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What’s Underground?: The Films of Jack Smith

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What’s Underground?: The Films of Jack Smith

Who was Jack Smith? A question lodged at numerous parties I’ve recently attended. But that question might fade as Jack receives renewed attention in the coming months. Nearly all of his films will find screenings throughout April at the Museum of the Moving Image, Anthology Film Archives and at the series Dirty Looks, at Participant Inc. To top it off, a large solo show, curated by Neville Wakefeild, will open May 6th at Gladstone Gallery.

Jack was an underground visionary in every sense of the word. Jack poured glitter into everything he made: pasty creatures, plastic fantasias and moldy monsters. He was a performance artist, filmmaker, playwright, photographer, socialist, aesthete, installation artist, scene-stealer, writer, interventionist. He built a theater and movie-studio in his rickety loft out of street debris; an intricate and child-like universe, Cinemaroc, was equal parts Baroque and broke. For a contingency of art and theater fags, Jack, as Charles Ludlam once eloquently put it, “is the daddy of us all.” And quixotically, the fact that he remains a somewhat underground or cult figure, as opposed to canonized creature, attests to his legacy.

Best known as a filmmaker, Jack made wild, indeterminable pictures. Flaming Creatures was his first finished film. Well, in truth, it’s his only finished film, since it ricocheted out of his hands when a trend of underground film raids made his opus a trophy for either side of a decency debate. Seized at the same time as Jean Genet’s Un Chant D’amour and Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising, Creatures made it all the way to the Supreme Court, who could detect little value in its over-exposed rumpus of genitalia, transvestitism, baroque orgies and dance dervishry. Meanwhile, Susan Sontag and Jonas Mekas heralded the film as high art, hijacking (so Jack saw it) his vehicle to bolster their tastemaker status. So Jack moved forward making movies that couldn’t be screened without him. He shot epics and edited them in front of you. Normal Love, No President, I Was a Male Yvonne de Carlo. A screening could be ten minutes or four hours, as Jack huddled in the back with the projector, throwing on scarred 78s to make the soundtrack, chopping up and taping together filmstock like it was sculpture.

This was but one of the many ways that Jack restlessly performed. He also hosted theater pieces in his Greene Street loft that were both must-sees of the ’70s art world and dubious endeavors. He would host an event at midnight and allow the audience to linger for 4, maybe 5 hours before stepping onto the stage. Because for Jack, life was art, life was theater. There was no distinction, really, between the prelude and the event. Which reflected Jack’s status as a fierce anti-capitalist. Waiting became a concentrated practice, as important as the paid-for spectacle. Waiting was participatory. After the irate had fled, Jack would commence. Those who remained were dedicated, not “the scum of Baghdad.”

He acquired much of his terminology growing up in the cinemas of the 1940s. Like kindred experimentalists James Bidgood and the Kuchar brothers, Jack clung to the Technicolor fantasies that brewed on exotic deserts and shores. Jack started making art working with color photography, a result of his day-job employ at a commercial portrait studio in the 1950s. His thrilling photos are like film stills, cluttered with performers and creatures, veils, glitter, pearls, paint and plaster. In some ways, he was photographing those childhood movies as he remembered them, as he felt them to be. Jack found something covert there, something burning, excessive and queer that he worked to represent and home in these photographic studies. Arabian Nights, The Thief of Baghdad, White Savage, Cobra Woman (which also screens at Museum of the Moving Image’s “Fashion in Film Festival: Birds of Paradise,” preceding Smith’s Flaming Creatures). God, to Jack, was the Queen of Technicolor, Maria Montez, a conventionally wooden Dominican actress whose narcissism “suffused a thousand tons of dead plaster with imaginative life and truth.”

In the amenable magazine, Film Culture, Jack found a likeminded journal to publish his writings, crafting alarmingly acute treatises for his loves: “The Perfect Filmic Appositeness of Maria Montez,” “Belated Appreciation for JVS [Josef Von Sternberg],” (whose The Devil Is A Woman also screens at the fest, alongside Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome by Kenneth Anger) “What’s Underground About Marshmallows?” and begging the question, “Could Art Ever Be Useful?” Yes, is Jack’s answer, but not your typical consumable work that is offered up for the viewer like a bon bon. No, Jack valued a give-and-take with his audience, with his collaborators. Gary Indiana wrote that, in a friendship with Jack, “the world that he lived in had great appeal, and it also had a terrifying lack of boundaries. Within his hermetic realm, Jack was utterly logical and everything he did made perfect sense. Outside that magic kingdom he was quite mad, and though his madness was essentially benign, it could wear you out.” Jack lost most of his friends, lovers and collaborators due to this insistence, his absolute impossibility. If you erred for a moment, Jack would lash back at you, by some accounts with an ax, and you were out for good. But the flipside to that manic intensity was an excruciating purity that few artists achieve.

He was an impossible manchild whose distinct, sing-song voice overtook every production he ever wandered into (he first became famous in the New York underground film scene by acting in—and taking over—the films of Ron Rice and Andy Warhol). Recently, I was at a party, reading aloud from a friend’s copy of Jack’s bite-size Historical Treasures from the Hanuman Books series. It was 3 or so in the morning and I couldn’t help but dip into his cadence, his start-and-stop delivery pattern, which inserted indeterminable, theatrically pregnant pauses for the sheer thrill of emphasis, a collaboration with your nerves. It’s these exciting moments that make me realize that Jack will never die, how much he contributed to the arts. Though all the books are out of print and the art is now stored under lock and key, it was never about objects, but a kind of inventive spirit that can invade a room.

So, if you don’t know of Jack, it’s in part because there aren’t really pieces by Jack Smith. Performance artist Penny Arcade got it and hoped to preserve Jack’s loft as an immersive museum to the artist, cause everything there was constructed out of and for his performances, his films, his photographs, his writings. A flaming context was Jack’s real work of art. And his imprint is indelible.

Bradford Nordeen’s writing has appeared in Butt, the Fanzine, Little Joe and X-TRA Contemporary Art Quarterly, amongst others. He is the curator for the queer film series Dirty Looks.