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YOU DON'T KNOW JACK
In Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis, Mary Jordan takes us into the mind of one of the forgotten geniuses from the 1960s New York avant-garde scene.

BY STEVE GALLAGHER

JACK SMITH PREPARES FOR A PERFORMANCE IN ITALY

“There was a short time, late in 1963,” wrote P. Adams Sitney, author of Visionary Film, “when audiences for avant-garde cinema in New York could witness two intersecting entourages converging upon film screenings. The one group, Jack Smith and his 'creatures,' was breaking up just as the other, Andy Warhol and his associates, was expanding.” Decades later, Warhol is an icon of popular culture, Jack Smith is all but forgotten, and avant-garde cinema struggles to find an audience, no less an entourage. However, a new documentary by Mary Jordan, Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis, may finally rescue Smith from obscurity and make his work — including the notorious but rarely screened film Flaming Creatures — available to a wider public.

When Flaming Creatures was seized by the New York district attorney in 1963, the organizers of the screening, including filmmaker and journalist Jonas Mekas, were brought up on obscenity charges. As the case made its way through the legal system, supporters and detractors argued the film's merits in the press — some saw only a perverse burlesque of drag queens and recycled trash, “a catalogue of wrecked lives,” while others experienced religious epiphanies — and Jack Smith briefly became as famous a counterculture figure in the U.S. as Allen Ginsberg or William S. Burroughs.

JACK SMITH AND THE DESTRUCTION OF ATLANTIS DIRECTOR MARY JORDAN

Yet, Smith refused to capitalize on the notoriety around Flaming Creatures. According to filmmaker and critic J. Hoberman, he was particularly bitter that the film he had designed as a comedy had been turned into “a sex issue of the Cocktail World.” “The first audiences were laughing all the way through,” Smith explained. “But then that writing started — and it became a sex thing...[and] there was dead silence in the auditorium.”

“Critics are writers,” Smith wrote famously in an essay entitled “The Perfect Filmic Appositeness of Maria Montez,” the title referring to the exotic B-movie actress who had been his muse since childhood. “They like writing — and written characters.... Maria Montez's appeal [on the other hand] was on a purely intuitive level. She was the bane of critics — that person whose effect cannot be known by words, described by words, flaunts words (her image spoke).” Smith sought to emulate the purely intuitive appeal of Maria Montez in Flaming Creatures — which aptly features Mario Montez, a drag queen named by Smith for his sympathetic qualities. Playwright Richard Foreman recounts, “[Seeing Flaming Creatures] was an overwhelming experience, one of unfathomable mystery and emotionally delirious 'otherness.' Opening one's eyes to its faded, 'pasty,' incredibly unplaceable beauties was to experience the radiance of angels — not the fallen type, but the real and inexplicable 'nonhuman' kind — a blinding white acid that bleached the film emulsion as it passed through a mere camera.”

JACK SMITH IN MIKE SULLIVAN'S FRANKENSTEIN

The controversy around Flaming Creatures (which can be downloaded at http://ubu.com/film/smith_jack.html) marked a turning point in Smith's life. Afterward, he continued to produce 16mm films, but he never completed anything; he eschewed the finished product and screened his films only as works-in-progress. For Smith, art was entirely about the process of creation, and the distinction between life and art was therefore blurred. He also became increasingly polemical, attacking capitalism, ownership and careerism. But his invective was often so couched in metaphor — “O Maria Montez, give socialist answers to a rented world!” or “The staircase to socialism is blocked up by the Yvonne de Carlo Tabernacle Choir waving blood palm branches and waiting to sing 'Hymn to the Sun' by Irving Berlin. This is the rented moment of EXOTIC LANDLORDISM OF PREHISTORIC CAPITALISM OF TABU.” Few took him seriously.

Eventually abandoning 16mm, Smith turned to live performance and slide shows in the late '70s and '80s. According to Jonas Mekas, Smith's haphazard but widely influential performances unfolded in the gap between art and life — they “relied on chance, on coincidences, on conglomerations.” J. Hoberman called them “a cross between a rehearsal and a ritual.” “I don't ask people to act,” said Smith. “It should be more like reacting to stimuli.”

“Jack just pitched his camp a little too close to the frontier of Life and Art,” writes the poet René Ricard. “For Jack the supreme insult was 'Careerist.' For him the word contained a lifetime of contempt. I think it also implied success and, to me anyway, seemed to express a great artist's jealousy of mediocrity — success made you mediocre. On his deathbed he called Allen Ginsberg 'a walking career' to his face. (How sad to have to clarify; it was Jack's deathbed.) But Jack, I'm afraid to mention, was also obsessed with his career, except that his striving was inverted: his will was to fail. Andy Warhol once said, 'We always think of people starting at the bottom and working their way up. What about someone who starts at the top and works their way down?' He was talking about Edie Sedgwick at the time, but in a way it seems to apply just as well to Jack.”

After decades living as an impoverished artist in New York, Jack Smith died of complications from AIDS in 1989. Ironically, his estate was contested in a legal battle between his estranged family and a group of artists seeking to preserve his work; Smith, we can be certain, would not have been amused.

“I suspect that an artist like Jack is incomprehensible to most young people today. Who starves for art anymore?” asks critic Gary Indiana. “Still, at some juncture in the middle future, it may become apparent to people living in a culture of nonstop Mickey Mouse that money isn't everything. If and when that time arrives, Jack Smith will come into his own.”

In the meantime, we have Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis. A delirious documentary portrait of the artist, Mary Jordan's film immerses the viewer in Smith's work, captured here through film clips, audio recordings and stills, while forcefully arguing for the continuing relevance of his philosophies on art and politics.

How did you get interested in Jack Smith? I was living in San Francisco in a commune called the Kaliflower Commune. Irving Rosenthal, who was a friend of Jack Smith's and had starred in his feature No President, was also living there. Irving had lived in New York in the late 1950s and had introduced Jack to many of the people who would become the stars of Flaming Creatures. He himself appears in one of the tableaux vivants in Flaming Creatures, along with Marian Zazeela and La Monte Young. One day Irving showed me a picture that Jack had taken of him, and I was amazed at how ethereal and beautiful the image was. When I tried to find more information about Smith, I couldn't find anything on him. I couldn't believe what a legend this guy was, and how little information about him was available. I thought, I have to do a documentary on this character who is so widely respected and admired and hadn't had, you know, his day in the sun.

Growing up, I knew of Jack Smith, I knew his reputation, but his films were virtually never screened. They are still hard to see, frankly, and that's one of the main reasons I made the film. Many people have heard of Jack Smith, but few have seen his work. And the feedback I've been getting from young artists and others who have seen my documentary is that Jack really inspired them. One girl came up to me after a screening, she was crying her eyes out, and she said, “I've been living such a hard life with my art, and your film made me realize that it was okay.” She was so moved by the fact that he lived for his art, that there were no boundaries between his life and his art. I was surprised by what a strong emotional reaction she had to the film, but it made me realize that Jack's politics and art-world manifestos are still very contemporary. When you look at how commercial the art world has become — with art fairs, and all this shit on the walls that people are paying a million dollars for — compared to what it was like when Smith was alive, there have been significant changes in what artists value.

The last thing I would have expected from a film about Jack Smith is that it would be educational. His work is admired for the exoticism of its imagery and Smith's baroque sensibility, but one of the things I was surprised to discover about him in the film is that his verbal rants often belied a very clearly thought-out social agenda regarding “landlordism,” ownership of art and the role art can play in society. He was ahead of his time. He was a visionary because he saw what was going to happen. Here's the road, people. He was even into recycling and refused to have a stove that burned fossil fuels. He was an anticapitalist through and through. Looking at his work, one can learn so much about art history, baroque gesturing, costume making, recycling, ownership — all these issues are in the work. I also find his work educational because it tells an interesting story about personal suffering and how one makes art for one's self as well as for others.

Most critics who write about Smith focus on the levels of artifice at play in his work. In the Bright Lights Film Journal, for example, Gary Morris writes: “The effect [of watching Smith's films] is of a dream that stubbornly resists consciousness, the imagery sometimes subtle and painterly, sometimes stark and high-contrast in rendering the filmmaker's ecstasy-drenched demimondes.” In your film, Smith is portrayed as a socialist artist — an anticapitalist — whose aesthetic is inseparable from the life he lived. For instance, he continually reedits his film — often as they are being screened — so there is no final product, only versions that are experienced in real time. Exactly. For Smith, everything had to be a unique moment.

Do you think that had anything to do with why, in the last decade of his life, he abandoned filmmaking in favor of live performance, which is more ephemeral? I think he shifted because he liked performing; he created plays even as a child, and dressing up and creating new worlds obviously gave him great pleasure. But I also think he shifted because film got expensive, and he didn't have any money at that time. A couple decades earlier, when he made a shift from still photography to film, I think he did so for the same reason: movie film allows you to capture more images in a shorter amount of time, and it was more economical at the time than shooting and printing still photos. Tony Conrad told me that when Jack made films, he rarely cut anything out; he used everything. Nothing went to waste.

One of the main theses of your film is that Jack Smith was driven in his art to reclaim a childhood watching Maria Montez films at the local movie theater every Saturday, and being a filmmaker was therefore something he aspired to regardless of the economic challenges it presented. Yes, but I also think something happened to Jack Smith after Flaming Creatures. We never see the real pure vision of Jack again; nothing compares to Flaming Creatures, aesthetically or emotionally, in the work that followed. Flaming Creatures is an opening; it is a religious experience. I have shown the film to people who know nothing about Jack Smith, and they don't even know how to respond; they don't know what their emotions are.

Do you think Jack Smith never reached those heights again in his work because the controversy around Flaming Creatures changed the way he looked at film? With Flaming Creatures, I think he saw how the system could take his vision away from him, how they could own it, mutilate it and change it into something else. After Flaming Creatures, he became more overtly political. He started to take on the people and systems that were interfering with his pure vision, and he tried to expose them for what they were and how they worked. After Flaming Creatures, his films are all political. He says himself about Normal Love, which he made several months after Flaming Creatures, “I made a pasty, nice film.” Even the title is funny. Whereas Flaming Creatures is apolitical; there are no rules. If he had played by the rules after Flaming Creatures, I think he would have received funding and lived differently — because the film became quite famous. He refused to do that.

Were you surprised to discover that Jack Smith's work is so political? I'm a human-rights person. I was a social activist myself before I got interested in Jack. So for me, this documentary is a human-rights film dripping in art. That's how I've always seen it. Some other people might have made a film about Jack Smith differently than I did; they might not have seen his political manifestos as something to stand on. I find them relevant, and I think they are very much a part of who he is. This is a guy who is actually very clear on what is going on and who is using himself to expose the way capitalism works. And so for me, Jack was a political activist in the art world. He makes beautiful art, and he's political.

That's a very interesting break between Jack Smith and Andy Warhol, for instance. Both reveal capitalism for what it is in different ways. I prefer Jack's madman to Warhol's conformist, but these two trajectories in art are interesting to compare. One resists capitalism, goes against it and works his whole life to expose the duplicity of ownership, and the other embraces capitalism and turns himself into a product.

I never got to meet Jack Smith, but I always heard stories about how famously difficult he was to work with. And yet aside from Flaming Creatures, the aspect of Jack's work that is most influential was his reluctance to start his screenings or performances on time, his inability to conform to a schedule or to perform at all if he didn't feel like it. I've often heard that people often didn't know when or if a performance had started; the performance itself was indistinguishable from real life. Artists like Richard Foreman, Robert Wilson and the Wooster Group were enormously influenced by the experience of attending one of Smith's performances. Again, that aspect of Jack's work, not starting on time, is so anticapitalistic. Time is money, after all. For Jack, performance was about the magical moment, whenever that happened. If it happened six hours from now in an accident when a ladder falls, that's fantastic. People I've talked with who attended performances by Jack describe sitting around for six-plus hours — tired, waiting for something to happen, and then finally when it happens, it seems like the most important moment in life.

Your consciousness is already altered before the show even begins. I think that's exactly what Jack Smith was doing: altering consciousness. He takes you through these rites of passage, these rituals — adjusting lights for three hours, assembling and reassembling costumes and props. You are part of the process of the making of the art. You don't just come, pay, sit down and watch a show.

I talked with these folks in Colorado who had invited Jack to perform at the university there, and they said he was a menace to deal with, he was totally insane, he requested all these things they couldn't deliver. He even wrote them a hate letter after he left. They told me it took them years to figure out that this guy had actually blown their minds and forever changed the way they look at art.

One of the things that is most striking about your film is the number of archival film clips you include. After Jack died, there was a well-publicized battle to control his estate. Securing rights from the Plaster Foundation, which eventually assumed control of his work, can't have been easy. Clearing rights was a ton of work. Trying to locate film clips and photos, and tracking down these characters from the '60s, took five years. I was very determined to find as much of Smith's recorded work as possible. Some people were incredibly giving, and if it hadn't been for some of the personal alliances I was able to make, I wouldn't have had a film.

Making a documentary is really, really hard. Not only the amount of paperwork you have to deal with, but these big corporate giants, they don't care about the low-budget, little-guy documentary. They want money. They have one price, and if you can't pay it, that's just too bad, which limits your access to a lot of work.

I'm still dealing with the studios to clear rights to the Maria Montez clips in the film. I have a festival license now, but I have to get theatrical rights to show at Film Forum. Later, I'll have to renegotiate again to get broadcast rights. It's just so expensive; I could make two movies from that one payment to the studios. With documentaries, I feel those rights should be given for free because documentaries are educational. There should be a different set of standards and a different price for documentaries. Documentaries don't make any money, and anybody who thinks they do is out of their fucking minds. There isn't any documentary budget that's going to pay you for five years of full-time labor. Certainly, some documentaries are making some money, but most do not. Some people have called this the golden age of documentaries, but documentaries in this country are not being funded or subsidized like they should be.

How did you raise money for your film? It was very difficult to raise money. It was made with millions of dollars in love and very little money. It was shot in PAL DV, and then up-rezzed to HD. We had a Judith Rothschild Foundation grant and a lot of private investors. The artist Richard Prince is the executive producer, and he and [the art dealer] Barbara Gladstone were instrumental in helping to get the film on its feet.

Did you have a personal connection with Richard Prince? I had no personal connection with him. I wrote to Richard and told him that I was doing a film on Jack Smith and I was looking for funding. I included a couple of photocopies of Jack's pictures. He responded and gave a small donation. I wrote him a thank-you card and said it would be great to meet and, you know, thank you so much for helping out. We met and we discussed the film, and I told him what I was trying to do and my limitations with finances, and he offered to help.

Does the film have a distributor? What are your plans? I got to meet George Lucas when I was at the Los Angeles Film Festival, and he was incredibly enlightening about hybrid self-distribution models. He talked a lot about VOD and how, in the future, if independent producers have marketing budgets or an e-mail list, they should self-distribute. I became very interested in that, because for Jack, it seemed appropriate to go that route. So we are speaking to distributors — we've had quite a few offers from small distributors — but we're also exploring different options. I didn't make the film thinking I would make any money. If anything, I always knew it would be a minus and a loss. But that's okay. I made the film to preserve Jack's work, and also because I find him very relevant and contemporary.



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