Tour de Force

Left: Ken Jacobs at the UnionDocs event. Right: Ken Jacobs, Star Spangled to Death, 1956–60/2003–2004, still from a black-and-white and color film, 400 minutes. The Spirit Not of Life But of Living (Jack Smith).

ON THE RELATIVELY warm Sunday morning of October 10, a group of hard-core cinephiles assembled on Seventh Street in Manhattan to extend the epic journey of Ken Jacobs’s six hour–plus magnum opus Star Spangled to Death (1956–60/2003–2004). Organized by UnionDocs, which three weeks earlier had inaugurated its fall 2010 series with Star Spangled, the gathering was accompanied by a walking tour, led by Jacobs, through various East Village sites that provided the memorable locations for his film, itself an experimental odyssey incorporating found-footage highlights and detritus of American culture (Nixon’s “Checkers” speech, surreal archaic animated cartoons), flashes of politically charged text, and footage from the late 1950s, when Jacobs shot puckish avant-garde icon Jack Smith and surly ragamuffin Jerry Sims in loose scenes of play and prank.

The tour began at Cooper Union, where in the days of the Third Avenue El that had shrouded Bowery’s notorious skid row—“a city within a city,” as Jacobs called it—Smith confounded passersby with the flamboyant, impromptu street theater Jacobs captured with his camera. In the particular scene from Star Spangled to Death that takes place at Cooper, Smith dons a garbage costume that gives him the appearance of—in the words of another icon of ’50s New York bohemia, Bob Dylan—“a junkyard angel,” a persona called The Spirit Not of Life But of Living; the getup allows him to “free the slaves,” the captives being a couple of shoeshine boys who happen to wander into the frame. In showing the scene to the group on a portable DVD player, Jacobs explained how Smith would so “dazzle” the unsuspecting citizens he brought into his fantasy worlds that he rarely incurred resistance or objection. Which isn’t to say that Smith’s role as an unknown, underground star in an inhospitable postwar milieu was easy. Jacobs recalled, though couldn’t locate, a Catholic church where Smith had climbed the steps to offer a Valentine’s Day candy heart (presumably to the church itself), only to be reprimanded by a perplexed and likely offended police officer. He was let off with a warning.

Other run-ins with the law were not without more serious incident. On Saint Marks Place, Jacobs and his wife, Flo, recalled the bust that occurred at the Saint Marks Theater on the occasion of the premiere of Smith’s notorious Flaming Creatures (1963). Jacobs was serving as the manager at the time, and Flo the ticket-taker; both landed in the slammer overnight after the film was seized on charges of pornography, the first event in a case that would eventually go all the way to the Supreme Court. A lengthy detour had Jacobs explaining the parameters of censorship prior to the MPAA film-rating system and the geographic history of the East Village art scene in the ’50s and ’60s (he had some particularly illuminating opinions on the difference between Beats and hipsters—noting that Kerouac was more sincere than the young, opportunistic Cassavetes), but when asked if he missed the good ol’ days of authentic cinematic rebellion against a repressive culture, Jacobs hedged. Smith, who died in 1989, would have enjoyed the new, commercialized bohemia of Saint Marks Place, Jacobs said. The old Saint Marks was depressingly drab (evidence of its bleakness was later shown in a Star Spangled vignette of Smith performing in front of the long-gone Second Avenue Griddle); the new Saint Marks fully allows the freaks to let their flags fly.