Fifty years in the making and clocking in at nearly seven sprawling hours, Ken Jacobs' Star Spangled to Death has achieved legendary status over the years. The legend undoubtedly owes something to the fact that the movie has been so hard to see, and on each of the rare occasions the filmmaker has screened his magnum opus, Star Spangled seems to have been tweaked into some intriguing new shape.
It wasn't until the advent of digital video that Jacobs finally felt comfortable completing his ever-evolving project, and Star Spangled to Death had its official coming-out party at the 2004 New York Film Festival. The "definitive" version is now finally available to the public (a 4-DVD set is obtainable through starspangledtodeath.com), but you can practically feel this mercurial project bursting at the seams to shape-shift again.
A gloriously messy collage of found footage, social invective and New York street theater, Jacobs' defiantly experimental epic gives us the whole kitchen sink of 20th-century Americana and then some, although the fringes are of key interest here, and connecting the dots is largely left up to the individual viewer. Star Spangled to Death bombards us with slabs of sound and image, segueing from uncomfortably patronizing newsreels extolling the white man's burden in Africa to casually racist cartoons from the early '30s to stag loops and televangelist speeches to educational films instructing viewers on the proper way to live, learn and think. We get vintage television programs in which scientists perform behavior modification experiments on baby rhesus monkeys to define the nature of love; cheesy NRA promos where the ghosts of Washington and Lincoln drop by to inspire modern citizens; and, in one extended, jaw-dropping sequence, Nixon's notorious "Checkers" speech in all its pandering, demagogic glory.
The film sifts through the detritus of a century of American politics, cinema and pop culture, weaving it all through the playfully inscrutable antics of Jacobs' boho pals marking their turf on St. Marks Place circa 1957. Jack Smith, who would go on to become one of our seminal underground filmmakers, swirls through the streets of lower Manhattan wrapped in gauze and freaking out the locals, while the other "actors" cavort with broken baby dolls in the courtyards and alleys beyond. Smith embodies The Spirit Not of Life but of Living, but the counterpoint to his exuberant physicality is long-suffering Jerry Sims, a keenly intelligent but deeply neurotic loser whose sulking, obsessive presence humanizes the film in an almost painful way and who eventually becomes the central focus of Star Spangled to Death.
Text commentary finds its way into the proceedings from time to time (occasionally flashed as subliminal messages), a steady antiwar drumbeat is maintained throughout, and religion is thoroughly slammed in all its forms. ("Islam is an elaborate excuse for beheading the clitoris," we're informed, while Cecil B. DeMille's The Crusades becomes "A fight to the death over whose imaginary friend is bigger and best.") Tackling Star Spangled can be a daunting experience, so Jacobs has helpfully included suggestions in the DVD's notes outlining optimal viewing strategies (frequent breaks are urged) and, as an added incentive, assures us that "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."
Another film forged in the fires of revolution, Luis Buñuel's 1969 The Milky Way is a product of the upheaval of its time, even as it stands outside its historical moment. The hand behind the film clearly belongs to the same iconoclast who wielded razor to eyeball in 1929's Un Chien Andalou, but The Milky Way is something different, even for Buñuel — a dedicated treatise on organized religion from the master of contradiction who once famously remarked, "I'm still an atheist, thank God."
A film full of densely layered and often conflicting narratives grounded in all manner of theological minutiae, The Milky Way is wide open to interpretation, allowing it to be criticized both as heresy and as propaganda for the Catholic Church (inexplicably, it was also quite a commercial success in its day). Buñuel gives us two French vagabonds making a pilgrimage to the holy Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela, a road trip that goes nowhere and everywhere, providing full play for the filmmaker's imagination. Time and space become a slippery slope where figures from far-flung periods are encountered (from modern-day priests and prostitutes to Jesus Christ himself), absurd coincidences and mystical visions abound, and all-out surrealism butts heads with endless debates on free will, the duality of God and other fine points of religious doctrine.
It's never quite clear how seriously we're meant to take any of this, but Buñuel piles on the sophist discourse and the 1001 Nights-like stories within stories, layering darkly comic images of crucified nuns with heated theological discussions that, through constant repetition, begin to seem, perhaps, ridiculous. A commentary track would have been welcome here, but instead, Criterion's dazzling new DVD of The Milky Way gives us over an hour of supplemental features (including an intro by co-writer Jean-Claude Carriere and a brilliant interview with scholar Ian Christie) and a fat, 38-page booklet providing insights galore as to possible methods behind 's madness. Buñuel called this a film about "the search for truth, as well as the necessity of abandoning it," and fans of Kevin Smith's Dogma — basically a puffed-up version of The Milky Way — are urged to check it out post haste.