East Bay View (a blog about several things)

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Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Oh wait, here it is: Star Spangled to Death

(Text from Jacobs in italics.)

STAR SPANGLED TO DEATH is an epic film costing hundreds of dollars! It combines many found-films with my own alternately off-the-cuff and intensely staged filming (I once said directing Jack and Jerry was like directing the wind). It is a social-critique picturing a stolen and dangerously sold-out America, allowing examples of popular culture to self-indict. Race and religion and monopolization of wealth and the purposeful dumbing down of citizens and addiction to war become props for clowning, In whimsy we trusted. A handful of artists costumed and performing unconvincingly appeal to viewer imagination and understanding to complete the picture. Jack Smith's pre-FLAMING CREATURES performance is a cine-visitation of the divine (the movie has raggedly cosmic pretensions). His character, The Spirit Not Of Life But Of Living, celebrates Suffering, personified by poor rattled fierce Jerry Sims, as an inextricable essence of living.

Osa and Martin Johnson made a series of extremely popular safari films in the Twenties and Thirties which had the unfortunate, if unsurprising, habit of staging "oh those crazy natives" shots; they were better at filming animals. Yes, CBS really did call their mid-Fifties science show Conquest. In The Road Is Open Again, Dick Powell, under the supervision of Washington, Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt, writes a song about the NRA -- that's the National Recovery Administration, not one of the things we FDR fans like to recall: in exchange for certain concessions to workers like minimum wages, some firms were allowed to circumvent antitrust law, and the whole thing was struck down as unconstitutional after a couple of years. The song's pretty catchy, though not as much as "Soldiers of Industry". Oscars notwithstanding, no one ever took de Mille seriously, did they -- especially with something like The Crusades, which makes The Da Vinci Code seem respectful of history. The thing I find weird about the Checkers speech is that they'd give the vice-presidential challenger airtime to explain himself (and to diss Stevenson), uninterrupted.

I was 24 when I began the film, Jack 25. Jerry in his early thirties seemed middle-aged to us. Jack later said, I think appreciatively, I taught him to hate America. We met in 1954 and got to hanging around, broke most of the time as we walked the streets "shadow starved" for movies a mind could fix on. Max Ophuls' SINS OF LOLA MONTEZ even in its producer-reasssembled state stood out out in its love of the art, in showing what a camera could still do. Hollywood with some few exceptions had gone numb in this time of fascist ascendance and cultural impoverishment. The enemy had been switched from Right to Left at the end of World War II and the owners had returned with a vengeance. Their mesaage was simple: "Shut up and do what you're told." War had done the trick of loosening industry from its Depression fix and war would now be America's raison d'etre. War would serve to rid the country of excess wealth lest more equitable distribution shake its class structure. In light of how much bullshit it takes to win a war, consider the bullshit it takes to sell ongoing war-to-war-to-war; we were inundated. Only the Abstract-Expressionist painters had been left to proclaim the old radical hopes (because the liberties they took were abstract). The Sixties were nowhere in sight.

Jacobs, below, will claim that he's made concessions to the audience -- that it's more focused on specific themes than the original version. But the shape of the film, though not amorphous, is still dangerously open-ended. He's placing a great deal of trust in the audience -- although anyone willing to sit through the movie will recognise the found-footage isn't to be taken at face value, sometimes it's hard to know exactly what to make of it. Jacobs's commentary is often in the form of single-frame flash texts, which DVD viewers may finally be able to decipher. Good for him for not telling us what to think, but this shouldn't prevent analysis.

Then one day on the set (the rear courtyard of the W. 75 St. brownstone where I was janitor) Jack pushed a copy of ON THE ROAD into my hands, saying, "It's about us." I'd been reading Paul Bowles and H.P. Lovecraft and a smuggled in copy of LOLITA and the drop in writing level was too steep. "You'll be able to stay with it on your sixth attempt", Jack said, which proved correct. It caught some things right, quirky ephemerals that hadn't registered as events. Of course it helped stir a social revolution (disowned by Kerouac) and maybe STAR SPANGLED TO DEATH would've participated in that great humanist eruption if I had completed it and got it out in its proper time. Over six hours even then, there was no way I could pay final sound-joining and printing costs. I screened camera original a few times to phono records and spoken commentary but money didn't happen and, pissed, in 1963 I put the film aside to continue with affordable works (like near-cost-free shadowplay). Its moment, I felt, had passed. Its invention, the very look of it, its texture was no longer unique and my pride was wounded. People were treating me as if I was normal. I got a measure of Jack's fame when I heard a girl address her dog as Flaming Creature but he chose -- at a time when patrons were available to him -- not to help. Like maybe his movie might be seen as coming from somewhere. I let it go and had another life, who knows but a better one than might've resulted from the release then of STAR SPANGLED.

(to be completed in 2050)


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