the ultimate underground movie

Yesterday I posted on Ken Jacobs Online Exhibition at and gave two short examples of the films to be seen there. ‘The Whirled’, which was a pre-work to his magnum opus ‘Star Spangled to Death’.

And this latter film definitely deserves some more words.

Synopsis according to Jim Knipfel (from an interview with K.Jacobs):
In Star-Spangled to Death, Jacobs recounts the story of an Enron executive who made a bad business move, then followed it with several intentionally worse moves. When his assistant questioned him, he replied: “You lose a hole in a bigger hole.”

So first let Ken Jacobs himself explain why one section of Star-Spangled to Death is entitled “Hollywood Reds Ruined My Life” (for those not familiar with the term ‘Hollywood Reds’, get some information by the Andersen/Burch collaboration ‘Red Hollywood‘) and how it drove him to work the way he does:

They wrote anti-fascist, anti-greed movies and radio stories that pictured an America they only hoped for. A Lone Ranger nation, affirming justice for all, an America, let’s face it, that’s never been. They set me up for miserable disappointment with the hysterical reality. How better adjusted I’d be today, growing up with movies with names like, “Screw Thy Neighbor,” “Maximize Profits at All Costs,” “Let Them Eat Shit,” “Say Anything.” I could’ve been a regular Richard Nixon, gainfully employed in the service of the bottom line. I could’ve learned to turn on sincerity selling deeds to ranch-type homes with attached garages in all white neighborhoods in Heaven. I could be fomenting an attack on Canada right now, because it’s there. I could’ve been a somebody. (link)

So, as he could not be just ‘someone’ he became a meanwhile widely acknowledged filmmaker, who worked for more than 40 years on his major work ‘Star Spangled to Death‘.

From the films website:

STAR SPANGLED TO DEATH is an epic film shot for hundreds of dollars! combining found-films with my own more-or-less staged filming, it pictures a stolen and dangerously sold-out America, allowing examples of popular culture to self-indict. Racial and religious insanity, monopolization of wealth and the purposeful dumbing down of citizens and addiction to war oppose a Beat playfulness.

A handful of artists costumed and performing unconvincingly appeal to audience imagination and understanding to complete the picture. Jack Smith’s pre-FLAMING CREATURES performance as The Spirit Not Of Life But Of Living (the movie has raggedly cosmic pretensions), celebrating Suffering (rattled impoverished artist Jerry Sims) at the crux of sentient existence, is a visitation of the divine.

While Jan Hoberman from Village Voice describes the film as the ‘The ultimate underground movie’ … and continues: ‘Ken Jacobs’s epic, bargain-basement assemblage, annotates a lyrical junkyard allegory with chunks of mainly ’30s American movies—or is it the other way around?’ (link)

Jonas Mekkas’ view on the film defines: “This one creates a world according to Ken Jacobs out of bits of the banal, clichéd, grotesque, vulgar, dripping sentimentality that is being sold to the people as real food and everybody feeds on it and even enjoys it and then dies.” (link)

And as the short opening synopsis already hinted: Star Spangled to Death (1956–60/2003–04/USA) is a magnificent artifact of artistic and political living in 1950s New York, Star Spangled combines found-footage collage with Jacobs’s more-or-less staged filming, featuring Jack Smith as The Spirit Not of Life but of Living and Jerry Sims as Suffering. This social critique of a dumbed-down America, which took a half-century to complete, is constructed with incomparable style and whimsy. Ken Jacobs’ no-budget magnum opus Star Spangled to Death, which, with its fierce political punch and Beat whimsy, is as relevant today as it was when it was commenced in 1956.

Star Spangled to Death (92 min part 1 from

Star Spangled to Death 44 min part 2 from

Star Spangled to Death 100 min part 3 from

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