ANDREA LISSONI / What’s Underground About Marshmallows [1]


 

«What is it we want from a film?
A vital experience
An imagination
An emotional release
All these & what we want from life
Contact with something
We are not, know not
Think not, feel not, understand not,
Therefore: An expansion.
»

Jack Smith, “The Perfect Filmic Appositeness
of Maria Montez”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Over the last twenty years, I’ve found myself chasing the ghost of Jack Smith too many times to really be able to write about him with objectivity; above all, without the urge to pile up facts, panicked that I'll forget key aspects or anecdotes. Almost gripped by paralysis at this point, I decided to follow the shining path that the bizarre idol of my late adolescence seemed to point me towards: I gathered all my material around me, heaped on a table and on the floor, in the middle of the living room. I popped the audio collection Jack Smith - Les Evening Gowns Damnées – published for Table of Elements in 1997 by Tony Conrad (creator of the soundtrack for Flaming Creatures, 1963) – into the CD player and pushed repeat. In the same vein, I put my old, pirated copy of Flaming Creatures into the DVD player. And then, all night long, I did nothing at all. Or rather, to be honest, between one eternal pause and another, I watched the film for a bit, I listened for a bit, I thought for a bit, I rubbed my hands together for a bit, remembering my trips with the precious reels of Normal Love, I Was a Male Yvonne DeCarlo, The Yellow Sequence and Scotch Tape, carted from train to train in a leather case, from the Paris headquarters of Light Cone, the distributor, to Milan, Bologna, Pisa, then back to Paris, long ago in 1999. And, of course, I read for a bit, getting lost in some article – like Ken Kelman’s essay in the original copy of Film Culture from the summer of 1963, written just after its screening at the Bleecker Street Cinema, agreeing with him that the film seems to take place in an unidentified location, outside of space and time, in a gorgeous black and white that evokes Gustav Doré’s illustrations of Dante, piling legend onto legend, effortlessly, and that it is a hell where these creatures are burning, but their joy also makes it a heaven... Until Be-Bop-a-Lula would wake me up, at about forty-minute intervals, reminding me of the end of that tortured masterpiece.

In short, I did an awkward, not entirely unconscious re-enactment of what anyone who’d been through New York from the late ‘60s to the late ‘80s had told me – prompted by the offhanded questions I’d throw out – that a Jack Smith performance was apt to be: hours of waiting, the artist occasionally appearing, exotic ‘40s music in the background, and nothing else. Only when the last viewers gave up in exhaustion and started to trickle out would Jack Smith begin. In a similar way, the full-blown rapture of chaotic performative writing came over me and the time came to put pen to paper. How could I summarize the essential traits of such a dense body of work, spanning film, theatre, performance, photography, visual art and life? It could all be wrapped up in one word: authenticity. Its authenticity in tracing out a space between art and life where improvisation is wedded to discipline and consistency, the visual language – with the fluidity of camera movements and superimposed images, in the case of his films – grafted onto performances in which gesture plays the key role, the dreamlike, narcotic expansion of time encountering the bodies of transvestites, divas and antidivas. But then – and Sylvère Lotringer emphasizes this, both in Mary Jordan’s documentary Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis (2006), and in his writing – Jack Smith loathed capitalism and its “pasty cheerfulness”, and couldn’t help but cling to authenticity, steering clear of the ideology of “pop” happiness at all costs, of the permanent dictatorship of business, in favour of shared emotion, of community life, of savouring the beauty in everyday existence. And so Susan Sontag, one of his admirers (along with Tony Conrad, La Monte Young, John Waters, John Zorn, et al.), was perhaps exaggerating when she said Jack Smith and his film – the most censored in the history of experimental underground cinema – Flaming Creatures (1963), were «pop», but she was spot-on in identifying him as the forefather and pioneer of camp and its surrounding culture (“Notes on Camp”, in Against Interpretation and Other Essays, Farrar, Strass & Giroux, New York 1966). With his intolerance for the rules of consumerism and his blasted authenticity, Jack Smith was naturally destined to become paranoid, obsessed with the irony of having been intellectually robbed (specifically, by Jonas Mekas/Uncle Fishhook, whom he accused of stealing the film that had made him famous).

Whether he was looted or not, Smith was anything but indifferent to the culture that later became predominant in the postmodern era, as the first to devote himself to amassing fragments and rubbish. The accumulation of pop garbage collected directly in the streets, once infused with Hollywood exoticism via slideshows, films and music, became a key theatrical element in his performances (especially the ones at the Plaster Foundation of Atlantis, his first loft in downtown Manhattan from ’70 to ’72). And the contemplation of that flea-market array of knickknacks, garbage and lights, perhaps barely moved around by the artist, was just the preface to a kind of action that would exhaust anyone, an action constantly on the brink of explosion. His lesson did not go unheard, and Bob Wilson in particular would later skilfully develop on the idea of dragging out performance time.

Aside from the obvious (and sometimes stereotyped) queer, camp and kitsch elements, architecture – but above all, ruins, demolition, and deterioration – are themes that may be less visible, but are fundamental to Jack Smith’s creative obsession. Scotch Tape (1959-62), his first, very short film, was shot with a 16mm camera borrowed from experimental filmmaker Ken Jacobs, on a set of his own making: a vast expanse of rubble, cables, rusty metal bars and chunks of concrete, in which our hero stages a dazzling group dance. And the nightmare (or beautiful dream, depending on one’s standpoint) of I Was a Male Yvonne DeCarlo (1968-70) comes to a brusque end amid the smoke and dust of bulldozers hard at work, tearing down the Broadway Central Hotel.

And then, in addition to the blatant apologia of Hollywood exotica, the myth of the magical, decadent Orient, the inordinate passion for a film like Mario Camerini’s Maciste in Africa (1926), the adulation of the disastrous diva Maria Montez, whom Smith adored for the inept acting that brought her identity to the fore (later reincarnated in the transsexual Mario Montez, the star of his films), there is the penguin Yolanda. Yolanda represents the whole bestiary of the animal nature, as a constant reference in Jack Smith’s work, and accompanied him faithfully over the years, putting in an unforgettable appearance in 1974 on the streets of Rome, with a spangled bra and a red feather headdress. One of the reasons for my naive pursuit of Jack Smith over the years is that I had come to see his practice as seminal, in its relation to the mythographic liberality of the early Matthew Barney (especially Normal Love, 1963, perhaps his most stunning full-length film), its splendid resonance with the narcissistic, Orientalist iconography of Luigi Ontani, stripped of the collective underground dimension, or with the radiant performative energy of Carmelo Bene’s films, heretical in their own right, with their love of costumes and exaggerated use of the full range of the human voice.

Paradoxically, it is the history of experimental film, due to both the censorship of Flaming Creatures, with the accompanying scandal at the international festival in Knokke-le-Zoute, Belgium, in 1963, and to Jack Smith’s participation in its climatic phase – that of Expanded Cinema, with Rehearsal for the Destruction of Atlantis at Jonas Mekas’s festival in 1965, which included La Monte Young/Marian Zazeela, Claes Oldenburg, Bob Rauschenberg, Terry Riley, Andy Warhol – that risks giving a two-dimensional impression of the «only true underground filmmaker» (John Waters).

What is obvious today is unquestionably its visual power, the devastating richness of an artistic vision that is eternally original. And, to repeat this one last time, its free creative impetus, clear integrity, and aching authenticity.

In other words, the conditions that – indifferent to the stubborn dictates of consumption – trigger it all, make one take action. Which, on a smaller scale, is just what happened with this nocturnal essay.

 

 

Andrea Lissoni

 



[1] In: Mousse, issue 24, estate 2010, pp. 164-174.