“Extra Trouble – Jack Smith in Frankfurt” at Künstlerhaus Mousonturm Frankfurt a.M. Th. 22.11. — Su. 25.11.2012
Guest blog by Zoe Barcza recalling November 2012
The festival “Extra Trouble – Jack Smith in Frankfurt” (a dense weekend of screenings, talks, art exhibits and panel discussions) was held to commemorate and seemingly to canonize the influential underground filmmaker, who inhabited many roles during his prolific life: filmmaker, performer, photographer, playwright, “extreme artist and pioneer of queer and camp culture” (as the schedule pamphlet phrased it). Smith, who died of AIDS in 1989, has previously only really achieved a sort of cult-fame amongst experimental film nerds (I use the phrase with love), and is only now being digested by the “art world”. He’s been credited with being a visionary of camp aesthetics; his trashy-baroque hallucinogenic orgiastic films would influence Andy Warhol, John Waters, and many others in the underground film ecosystem. Also he attained notoriety when his 1963 film Flaming Creatures was seized by the New York police, along with Jean Genet’s Un Chant D’amour and Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising, and deemed by the Supreme Court to be obscene. This episode was so traumatic he never “completed” a film thereafter, safeguarding his films so they could never be stolen or viewed in the wrong context, only screening them during live film performances where he would stand at the back of the room with the projector, re-editing the material as he went along, manually adding in a soundtrack by intermittently playing pop records from his collection.
The main reason I missioned to Frankfurt to catch this festival was the chance to view some very rare prints of his films that have until recently been inaccessible. Even having the opportunity to see the better-known films screened properly with a projector and audience is a universe apart from watching the films on UbuWeb on my laptop screen. And the films were deliriously beautiful Technicolor pageants; the lack of conventional storylines and the durations of the screenings induced a sort of trance-state, dissolving one into a haze of pure receptivity to the procession of projected images. (Adding to the trance-vibe was the 50/50 chance of getting stuck in a lecture given entirely in Deutsche…) But all of this I was expecting.
What became more interesting to me during the festival and symposium was the discussion circulating around his films, as Smith posthumously begins to attain wider cultural recognition. At one point Jerry Tartaglia, the man responsible for restoring several of the films, compared what was happening to the legacy of Smith to watching a plane takeoff. But since Smith’s cultural impact is just now being venerated, Tartaglia stressed the responsibility and importance of recording the history correctly. And the history of Jack Smith is one that can be retold through many conflicting voices, and is rife with discontinuities and disputes. At one point Tartaglia made a theatrical show of reading from an article written by Ken Jacobs, and then furiously crumpling it up and wiping his ass with it. Jacobs, an accomplished filmmaker himself, was a contemporary and former friend of Smith, before the two had an angry falling out. The scene of people working together on Smith’s films was friends and lovers. Frequently they were completely high during filming. Jack Smith academic Marc Siegel, while in conversation with Smith’s beloved drag starlet Mario Montez, made a special point of noting that Ms Montez’ recollections could definitely be trusted since she was the only one not partaking in intoxicants on the set. And his nerdly enthusiasm was palpable when he frequently would interrupt Montez to confirm or correct some seemingly minute detail within her account; things to the tune of, “don’t you mean that you edited that material on East 33rd St, not East 35th?”
One aspect I appreciated was the attention payed to the physical life of the celluloid films themselves, it became somewhat like a forensic exegesis, and with so many original participants in the room one could get a sense of the full picture being cobbled together. Special attention was payed to whether we were viewing original or negative prints of the films (it turns out you can tell the difference by observing whether the dust and scratch marks are black or white). At one point Jerry Tartaglia was amazed to see footage that he thought was lost included in the program, in a German TV special “Kino ’74 – Jack Smith”, to which the filmmaker Birgit Hein, who was in attendance, admitted that Smith had handed her the loose film stock and she had had it in her possession ever since.
Smith left no will and quite likely wished for his films to be destroyed. After his death the archive of films was kept in his friend Penny Arcade’s house, and despite attempts, no funding could be secured from museums or institutions to properly restore the films. There then ensued a lengthy legal battle, in which his long-estranged sister appeared out of nowhere and tried to gain control of his estate. It was only when private gallerist Barbara Gladstone acquired Smith’s estate that Jerry Tartaglia could be hired to restore the films. There was an air of suspicion to many of the questions during the weekend.
Ostensibly Smith was being transformed into a commodity of the art world; how was this ok, when Smith was so outspokenly socialistic and anticommercial in every aspect of his life and art? “Is this what Jack would have wanted” was repeatedly asked. And furthermore, by canonizing Smith through the weekend’s academic lectures and events, through selling blown-up Chromogenic prints that were initially just stills from his films, were we participating in sucking the life out of his work, mummifying something that was intended to be breathing and ephemeral? As I mentioned the evidence suggests that Smith wanted his films to be destroyed, however I guess ultimately I’m still grateful that the material is available and circulating somehow, even if in a somewhat ethically compromised way.