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Making the case for humanity in a time of powerful stupidity (and stupid power)
On the list of films that will almost certainly be seen by the tiniest portion of those who should see it, Ken Jacobs' nearly seven-hour, kaleidoscopic magnum opus may be tops. An exhaustive, sprawling history of America -- mainly from the Industrial Revolution on -- in the form of found footage and recordings, as seen through the eyes of those on the margins (i.e. intellectuals, socialists, artists), it is perhaps the most compelling case imaginable that we, as a race, are simply doomed to forever suffer for our worst impulses. Or at least until we annihilate ourselves.
Sounds like fun, right? In many respects, it is. Jacobs takes archival footage that illustrates America's most appallingly racist and imperialist worldviews, as assigned to us via the popular culture -- a Nelson Rockefeller campaign film, an Al Jolson blackface musical, a patronizing educational film about "conscience", etc -- and inter-cuts them with footage he shot and abandoned in the late 1950s, a series of avant-garde living theater pieces, in which fellow filmmaker Jack Smith cavorts in ecstatic lunacy on the streets of New York, upsetting the torpor of 1950s life, delighting children, drawing the bewilderment of adults (and the consternation of cops).
Less fun is the portrait of Jacobs' other friend, the "born loser" Jerry Sims, whose formidable intelligence and cultural awareness cannot help his complete inability to function in modern society. He begs his (poor) friends for money. He smells bad. He is so overcome by the injustice of the world that he can barely dress himself. Jack's exuberance lifts the first half of the film while Jerry's despondency dominates the second, so that by the end we're forced to ask ourselves how we confront our monumentally f**ked up world: are we Jack (The Spirit Not of Life But of Living) or are we Jerry (Suffering)?
Jacobs seems attracted to Jack but to find Jerry's condition inevitable. The first is the truest state of who we are as human souls, the second is the only true possible effect of a world governed by capitalism. Throughout, Jacobs provides hundreds of on-screen texts, some of it his own writing and some that of others. As a leftist, Jacobs makes Michael Moore seem positively mainstream by comparison, but his arguments are more philosophical than Moore's, and even more persuasive. Many of the texts are presented on only one frame of the film, so that on a DVD you're forced to stop the player, back up and read. (In a film screening, of course, they would just go by in a blink). This approach demands interaction and engagement on the part of the viewer. As it is in society, if you want to get at these truths, you have to go get them. No one's going to make it easy for you, and the truth is that the power structure we have is actually going to make it as difficult as possible for any of us to know anything. Jacobs has left as his life's work an epic testimony that could, if enough people just took the time and made that effort, contribute to a more peaceful world, but I think he knows that probably won't happen.
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