Film review: Star Spangled to Death (Ken Jacobs, 1957-2004)


(Originally published June 23rd, 2016)

Between its anarchic genderfuckery in the form of Jack Smith, its sociopolitical cynicism and its extended, barbed, and wholly sardonic use of found-footage from throughout Hollywood’s history, Star Spangled to Death may potentially warrant the bizarre honour of being the American Underground’s radical response to Myra Breckinridge. However, and I say this without a hint of sarcasm, compared to the tragically disorganised and honestly quite dull 94 minutes of fairly uneventful camp posturing, Star Spangled‘s 7 hours genuinely fly by.

Building on the avant-garde’s propensity for creating film analysis in the form of film itself, Star Spangled exploits 20th Century Hollywood and TV broadcasting’s dominance over the Western world to, in turn, critique that world itself. By focusing itself multiple times on, but by no means limiting itself to, milestone figures of cinema’s development Al Jolson and Mickey Mouse (and the indisputable influence of blackface minstrelsy over both), it allows the intersectional ideologies of Capitalism and racism flowing through the film industry to be revealed in clearer terms than even Comolli and Narboni might have achieved.

Throughout the film, text appears, sometimes for only one or two frames, often challenging the assertions of documented figures such as Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, and it invites us to become Laura Mulvey’s partially-dreaded “possessive spectator” – disrupting and restarting the film as many or as few times as we care to read Jacob’s comments – in so doing, we engage in some of the same techniques as him.

However, Star Spangled exists not solely as a found-footage documentary, nor as an essay film, rather as the synthetical product of these two dialectics which, in turn, results in what may only be described as “fiction” – Jacobs and fellow artist friends playing “characters” such as Jack Smith’s “The Spirit Not of Life But of Living.” As is the case with Jacob’s Little Stabs at Happiness, there are wistful, tragicomic references to the fallings-out Jacobs experienced with Smith and co. before the end of the film’s production. Star Spangled of course, is all the more poignant for its gestation period outliving not only Smith’s firm friendship with Jacobs, but also Smith, himself, who died of complications related to AIDS the lion’s share of 15 years before the film’s completion. In the final chapter reaches a level of deep profundity when it references Smith’s apparent inability to shake off the internalised queerphobia instilled by a hardline Christian education, believing himself deserving of his fate, followed rapidly by footage of the anti-Gulf War 2 protests in New York, in which Jacobs believed he had encountered Smith’s ghost, in the guise of a similar-looking young protester, leading chants and drum circles.

Star Spangled to Death is a blisteringly angry, bitingly funny, but most of all desperately vital masterpiece of American Underground cinema, documentary and anti-kyriarchal self-expression.

 


The status – certainly the role – of language in Histoire d’O feels most of all defined by its sexual-anatomical reticence, above all in its at first disorienting substitution with ventre where most readers would expect to read con. Such a discursive technique has various affective and analytical consequences, some appearing at first to be mutually contradictory, others definitively intertwined:

  1. The demonstrative capacity for acts of sexual subjugation and punishment, free from vulgarity aligns the text with – as Bataille expresses in Eroticism, and Deleuze echoes in Masochism: Coldness and Cruelty – the language of the torturer, “the language of authority.” Just as torturers are “people who in real life could only have been silent,” (MCC, 17) Réage’s text is effectively “silent” in its reference to conventionally sexualised organs.
  2. To one degree, the notable absence of references to the vulva operates as a dual process of castration, which would thus affirm Deleuze’s assertion that “sadism stands for the active negation of the mother” (68). Indeed, even ignoring the body itself, the text’s introduction to O, simply through her clothing, already feels oddly defined by notable absence: “elle est vêtue comme elle l’est toujours… un blouse de soie, et pas du chapeau.”
  3. However, to another degree, the almost mutual reservation in alluding to the sexe of any male character, rather than queue, pine or bite, may be interpreted as a functional, fetishistic, disavowal of sexual difference – not least of all maternal castration.
  4. Disavowal as a system of repression which, in the Freudian sense, is not merely a quashing down of reality but a system of distorted or dishonest representation here might allow for – in the case of ventre – a diffusion of the gaze to this typically-understood-as-separate body part, which could thus be interpreted as a linguistic device in accordance with the overall theme of Deleuze’s interpretation of masochism as a desexualisation of sex, and an effective re-sexualisation of everything else.

Permeating Histoire d’O is an economy of supplementation, at the level of content and form: René demonstrates his capacity to supplement any number of slaves at Roissy for O, and is himself supplemented by various masters and mistresses. Indeed, even the events themselves are revealed at multiple junctures to be possessed of an ontological uncertainty: the introduction is immediately countered with an alternative version, whilst there are small indications that neither passage may be entirely correct. Indeed, by the end of the novel, several variations are presented that leave the reader uncertain as to whether O is even alive or not.

That such a literary device may appear absurd is not, to my mind, particularly far from Réage’s intent, if we consider absurdism through temporal non-coincidence the manifestation of the humour Deleuze locates at the centre of the masochistic contract, and its enactment’s relation to law: “To imagine that a contract or quasi contract is at the origin of society is to invoke conditions which are necessarily invalidated as soon as the law comes into being. For the law, once established, violates the contract in that it can apply to a third party, is valid for an indeterminate period and recognizes no inalienable rights.” (92) And, indeed, several pages before, Deleuze states: “A close examination of masochistic fantasies or rites reveals that while they bring into play the very strictest application of the law, the result in every case is the opposite of what might be expected (thus whipping, far from punishing or preventing an erection, provokes and ensures it). It is a demonstration of the law’s absurdity.” (88)

Accordingly, we ask: what is the law, here? My interpretation, both of Histoire d’O and, indeed, Venus in Furs, is that it is love. In both cases, the masochistic contract is presented as a condition of, or for, love. In both cases, the tensions are revealed between love and the contract at the introduction of additional parties, even when such additions are stipulated as permissible within the contract itself. René’s characterisation throughout Histoire d’O is remarkably inactive, indeed impotent – he appears to be more of a voyeur of O’s subjugations than an agent, and yet does engage in one repetitive behaviour akin to the continuous repetition required of the sadist to appropriate the Ego of his victims, and that is his repeated declarations of love. That they evoke such feelings of repugnance is, I believe no mistake on part of the author, but a revelation of the logic of masochistic contempt. Rather, just as the logic of linguistic supplementation is invoked through discovery of a lack that, non-existent within the Real, must be a product of the linguistic Symbolic imposition, revealing a recurrence of failure through différance, there exists just such a phenomenon within the romance novel whose structure is predicated on a romance whose meaningful signification is forever deferred through an inherent vice of volatile supplementation.

Blurred and Bloody Borderlines: Menstruation, Motherhood and Vampire Fiction

I apologise for the relative silence of late – normal service will be resumed as soon as is possible but for now, I’ve unearthed an essay from several years ago – not a favourite by any means, but it may stimulate some discussion. Keep safe.

Throughout a night without images but buffeted by black sounds; amidst a throng of forsaken bodies, beset with no longing but to last against all odds and for nothing; on a page where I plotted out the convolutions of those who, in transference, presented me with the gift of their void – I have spelled out abjection. Passing through the memories of a thousand years, a fiction without scientific objective but attentive to religious imagination, it is within literature that I finally saw it carrying, with its horror, its full power into effect…on the fragile border (borderline cases) where identities (subject/object etc.) do not exist or only barely so – double, fuzzy, heterogeneous, animal, metamorphosed, altered, abject.

―  Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror

Julia Kristeva holds the position throughout Powers of Horror that the abject’s horrific status is not so simply indicative of material deemed threatening for any aetiological reason; indeed, neither excrement nor food may be treated, in her esteem, as abject for its poisonous potential but rather the existential threat it may pose via its relation to difference and borders. She thus describes culinary traditions in India and Polynesia in which cooked food “must be surrounded with a series of taboos” due to its newly-established simultaneity within the realms of the natural and the cultural, coming “close to excremental abjection, which is the most striking example of the interference of the organic within the social.” Beyond what enters our body and onto what leaves, however, Kristeva remarks:

Excrement and its equivalents (decay, infection, disease, corpse, etc.) stand for the danger to identity that comes from without: the ego threatened by the non-ego, society threatened by its outside, life by death. Menstrual blood, on the contrary, stands for the danger issuing from within the identity (social or sexual)’ it threatens the relationship between the sexes within a social aggregate and, through internalization, the identity of each sex in the face of sexual difference.

Thus, abjection relates specifically to the wilfully, psychically repressed permeability of the gestalt of human subjectivity. It is the challenge to the integrity of the Symbolic walls that separate life from death, culture from nature, male from female, human from animal, even wet from dry. It is my intention in this essay to investigate vampire fiction and lore, with particular emphasis on the Czechoslovak coming-of-age fantasy-horror Valerie a týden divů / Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (Jaromil Jireš, 1970) in relation to Kristeva’s discourse of abjection, using the vampire story as a site of indeterminacy, femininity, and bodily fluids.

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Godspeed You! Black Emperor projections, London UK 2016

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Film Review: The Haunted Strangler (Robert Day, 1958)

A fascinating if flawed picture that celebrates Karloff’s genius in portraying both monster and man, that walks the line of ambiguity beautifully, providing scientific explanations that still leave room for supernatural speculation. Similarly, and much more crucially, the chilling grotesquery of Karloff’s Mr-Hyde-esque transformation is never stressed to a point that it allows the idealism of his social reformer protagonist, and his passionate pursuit of a world in which all accused parties are provided with legal representation, to be obscured. We are shown asylums, prisons and gallows, each one a stern indictment of the treatment of the committed, the convicted and condemned. Although The Haunted Strangler stumbles at times, not quite knowing which lines of investigation need most pursuing, and which revelations need most emphasis, there was rarely a moment I didn’t feel on its side.