The underground film, art, and performance scene that flourished in downtown NY in the 60s, 70s, and 80s revolved around a handful of stars whose visionary ideas generated a transformation in American art and cinema. Jack Smith was one of these key figures, and the legends and particularities that surround the outpouring of his imagination resonate in the work of artists that include Andy Warhol, John Waters, Richard Foreman, and Ken Jacobs. The measure of Smith’s eccentricity is expressed in the dual source of his major inspirations, literalized in the title of Jacobs’ 1959 portrait of him. Blonde Cobra was a character Smith imagined for himself, a persona combining the exotic Maria Montez—the oft-ridiculed queen of Universal Studios’ string of 1940s adventure pictures Cobra Woman and Arabian Nights and Smith’s revered Muse—with his admiration for Josef von Sternberg’s visual and spiritual aesthetic. The opulence of Sternberg’s mise-en-scene, paired with the decadent and androgynous sexuality simmering in his films (like Blonde Venus), influenced Smith to a degree not always appreciated in the experience of his work, which often focuses exclusively on the camp aesthetic it engendered. On the arrival of Mary Jordan’s brand new documentary Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis, we will present some of the available manifestations of Smith’s rapturous and enigmatic presence as performer, filmmaker, and inspiration.
Special thanks to Kenneth Peralta and Brian Gates (Tongue Press).
February 23 (Friday) 7 pm
Directed by Jack Smith
US 1959/62, 16mm, color, 3 min.
With Jerry Sims, Ken Jacobs and Reese Haire
On the rubble-strewn site of the future Lincoln Center Ken Jacobs assembled his cast for the shooting of his epic Star Spangled to Death. Smith seized the opportunity and took Jacobs' camera to film the others cavorting and dancing around the ruins. The title arises from the piece of scotch tape which had become wedged in the camera gate. Tony Conrad credits his work on Scotch Tape’s innovative soundtrack as a revelation that informed his own filmmaking practice.
Directed by Jack Smith
US 1960, 16mm, color, 3 min.
With Jerry Sims, Bob Fleischner
Sims and Fleischner, dressed in gowns, franticly jump up and down in front of a flickering television set in Smith’s Lower East Side apartment. Overstimulated was later intercut with newsreel footage of the 1940 Republican Convention for Smith’s Horror and Fantasy at Midnight program, which then evolved into his last feature, No President.
Directed by Mary Jordan
US 2006, video, color, 95 min.
With Richard Foreman, Mario Montez, John Waters
Fimmaker and former music video director Mary Jordan’s fascinating portrait features Smith’s rare and unseen films and photographs along with audio recordings, acting appearances, and other relics squeezed from Smith’s vaulted archive. Intercutting interview commentaries from art luminaries, film critics, and Smith’s friends, family, and enemies, the film presents Smith’s controversial viewpoints on capitalism, critics, and institutional-art “gatekeepers.” It also explores Smith’s tenuous relationships with Andy Warhol and Jonas Mekas while offering previously undocumented biographical insight into Smith’s early impoverished childhood in a poignant homage to New York’s ultimate antihero and the King of the Underground.
February 23 (Friday) 9 pm
Directed by Ken Jacobs
US 1959/63, 16mm, color, 33 min.
With Jack Smith
Jacobs reconceived abandoned footage from one of Smith’s unfinished projects (a monster movie-comedy collaboration with Bob Fleischner) into a portrait of the artist that Jonas Mekas immediately declared one of “four works that make up the real revolution in cinema today.” Jacobs described Blonde Cobra as “a look in on an exploding life, on a man of imagination suffering pre-fashionable lower East Side deprivation and consumed with American 1950's, 40's, 30's disgust. Silly, self-pitying, guiltstructured and yet triumphing—on one level—over the situation with style, because he's unapologetically gifted, has a genius for courage, knows that a state of indignity can serve to show his character in sharpest relief. He carries on, states his presence for what it is. Does all he can to draw out our condemnation, testing our love for limits, enticing us into an absurd moral posture the better to dismiss us with a regal 'screw-off'."
Directed by Jack Smith
US 1963, 16mm, b/w, 45 min.
Nothing short of notorious, Flaming Creatures marked a significant moment in the history of postwar American film and culture. The film was banned and seized, caused theaters to be shut down, and was the subject of an obscenity case that reached the US Supreme Court. And yet Flaming Creatures was, according to Smith, ultimately meant to be a comedy. On a rooftop above one of New York’s oldest extant (now demolished) movie houses, characters disrupt gender and sexual “norms” as they act out carnal fantasies on a set resembling an Arabian harem. Excerpts from Sternberg’s The Devil is a Woman contribute to Tony Conrad’s assembled soundtrack as Smith’s creatures dance and chase one another about the bacchanal.
Directed by Ron Rice
US 1964, 16mm, color, 26 min.
With Jack Smith, Mario Montez, Beverly Grant
Known for his expression of the Beat sensibility in underground filmmaking, Ron Rice completed a handful of films before his early death, often collaborating with Taylor Mead and Jack Smith. While Rice’s The Flower Thief had inspired Flaming Creatures, Rice found the atmosphere on the production of Smith’s Normal Love (currently unavailable), equally stimulating. Chumlum depicts Smith and members of his cast (during the making of Normal Love) in a colorful reverie of superimpositions and costumed figures—including Smith in Arabian dress—dancing and swinging on hammocks in Rice’s downtown loft.