MARC SIEGEL / Jack Smith Is an Ordinary Name[1]

 

 

Jack Smith is an ordinary name for an extraordinary, if not mythical, figure in the American avant-garde of the second half of the twentieth century. To describe Smith’s singular importance, artists, filmmakers, critics and scholars typically turn to the superlative. For Andy Warhol, Smith was the «only person I would ever try to copy »[2] Filmmaker John Waters referred to Smith as «the only true “underground” filmmaker»[3]For playwright and theater innovator, Richard Foreman, Jack Smith is «the hidden source of practically everything that’s of any interest in the so-called experimental American theater»[4]Photographer Nan Goldin, whose slide shows owe much to Smith’s precedent, described him as «the high priestess of the Babylon of Lower Manhattan during its greatest era»[5]. Finally, critic J. Hoberman, who has conducted the most thorough research on Smith’s films to date, offers the following exuberant description of the filmmaker’s most famous work, Flaming Creatures:

 

At once primitive and sophisticated, hilarious and poignant, spontaneous and studied, frenzied and languid, crude and delicate, avant and nostalgic, gritty and fanciful, fresh and faded, innocent and jaded, high and low, raw and cooked, underground and camp, black and white and white on white, composed and decomposed, richly perverse and gloriously impoverished, Flaming Creatures was something new under the sun. Had Jack Smith produced nothing other than this amazing artifice, he would still rank among the great visionaries of American film[6].

 

Although Smith’s work received rapturous praise from such illustrious figures in art, film, theater and photography, it still – over twenty years after his death in 1989 – remains somewhat inaccessible for most audiences. There have only been a handful of film retrospectives, art exhibitions, essays and books focusing on the artist in the past two decades[7]. The inaccessibility of Smith’s films has as much to do with financial and logistical problems of preservation, distribution, and exhibition, as it does with the innovative form and content of the works themselves. A Jack Smith retrospective, therefore, provides a welcome opportunity for audiences to familiarize themselves with a central figure in the American and international avant-garde of the second half of the twentieth century.

 

Jack Smith initially surfaced in the American avant-garde arts scene as a performer in films by Ken Jacobs. Smith met Jacobs during a brief stint studying film at the City College of New York in the mid-1950s. The two commenced on an immensely fruitful collaboration that resulted in numerous performance-driven films such as Saturday Afternoon Blood Sacrifice (1957), Little Cobra Dance (1957), Little Stabs at Happiness (1960), Blonde Cobra (1963) and Jacobs’s over seven hour magnum opus Star Spangled to Death (1958–60/2004). In many of these films, Smith is featured clowning around in various forms of assemblage costuming with other performers or children on the streets of Lower Manhattan. In an essay about the various ways in which post-war American artists depicted and engaged with urban space, Juan Suárez links these Jacobs films to other city films of the 1950s, such as Rudy Burkhardt’s Under the Brooklyn Bridge (1953) and Helen Levitt’s In the Street (1952), and argues that they «register the spontaneous theatricals of everyday life»[8]. For Suárez, Smith’s odd, seemingly improvised antics in the Jacobs’s films «exemplify the creative manner in which urban dwellers occupy public space, appropriating it to uses that go against habit and social sanction»[9].

 

While working on Star Spangled to Death in the construction site of what would become New York’s Lincoln Center, Smith borrowed Jacobs’s camera to make his short film Scotch Tape. The three-minute film captures three costumed performers (Jacobs, Jerry Sims and Reese Haire) climbing, moving, mugging for the camera, and dancing frenetically in a jungle-like web of wires, cement slabs, and wooden posts. The sound track, Tony Conrad’s edited version of 1930s American bandleader Eddy Duchin’s rendition of the Brazilian choro, Carinhoso, lends a tropical touch to the performer’s urban frolicking and to Smith’s ornate images of debris and jovial vitality. Scotch Tape, therefore, appropriates both urban space for “uses that go against habit and social sanction”and South American rhythms for depictions of contemporary New York shenanigans. Actually, since Duchin’s choro is itself already an appropriation of a Brazilian musical form by a North American bandleader, Smith’s musical choice can be seen to express his early fascination with Latin America as filtered through American popular culture, a fascination that reaches its apogee in his life-long obsession with Dominican-born, 1940s Hollywood actress María Montez (more on Miss Montez shortly).

 

Hoberman points out that despite the film’s brevity «Scotch Tape anticipates the epic quality of Smith’s later films and theater pieces»[10]. The short film is also an interesting example of Smith’s attempt to translate to moving images the idiosyncratic sense of framing that he honed in his still photography. Smith had regularly been taking color and black and white photography since the mid-1950s. In 1957, he opened the Hyperbole Photography Studio in a storefront in Lower Manhattan. The studio was less an opportunity to take commercial photos, than a chance at incorporating passersby into Smith’s elaborately staged, exotic and erotic photo shoots. As curator Lawrence Rinder notes, «Smith relished the complexities of human character and the peculiarities of human form, especially when that form was languorously posed, draped in chiffon, or transformed by mascara and rouge»[11]. In many of Smith’s early photos, the frame delimits an unidentifiable fantasy space in which partially clothed and disguised bodies are entwined with swaths of fabric, thrift store objects and the body parts of others. Such dense formal compositions of body parts, fabric, and found objects permeate Smith’s films as well, whether in the tableaux vivants in Flaming Creatures, the striking interior shots in No President, the close-ups in Song for Rent or the enigmatic ritual scenes in the Unedited Film Rushes.

 

 

 

 Respectable Creatures (Jack Smith, 1950s/1966).

Courtesy Arsenal Institute for Film und Video Art, Berlin

   Copyright Jack Smith Archive and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels.

 

Smith had early art world success with his photographs, exhibiting them in 1960 at the Limelight Gallery, a prestigious photography gallery, and even selling one to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Although his interest in still photography never waned – he made literally thousands of art photographs in his lifetime, most of which have yet to be printed and exhibited – Smith shifted focus in the mid-1960s from displaying photographs as art objects in publications and galleries to incorporating still images into slide show presentations. As early as 1963, he presented production stills from Normal Love, his spectacular color follow up to Flaming Creatures, in a slide show presentation accompanied by a recording of a speech by Antonin Artaud. Smith’s slideshows became increasingly complex and lengthy throughout ‘60s and ‘70s, often combining hundreds of images in carefully arranged sequences accompanied by his beloved exotica music (for example, Martin Denny, Les Baxter, and Alfred Lyman).

Smith’s visual style developed neither through direct engagement with classical figures in the fine arts, like Delacroix, Bosch, or Odilon Redon with whom his work has understandably been compared, nor – despite a few key exceptions – in close conversation with the work of other avant-garde filmmakers[12]. Instead, as a member of “the movies generation”– the term his friend and collaborator, the dramatist Ronald Tavel used to characterize himself and others who grew up in the United States of the 1940s and 1950s on a steady diet of Hollywood narrative films – Smith found aesthetic resources in “the secret-flix” of his youth. He provides a list of some of these (today somewhat obscure) films in his brilliant essay "The Perfect Filmic Appositeness of Maria Montez",

 

the whole gaudy array of secret-flix, any flic (sic) we enjoyed: Judy Canova flix (I don’t even remember the names), I Walked with a ZombieWhite ZombieHollywood Hotel, all Montez flix, most Dorothy Lamour sarong flix, a gem called Night Monster, Cat & the CanaryThe Pirate, Maureen O’Hara Spanish Galleon flix (all Spanish Galleon flix anyway), all Busby Berkeley flix, Flower Thief, all musicals that had production numbers, especially Rio de Janeiro prod. nos., all Marx Bros. flix. Each reader will add to the list.[13].

 

While Smith found redeeming social and aesthetic qualities in all of these undervalued genre films that allowed visual spectacle and exotic settings to trump narrative and character development, he reserved a special place in his personal pantheon for the films of director Josef von Sternberg and actress María Montez. Sternberg’s films, as Smith wrote in his brief essay, "Belated Appreciation of V.S.", “had to have plots even though they already had them inherent in the images”[14]. For Smith, the rich, visually and erotically charged fantasy world of Sternberg’s Marlene Dietrich films – Morocco (1930), Shanghai Express (1932), and The Devil is a Woman (1935) for instance – seemed to emerge directly from the director’s own psycho-sexual makeup, without the interference of professional writing, directing, or acting technique. In fact, technique and professionalism were qualities that Smith abhorred, preferring instead the vagaries of chance and the personal expression of autonomous individuals. The escapist fantasy films of María Montez, such as Arabian Nights (John Rawlins, 1942), Cobra Woman (Robert Siodmak, 1944), or The Siren of Atlantis (Greg Tallas, 1949), provided him with inexhaustible proof of the powerful creative vision of a single individual – in this case not the director, but the undervalued female star. Against those critics who labeled Montez, “The World’s Worst Actress”, Smith countered, “Wretch actress – pathetic as actress, why insist on her being an actress – why limit her? Don’t slander the beautiful womanliness that took joy in her own beauty and all beauty – or whatever in her that turned plaster cornball sets to beauty”[15]. Montez’s exuberant belief in her own beauty – one of the star’s most cited lines was, «When I see myself on the screen, I look so beautiful I want to scream with joy! » – and in her embodiment of such mythological figures as Scheherazade, the Cobra Woman, and the Siren of Atlantis, inspired Smith to recognize the power of individual conviction to transform ordinary objects, lines of dialogue, garbage and paper mache sets into the elements of a magical fantasy world. “Trash”, as he put in the Montez essay, “is the material of creators”[16].

Smith’s Montez worship manifests itself in the exotic aesthetic (and titles) of his films, photography, collages, and performances, and in numerous writings; it so permeates his world-view that it is nearly impossible to enumerate every manifestation of The Holy One’s presence in his work. One of the most significant and lasting expressions of his devotion to Montez (and of a broader queer male interest in the star) was, of course, the invention of drag Superstar, Mario Montez. Montez, a Puerto Rican office clerk who had worked as a model in Smith’s photo shoots as early as 1961, made his screen debut in Flaming Creatures (under the name of Dolores Flores). He went on to become Smith’s greatest star, appearing in the films Normal LoveReefers of Technicolor IslandNo President, in stage performances and numerous photos. Mario Montez also became one of the most important figures in underground film and theater in the ‘60s and ‘70s[17].

Smith’s very first film, Buzzards over Baghdad, shot in Los Angeles in the early 1950s and later reedited and incorporated into the film Respectable Creatures, is a relatively straightforward restaging of scenes from the Montez vehicle Arabian Nights. With Flaming Creatures, Smith transformed his interests in costumes, body parts, Montez, Sternberg and a whole range of secret-flix into an utterly unique cinematic experience. The film is a transcendent black and white vision of exoticized and eroticized gender and sexual play set to the tune of Latin American, classical and pop music, Tony Conrad’s minimalist drone, and excerpts from the soundtracks of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (Arthur Lubin, 1943, with Miss Montez of course) and Sternberg’s The Devil Is a Woman. The film’s unusual camera angles and framing, cloudy, ethereal images due to the outdated 16 mm film stock, episodic as opposed to narrative development, and fragmented presentation of extravagantly clothed bodies and alternately veiled and exposed body parts created a sensation that reached well beyond the confines of Smith’s small group of like-minded friends[18]. He had made the film specifically to entertain himself and the regulars at Jonas Mekas’s underground film showcases at the Charles Theater in the early ‘60s.

 

 

Song for Rent (Jack Smith, 1969)

Courtesy Arsenal Institute for Film und Video Art, Berlin

Copyright Jack Smith Archive and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels

 

When Flaming Creatures found itself at the center of a legal battle over pornography, Smith’s “comedy” quickly became “a sex issue of the Cocktail World” and began to circulate independently of its intended cultural context[19]. In reaction to this development and as a critique of such an instrumentalization and commodification of art, Smith never completed his epic Normal Love and chose instead to present it – and all subsequent films – as part of live performances, which sometimes incorporated slides, ever-changing, exotic music from Smith’s scratchy record collections, and other live performers. As Smith explains in a 1987 letter to the director of a German cinema,

 

Since Flaming Creatures, I’ve been involved in a working method that might be called LIVE FILM. Some of the work goes on through the screening itself. Someday this might be imitated for there is almost no other way to dislodge film out of the bankrupt state it is now in which can only be goosed up by more and more violence and synchronized chatter[20].

 

Hence, with the exception of Scotch Tape and Flaming Creatures, all of Smith’s films may be better understood as film material, the visual remnants of earlier live performances.

 

Smith died from AIDS-related complications in the fall of 1989. He left no will and reportedly asked the performer Penny Arcade to burn all his work. Fortunately, for those of us interested in Smith’s work today, Arcade betrayed her friend and chose instead to solicit film critic J. Hoberman’s help in establishing the Plaster Foundation to save and store the artist’s extensive and diverse body of work. They in turn enlisted the help of filmmaker Jerry Tartaglia to restore Smith’s films. (Tartaglia has the distinct honor of having found the camera original of Flaming Creatures in a dump at a sound lab he worked at in the 1970s. He returned it to Smith, who first accused Tartaglia of being an agent of Uncle Fishook before recognizing the well-meaning act by thanking him)[21]. Restoring the films of one who attempted to perfect the art of LIVE FILM performance is a difficult and thankless task. That Smith experimented with the sequencing of his films during these performances–sometimes removing the take-up reel from the projector so as to edit the film live and reinsert strips into the projector–meant that different audiences experienced different “films”. From Smith’s perspective, as he argued in the above letter, “this could be turned to advantage as a glamorous selling point. Often, there is repeat business because people can see the film gaining power as corrections are made and that is a new kind of film excitement”[22]. Tartaglia’s restoration project did not seek to produce “authentic” and “definitive” versions of films that never existed as such, but to preserve the material as it was left at Smith’s death. For the film’s soundtracks, he relied on notes on Smith’s records and discussions with collaborators so as to compile sound CDs that accompany most of the films.

 

With each new screening of Smith’s work, the mythology constructed around this artist with the ordinary name can be modified or reconceived through new concrete analyses and political and theoretical interpretations. “At this point”, as Juan Suárez noted in 2014, «we have a number of Jack Smiths to choose from or combine»[23]. Suárez offers four compelling possibilities: the queer underground pioneer; the anarcho, anti-capitalist; the anti-art artist; and the subversive tropicalist. One can only hope that the critical appreciation for Smith’s work will continue to manifest itself in a combination and permutation of interpretive approaches apposite to the unfinished and open-ended nature of the work itself.

 

 

Marc Siegel

 

 


[1]This essay was written to accompany a retrospective of Smith's films that I co-curated with Ewa Szablowska for the New Horizons film festival in Wroclaw Poland in 2011. See 11th Era New Horizons Film Festival Catalog (Wroclaw, Poland, 2011): 372-76.

[2] David Ehrenstein, “An Interview with Andy Warhol”, in I’ll Be Your Mirror: The Selected Andy Warhol Interviews, Kenneth Goldsmith (ed.), New York: Carrol & Graf, 2004, p. 67.

[3] Blurb on the back cover of Jack Smith, Flaming Creature: His Amazing Life and Times, Edward Leffingwell, Carole Kismaric and Marvin Heiferman (ed.), New York–London: Serpent’s Tail–P.S.1, 1997.

[4] Blurb on the back cover of Wait for Me at the Bottom of the Pool: The Writings of Jack Smith, J. Hoberman and Edward Leffingwell (ed.), New York–London: Serpent’s Tail–P.S.1, 1997.

[5] Blurb on the back cover of Jack Smith, Flaming Creature, Edward Leffingwell (ed.).

[6] J. Hoberman, On Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures (and Other Secret-Flix of Cinemaroc), New York: Granary Books, 2001, p. 10.

[7] This situation has changed only slightly in the five years since I first published this essay. In 2008, the Barbara Gladstone Gallery in New York City purchased the Jack Smith estate from his sister. The Gallery financed the restoration, color correction, and digitization of Smith's 16mm films and sold eleven prints in analogue and digital formats as a limited edition to museums and private collectors. In an unusual move for a commercial gallery, one which I hope will become an artworld standard, Gladstone also deposited editions of the 16mm prints with select film institutions that have distributed Smith's work for decades, including the Arsenal Institute for Film and Videoart (Berlin) and Lux (London). Recent publications on Smith include Marc Siegel, ed., Jack Smith: Beyond the Rented World[Special Issue] Criticism 56.2 (2014): 153-418; Sophie von Olfers and Mark Schlegel, eds., Hamlet, mise-en-scène (EXTRA TROUBLE–Jack Smith in Frankfurt) (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2014); Johan Kugelberg and John Zorn, eds., Wait for Me at the Bottom of the Pool– Artwork, Ephemera and Photography by Jack Smith (New York: Boo-Hooray, 2013); and Dominic Johnson Glorious Catastrophe: Jack Smith, Performance and Visual Culture (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2012).

[8] Juan A. Suárez, “Styles of Occupation: Manhattan in Experimental Film and Video from the 1970s to the Present”, in Mixed Use, Manhattan: Photography and Related Practices, 1970s to Present, Lynne Cooke and Douglas Crimp (ed.), Madrid–Cambridge: Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia–MIT Press, 2010, p. 132.

[9] Suárez, Styles of Occupation, p. 133.

[10] Hoberman, On Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures, p. 80.

[11] Lawrence Rinder, “Anywhere Out of the World: The Photography of Jack Smith”, in Jack Smith, Flaming Creature, p. 139.

[12] That said, Ken Jacobs’s interest in trash, an impoverished aesthetic, and images from popular culture were of course of fundamental importance to Smith. Both Jacobs and Smith were fascinated by American artist Joseph Cornell’s found-footage film Rose Hobart (1934), in which the artist reedited the jungle movie East of Borneo (1931) to focus on the gestures, moods, and expressions of its female star, Hobart. Cornell projected the film through blue gels and to the accompaniment of Brazilian music. Smith also cherished the work of fellow underground filmmaker Ron Rice, who featured Smith in two of his films, The Queen of Sheba Meets the Atom Man (1963) and Chumlum(1964).

[13] Jack Smith, “The Perfect Filmic Appositeness of Maria Montez”, in Wait for Me at the Bottom of the Pool, p. 32. The Flower Thief is the exception here; it is Ron Rice’s seminal underground beat film from 1960.

[14] Smith, “Belated Appreciation of V.S.”, p. 4.

[15] Smith, “Perfect Filmic Appositeness”, p. 25.

[16] Ibid., p. 26.

[17] Montez not only starred in numerous Andy Warhol films, and films by, among others, Ron Rice, José Rodriguez Soltero, Takahiko Iimura and the Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica, but he also was an important stage presence in the Theatre of the Ridiculous, the groundbreaking queer theater movement spearheaded by Ronald Tavel, John Vaccaro, and Charles Ludlam. See my essay on Montez in this same issue.

[18] See Hoberman’s extensive account of the production, exhibition and reception history of the film in his On Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures, p. 8–51.

[19] Jack Smith, “Pink Flamingo Formulas in Focus”, in The Village Voice, July 19, 1973, p. 69.

[20] “Jack Smith Film Enterprises, Inc.”, in Wait for Me at the Bottom of the Pool, p. 149.

[21] ‘Uncle Fishook’ was one of Smith’s many names for Jonas Mekas, filmmaker and founder of the Anthology Film Archives and the Filmmaker’s Coop. Smith blamed Mekas for capitalizing on the scandal over Flaming Creatures and for keeping a tight lock on films deposited in his archive.

[22] Smith, “Smith Film Enterprises”, p. 149.

[23] Juan A. Suárez, “Jack Smith, Hélio Oiticica, Tropicalism”, Criticism 56.2 (2014): 295.