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.


Infantile Aggression, Queer Performance and Ambivalent Love: Kleinian Psychoanalysis and the Drag Cinema of Jack Smith

(Originally written November, 2016)


Watching examples of Jack Smith’s drag performance in American underground cinema between the late 1950s and early 1960s, both in his own films and others’, one immediately notices recurrent themes of childhood, violence, female superiority and dark reflections on what one might label “alternative sexuality.” Whilst psychoanalytical interpretations of gender and sexuality in cinema are common within the Freudian and Lacanian schools, Kleinian perspectives on queer cinema are largely notable by their highly remiss absence, considering the uniqueness of Klein’s work for its interest in children and, often, children’s sexuality and aggression. It is the purpose of this essay to correct this, certainly by analysing Little Stabs at Happiness (Ken Jacobs, 1960), Blonde Cobra (Ken Jacobs, 1963) and Flaming Creatures (Jack Smith, 1963) from a Kleinian perspective, but also by analysing these films as criticisms of that same perspective, or at the very least, of the “normality” whose achievement marks, for Klein, a successful treatment of the analysand. It is my intention to reveal that it is not merely through queer performances and narratives that this is achieved, but also through the cinematic form, itself.

Smith’s method and indeed philosophy of drag seems to presuppose queer theorist Kate Bornstein’s own: namely, the assertion that drag is not merely the potential mindful performance of multiple genders, but also “race, age, class, religions, sexuality, looks, disability, mental health, family and reproductive status, language, habitat, citizenship, political ideology and humanity.”[i] In Little Stabs at Happiness (Ken Jacobs, 1960), Blonde Cobra (Ken Jacobs, 1963) and Flaming Creatures (Jack Smith, 1963) we can observe evidence – however fleeting – of almost all these statuses and notions being mined for parodic, performative potential. Crucial for the sake of this investigation, however, is age. In Little Stabs at Happiness, Smith is seen, dressed as a baby, whilst in Blonde Cobra, he is credited via the juvenile diminutive “Jacky Smith,” and relates the tale of “a little tweensy, microscopic little boy.”

In Klein’s documentation, Oedipal anxieties relating to castration seem to appear not only in seemingly heterosexual boys, but also in girls and boys displaying homosexual tendencies:

In uncovering bit by bit the primal scene I was able to gain access to Peter’s very strong passive homosexual attitude. After having depicted his parents’ coitus he had phantasies of coitus between three people. They aroused severe anxiety in him and were followed by other phantasies in which he was being copulated with by his father. These were portrayed in a game in which the toy dog or motor-car or engine – all signifying his father – climbed on to a cart or a man, which stood for himself in this process the cart would be injured or the man would have something bitten off; and then Peter would show much fear of, or great aggressiveness towards, the toy which represented his father.[ii]

However, the analysands are seen constantly to be fluctuating in their chosen roles during playtime and, it seems, more often than not portraying the abusive adult figure, “not only expressing his wish to reverse the roles, but also demonstrating how he feels that his parents or other people in authority behave towards him – or should behave.”[iii] The acts of violent play phantasy throughout The Psychoanalysis of Children therefore routinely exist in quantum states, in which both injured party and injurer may simultaneously and paradoxically hold both positions (“…the child was also the mother, turned into a child”[iv]). Thus, in Blonde Cobra, Smith’s recounting of one little boy burning the penis of another’s with a lit match, we can quite easily understand this not merely as a tale of psychotic sadism between two children, but as a very clear reflection of transferred persecution complex, centered around castration anxiety, not least of all because of the manner of Smith’s narration: Continue reading

On Flaming Creatures (excerpt from “Infantile Aggression, Queer Performance and Ambivalent Love”)

Flaming Creatures‘ queer “placeless and timeless” aesthetic was to such an extent that Jonas Mekas reported hearing it erroneously described as a “’remarkable first public screening of a film made fifty years ago.’”

Flaming Creatures continues in its ambiguities, “casually blurred genders and abstract body tangles…There’s a serious lack of gravity, an absence of perspective…[for such graphic sexuality] Flaming Creatures is notable for its absence of tumescence.”  Naturally, considering the prominence given to a scene of cunnilingual rape and, later, a drag queen Marilyn Monroe vampire, feeding on and resurrecting the titular creatures, we once again encounter instances of oral and genital love/sadism confusion. This time encountering an actual vampire, rather than simply passing reference to the vampire’s devotee as in Blonde Cobra , we come face-to-face with an icon of queer time: animated non-linearity, disrupted futurity and alternative (to) reproduction. However, the key to grasping the full potential of Flaming Creatures as opposition to the normal society that might be ensured through the psychoanalysis of children lies not just with queer sadomasochism and supernatural creatures but within the film’s aesthetic, both at its most avant-garde and also, perhaps surprisingly, at its most conventionally cinephilic.

To summarise briefly Jean- Louis Baudry’s “Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematographic Apparatus, ” cinematic specificity is defined by mechanical processes which act to mystify the transformation of an “objective reality” into individual photographic images with Renaissance perspective, and then into a fluid, singular stream of coherent vision and narrative. Accordingly, the cinematic-spectatorial process is founded upon multiple psychological fictions, only one of which has anything to do with the story itself. Thus, although it may be argued by Klein and others that a fundamental aspect of development out of infanthood is the discarding of phantasy for reality, there remains a dominant culture of fantasy, functioning wholly on the obfuscation of the divide between reality and fiction.

In Flaming Creatures, Smith employs multiple techniques which could paradoxically be classified either as narratologically-justified formalism or as veritable verfremdungseffekt – as P. Adams Sitney describes:

In the first scene, as figures pass back and forth in front of a poster on which the credits of the film have been ornately written, the grey, washed-out picture quality gives the impression that he was filming in a cloud. The narrowing of the tonal range obscures the sense of depth, which Smith capitalizes on by cluttering the panning frame with actors and with details of limbs, breasts, a penis, and puckered lips so that not only depth disappears but the vertical and horizontal coordinates as well.

Indeed, through processes of visual abstraction, non-professional acting, obviously painted sets and the extreme disturbance of the rape scene itself, with the victim’s screams battling and besting the score’s control of the aural space, Flaming Creatures proves a challenging spectatorial experience, whose effects of interpellation and alienation oscillate wildly throughout its 43 minutes. Simultaneously affective, however, is Flaming Creatures’ overt reference to recognisable Hollywood tropes, in their most concentrated forms. Sitney again:

Flaming Creatures deliberately manifests what [Smith] finds implicated in Maria Montez’s and von Sternberg’s films, and without the interference of a plot. When he brings to the fore what has been latent in those films— visual texture, androgynous sexual presence, exotic locations (the Araby of Montez’s fi ms or the Spain, China, and Morocco of von Sternberg’s)— and at the same time completely dis cards what held these films together (elaborate narratives), he utterly transforms his sources and uncovers a mythic centre from which they had been closed off.

Indeed, by making such references to the camp potential of Montez and Sternberg, whilst eschewing the “serious” elements of the plot, Smith’s cinema does not just showcase the drag performances of its cross-dressing and/or otherwise openly mannered actors, but it in fact may be understood to characterise the Hollywood aesthetic with just the same mindful, parodic drag performance as defined by Bornstein. The mindfulness of this performance, as well as its disregard for the carefully constructed stories of its source material goes some way to address and challenge the interpellative nature of these hegemonically-sanctioned fantasies, whilst giving space to the riotously confused, queer and violent phantasies of neurotic children with homosexual tendencies who would be “cured” by psychoanalysis. The American underground’s camp, queer position in relation to Hollywood (not just limited to Smith and Jacobs but also George Kuchar and Kenneth Anger to name but two others) is defined by Hoberman as an “obsessive ambivalence,” a term which, aptly enough, is nothing more than a succinct condensation Klein’s description of Erna’s relationship to her own parents. Perhaps this truly reflects the position of the American underground drag cinema in contrast to its Hollywood parent figure: challenging the transcendent ego of interpellative conventional narrative and form, parodying the super-ego of heteronormative hegemony and linear time, and revelling in the unbridled phantasy of a destructive id.