing, but are equally powerful—though less effectively didactic—as phantom suggestions. On a purely phenomenological level, their flicker invigorates you. Those that are readable to those unaided by DVD remote, these little bursts of directorial voice are alternately humorous (“Each viewer making it to the end of this seven-hour movie gets an autographed photo of Antonin Scalia burning a candle to Il Duce”) and judgmental (“Religion is when adults take a deathgrip on a bedtime story”). They comment in concert with the images they are transposed over, but never explain them; these are not wrote memorization for an upcoming test, they are freeform jazz. Like a vivid dream, like an extended nightmare, Star Spangled lingers on. Yiddishkeit or no, you should atone.