Jerry Tartaglia is a filmmaker; after the death of Jack Smith (1989), he works on the restoration of his films. He's finishing a film document, Escape From Rented Island: The Lost Paradise of Jack Smith, that will be out in 2017. (r.c.)
It was in Albright College that you first were introduced to the work of Jack Smith, by your professor, Harry Koursaros; then, in 1977 you discover the lost camera original of Flaming Creatures. Had you already met Jack, or the discovery gave you the chance to meet him? Can you tell me something about your first meeting with him?
While in college I saw many underground films and made the acquaintance of Tony Conrad, and after graduation I helped Tony paint his “Yellow Movies.” I went home to NYC and made films, and had a job in a film supply house. I was involved with the U-P Film Group, where Jack sometimes did a “Live Film” performance. While working at the film supply house, I discovered the camera original of Flaming Creatures in a pile of discarded Laboratory print material. At that time, I had not met Jack Smith but my friend Rafique Azzouney from the U-P Group was his friend and he brought me to Jack. It took three attempts as Jack would not open the door – even to Rafique. The third time worked and Jack met me and I told him what happened and, of course he was paranoid and didn’t believe me. Rafique attested to my truthfulness, and Jack acquiesced after a long conversation. The whole story is given in more detail in the book Jack Smith: His Amazing Life and Times.
That’s how I met him and over the years as I traveled around the U.S. we remained rarely in touch and he once tried to contact me when I lived in San Francisco because he wanted me to travel with his films to Europe. He told Rafique that I was the only person he would trust with his films.
When did you first see Flaming Creatures? Which was your reaction?
I first saw Flaming Creatures when I was a student at Albright College. I was born in Brooklyn and my home was there in NYC. My teacher and mentor, Harry Koursaros, was a painter of the Abstract Expressionist School and a friend of Gregory Markopoulos. He regularly brought Underground Films to the College. F.C. was among the many films that inspired me in that period (roughly 1970 – 72) to envision both a poetic filmmaking and a gay identified cinema. Harry purchased a 16mm camera and editing setup ostensibly for the Art Department which he ran, but in practice, it was for me to begin to hone my production skills. That’s how I began. Also during that period, I approached Jonas (Mekas) and he put me in touch with Tony Conrad and from him I met other filmmakers and artists. After graduation I helped Tony paint his many Yellow Movies while he and his wife, Beverly Grant travelled in Europe.
I have the book you quoted in the first answer (Flaming Creatures: Jack Smith. his amazing Life and Times), and – talking about paranoia –, what do you think about the quarrel with Mekas ("Uncle Fishook").
Jack was a very difficult person to deal with. Some of this was affectation but there was a real basis in reality for it as well. Jack had certain expectations about how his films should be distributed – mainly about income and presentation format. Jonas was wearing many different hats: filmmaker, writer for The Village Voice, chief of the Filmmakers’ Cooperative, founder of Anthology Film Archives, and often not remembered as Lithuania’s Poet Laureate. It is also little known how much Jack Smith was involved in early Queer Theater with John Vaccaro and others. Some of the more colorful descriptions of the FC matter are on the tapes that I am using in my new film – Escape From Rented Island: The Lost Paradise of Jack Smith. He incorporated this anti-Mekas story into his “Live Film” Performances.
Do you think that the whole Flaming Creatures affair (Knokke Le Zoute + the trial in USA + Mekas' defense and the way some "itellectuals" like Susan Sontag wrote about the film) changed the way the film was experienced? («I started making a comedy about everything that I thought was funny. And it was funny. The first audiences were laughing from the beginning all the way through. But then that writing started – and it became a sex thing. (...) The film was practically used to destroy me.» - I quote from Sylvére Lotringer's interview – “Uncle Fishook And The Sacred Baby Poo Poo Of Art”, in Semiotext(e) 3, n. 2, 1978). Was this a turning point in the way Jack Smith worked and thought about "films"?
One of the several obstacles to appreciating the work of Jack Smith is the unwillingness to move forward in our critical understanding of the work. I encountered this many times in the years in which I worked on the restoration and showed the films around the world. Of course – the turn of events surrounding the trial and the early writing about FC affected the way the film was viewed. However, everything that occurs affects the way that a film is viewed. And, in addition, just because Jack said that the film was a comedy, doesn’t mean that we, sixty years later, are supposed to find it funny. It now exists in the context of film history. So to bemoan the fact that it “should have been” something else is, frankly, one of the many absurdities that I’ve had to address over the years about his work.
You fund the camera original of Flaming Creatures in 1977. How many copies of the film in your opinion were circulating at that time and in which conditions? And concerning the camera original: which kind of film he used for the shooting? Different kinds? Can you go a bit deep in this technical aspect?
We are talking about 16mm filmmaking here. The camera original reel was never projected because it had no optical soundtrack “married” to it. Only a “release print” could have the soundtrack on it. This is, by the way, an error in Dominic Johnson’s book,Glorious Catastrophe, in which he states that the “print” that I found was one that was circulating in Europe. I did not find a print. I found the actual material that had been exposed in Jack’s camera, processed in the lab, and edited by him into a single strand of film containing the images in the order in which we know them to be Flaming Creatures.
In that era for most poverty based, underground filmmakers, the single strand form rather than the “A & B” Roll form of editing was commonplace. The soundtrack was recorded on ¼inch audio tape, then transferred to 16mm magnetic film, synched with the picture reel and then an optical negative reel was printed from the magnetic film. The optical negative was resynced with the picture at head and tail and from there the first “answer print” was made. The filmmaker checked the timing (that is the word to describe the exposure settings for the first print, also called the “answer print.”) If the timing needed correction, those changes were made and a new answer print was struck. If all was good, then the release prints were made. Therefore, what I found was a camera original that contained splices, and consisted of several different outdated film stocks including Agfa Gaevert, Kodak, and Ferrania. The camera original reel and the optical negative soundtrack (called “elements”) were usually stored at the laboratory. Jack probably lost track of which lab held these elements and after a decade or so of being unclaimed, the lab probably discarded them by selling them to a film supply house for “slug.” That’s where I found the picture reel, only.
The quality of the prints that were first made depends entirely on the timing decisions and who made them. There is no way of knowing how many prints were struck, nor who paid for them, nor what their image quality was. Release prints do not have splices.
Can you tell me somethin about Normal Love? I think that this work reveals a shift in the way Jack Smith worked with film. And what about his restoration, given that the material was never finished, concluded. Always showed in different ways.
One of the important truths about Jack’s work that I have been trying to extol over the past decades is that he moved past the notion of “filmmaker” and expanded his form into Queer Theater. The celluloid film, the slides, the costumes, set, objects became part of what we now call “Performance Art.” However, JACK SMITH invented it. Cindy Sherman and Robert Wilson acknowledge this. Normal Love was an ongoing performance. By the 1980s he had named this whole process “LIVE FILM.”
There never was any Normal Love movie in a complete form that he preordered. His life and his art were an ongoing process of mixture and reinvention. That is the point. The “restoration” was not a scientifically ordered procedure. It was a preservation of the works in the state that they were in at the time of his death.
Courtesy of Jerry Tartaglia and the Jack Smith Archive, Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels
About the sound: it was done by Tony Conrad, if I remember well. Did you have notes, documentation, about the sound? Was Conrad involved in the restoration?
I used a timing sheet that was written by Tony Conrad who was going to do the soundtrack before Jack and he had a fight and Jack fired him. I culled through the record collection, and using the timing sheet and the notations that Jack made on the album covers, I made choices for the sound.
But remember, there never was any “official” sound to picture relationship.The film material was always shown as part of a performance.
Tony Conrad was not involved in the restoration. He wanted to recreate Normal Love, reedit it and bring in contemporary musicians to create a new soundtrack. I refused his offer, citing my intention to preserve the work in the state it was in at the time of Jack’s death. He then broke off our friendship which had begun when I was a student and was his assistant in painting most of his Yellow Movies in 1973-74. His ire was so great that he chose to attempt to “write me out of the history.” He mounted several shows of the Yellow Movies and never told me, and went out of his way to delete the fact that I painted them for and with him. They were his work, of course, but he foolishly felt that he would punish me by erasing me from the Yellow Movie project.
I tell you this so that you understand some of the crazy and egotistical behaviors that surrounded (and probably continue to do so) the preservation work. Everyone had their own particular idea of what Jack Smith and his work meant. The problem is that Jack’s personality was so huge that he took many different forms to many different people. This is something that I hope becomes clear in my film, Escape From Rented Island: The Lost Paradise of Jack Smith. His friends and former friends want desperately to hold onto the image that they held of him. But he was none of these and all of these. That is part of his genius!
Also, one clarification: the only film that I found was the camera original of Flaming Creatures. After his death, Penny Arcade and J. Hoberman saved the material under the auspices of The Plaster Foundation. They engaged me to do the restoration of the films. I did. Later, Barbara Gladstone purchased the Estate from Jack’s sister. The Gladstone Gallery owns the work and is the rights holder, and they engaged me to continue the restoration, make new prints, and complete all the work or preservation. That was done in 2014 with the preservation of the audio tapes that were discovered in the Gladstone Warehouse with the costumes. I am making Escape From Rented Island: The Lost Paradise of Jack Smith using those tapes, along with the film archive, by arrangement with The Gladstone Gallery.
Image from Escape From Rented Island: The Lost Paradise of Jack Smith by Jerry Tartaglia, 2017
Can you tell me something more about the film you're finishing?
Escape From Rented Island is a Film Essay that considers the work of Jack Smith. It is not a documentary nor is it a conventionally structured film about an artist. The entire film document, as I also call it, includes only film and audio material that Jack created and used in his films, Live Film! Performances, and other artwork.
I am making the film because I gave more than twenty years of my creative attention to the restoration of Jack’s celluloid film work. This experience gave me the opportunity to view his work in the 16mm form in which Jack worked. Most importantly, because I am skilled in 16mm Film production, I was able to view the work using the technology that Jack himself used.
I saw, firsthand and frame by frame, the beauty of his visual composition, and the adept manipulation of TIME: the essential element of his Cinema. Towards the end of my restoration work for The Gladstone Gallery in New York, which now houses the Jack Smith Archive, his ¼ inch magnetic audio tapes were digitally preserved. These tapes are documentations of his performances as well as informal recording sessions of his Superstars and friends. Together with excepts from his own films and Live Film! visuals, my film, EFRI, will introduce the viewer to Jack’s aesthetic principles and his exotic world. I hope that it will add to the scholarship on his work, as well as the enjoyment of his vision.