With a running time of 6 hours and 42 minutes, ''Star Spangled to Death'' is the magnum opus of the independent filmmaker Ken Jacobs. Begun in 1957 as a backyard bohemian romp starring the avant-garde legend Jack Smith -- an amazing proto-drag performer who later directed his own underground classic, ''Flaming Creatures'' -- the project grew over the years to incorporate huge chunks of appropriated material, including, for example, the entirety of Richard M. Nixon's 1952 Checkers speech and what seems like most of an early 30's documentary on what was then known as ''darkest Africa.'' For this provisionally definitive version, which opens today for a one-week engagement at the Anthology Film Archives in the East Village, Mr. Jacobs has brought his film up-to-date with topical references to the war in Iraq and the Bush administration.
The core of the film remains the 1950's material, a self-consciously cheesy morality play in which the lanky, lunar Smith (who died in 1989) dons costumes assembled from throw rugs, strips of tulle, plastic sheets, fishnets and pretty much anything else at hand to embody the Spirit Not of Life but of Living, a freewheeling sprite who whirls through the button-down Manhattan of the Eisenhower years. His opposite number is Suffering, a figure played by Jerry Sims, a down-and-out, painfully emaciated artist whose whining about the unfairness of life fills much of the post-synchronized soundtrack. With Smith and Sims representing the poles of human experience, Mr. Jacobs uses his recycled films to explore the ideologies that swirl around them, affecting their marginal American lives.
Rather than use brief clips from campy old films to score easy political points -- in the manner of, say, the unfortunately influential ''Atomic Cafe'' from 1982 -- Mr. Jacobs brilliantly and generously allows much of the borrowed material to play out in its entirety, at which point it indicts itself without need of sarcastic voice-over commentary. One of the most horrifying passages in ''Star Spangled'' is an undated CBS documentary, with a genial Charles Collingwood as host, in which scientists subject rhesus monkeys to blatantly sadistic experiments intended to give a strict scientific definition to the notoriously elusive concept of love. Mr. Jacobs rightly realizes that any further editorializing on this grim film would be superfluous.
The twin bugbears of ''Star Spangled to Death'' are racism and religion, the former represented by Hollywood cartoons of the early 30's (featuring a brief appearance by Mickey Mouse, described as a direct descendant of the minstrel show tradition) and the latter by a long audio excerpt from a faith-healing program, in the course of which God is called upon to cure a foot fungus. Sometimes Mr. Jacobs's preoccupations come together, as when he quotes the ''Goin' to Heaven on a Mule'' production number from ''Wonder Bar'' (1934), featuring Al Jolson in blackface ascending to a celestial paradise where angels shoot craps and pork chops grow on trees.
New material, shot on video in pointed contrast to the 16-millimeter film that makes up most of the production, insists on the continued relevance of Mr. Jacobs's concerns. At a 2003 antiwar rally in Midtown, Mr. Jacobs comes across a figure he describes as ''the spirit of Jack,'' a protest leader who does seem to share Smith's radical insouciance. Whether or not this is the final version of ''Star Spangled to Death'' (Mr. Jacobs is a youthful 70, with plenty of time for further modifications), it stands as a rare living, breathing example of American avant-garde filmmaking, a species unfortunately well on its way to extinction.
STAR SPANGLED TO DEATH
Written, directed and edited by Ken Jacobs; released by Big Commotion Pictures. At the Anthology Film Archives, 32 Second Avenue, at Second Street, East Village. Running time: 6 hours, 42 minutes, shown with three intermissions. This film is not rated.
WITH: Jack Smith (The Spirit Not of Life but of Living), Jerry Sims (Suffering), Gib Taylor and Bill Carpenter (the Two Evils), Cecilia Swan (Misplaced Charity) and Ken Jacobs (Oscar Friendly/Ringmaster/Janitor).