The Reeler


April 11, 2007

Appetite For Destruction

Documentary director Mary Jordan on truth, justice and the unknowable Jack Smith

A toast to Jack: The avant-garde hero at the center of Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis (Photo: Millennium Film Workshop)

The working title for Mary Jordan's new documentary Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis (opening today at Film Forum), about the seminal underground filmmaker responsible for 1963's Flaming Creatures and untold scores of other, unfinished works prior to his death in 1989, was You Don't Know Jack. She changed it for a couple of reasons, not the least of which was the more appropriate assessment that in the end, you really can't know Jack Smith.

It's the essential reality threading Jordan's portrait of the elusive avant-garde legend -- and the one most lovingly recalled by dozens of sources including John Waters, Jonas Mekas, John Zorn, Mary Woronov and Smith's estranged sister Sue Slater, the Texas housewife who inherited the artist's estate following a legal tussle that played out in The Village Voice, NPR and a succession of spirited exchanges on the indie film message board Frameworks. In his coiled frame and searing eyes, Smith kept a secret that evolved alongside his work and anchors Jordan's own; amid the close readings of her subject's obsessions with camp, color and critics (whom Smith loathed), Jordan acknowledges a figure ultimately defined by mythology of Smith's own making.

The Reeler sat down with Jordan last week to talk about discovering Jack Smith -- and the ongoing process of getting to know him through Destruction of Atlantis.

STV: Few people would say they really knew Jack Smith, but today, even the Jack Smith story is one a lot people don't know much about.

MJ: And it's so amazing, considering what a pioneer he was -- not just in the film world, but in the art world in general and in photography. It's like the Van Gogh syndrome, where someone is buried there for years and then all of the sudden... But I'd say it's still early for Jack Smith. I find his politics and ideas incredibly contemporary, even though here's a person from the '60s born in the '30s. That's something that isn't spoken about a lot.

Making this film involved curating and editing together specific films and old stars -- it kind of becomes a new Jack Smith film in itself. It's a dangerous prospect on one hand, and then kind of an exhilarating prospect on the other. How did you go about negotiating that dynamic?

When you take your subject on, you're also taking their politics on. You're in charge of delivering their aesthetic. I wasn't looking to make a film to show Jack to those who already know who Jack Smith is. I was more interested in showing him to people who didn't know. I was one of those people. I found him incredibly inspiring and motivating in so many positive ways that you just think that you want to share that -- especially in a world gone horribly wrong. There's a great freedom in Jack Smith's work that I will never have editing anybody else's work, the freedom being that he allows the space for the stuff to be continually re-edited. Each unique piece makes me want to put on a competition where every year, you would need to get five directors to re-edit Normal Love and see what that would produce. The work has that in it.

As a filmmaker addressing someone else's work, did you ever encounter any philosophical second-guessing in the process?

I re-edited and re-edited and re-edited many times before I sort of decided that I have to fine-tune it. I have to stop.

I love asking documentary makers when they know they're done, especially with a film like this where there's another backstory behind the story.

You go through all of these emotions with your subject -- especially if your subject's dead. You fall in love with them, you're obsessed with them, you hate them, you're angry with them, you side with them, you're against them, and eventually they have to die. And so then you have to mourn them. I consider my stage now -- I'm in mourning. I have to let it go. There's no more editing and re-editing. In a sense, I understand the philosophy, because everything you learn is in the process, and the beginning and the end are the icing -- they're not the real part. In that way, if they really wanted to teach students how to make a film, they should just stick them in room and say "Here's a film, and keep going until you think it's finished." And give them the freedom to go through this heavy process. Because I think it's an interesting philosophy: There's not a boundary or a rule in it. Jack Smith is sort of timeless in that way.

Famously, Jack Smith himself never finished a film after 1962. But should we attribute that to a philosophy that was open and free, or was it just a lack of rigor?

I think that after Flaming Creatures, his work changed. The purity of his expression changed. He got very political, whereas with Flaming Creatures, he was happy to show the film. I don't think he was as possessive of the work then. I think the possessiveness of the work came after that, when he realized that the product of the work is what everyone wanted to fight for -- not the fact that he just spent years grinding his teeth trying to get things done that were very important. I think artists want to be loved.

Filmmaker Mary Jordan (Photo: Sarah Shatz)

Not just the product, but the legacy too. We saw it with Andy Warhol -- sort of the politics of cultural propriety.

There's this interesting trajectory between Warhol and Jack, and they both go into the message of how art interfaces with capitalism in that period. I think that's really sort of when the art world sort of burst into a bustling business, and they both have different ways of showing the system for what it is. I just happen to side with Jack's way, which is more rebellious as opposed to Warhol. But there's a comedy in that too. Then again, if you go against the system, then you're going to get screwed. That's the sentiment, generally speaking, and the fact that Warhol became so huge and that people barely know Jack him is a very interesting message in itself.

Speaking of not knowing him, there was this whole culture you involved yourself with. How did you sort through who knew what, who had an agenda or who was dwelling on mythology? All you had in a lot of cases was just this close circle.

It's interesting, because I also spoke with a lot of people who barely knew him. Or met him once, or knew him through someone else. Those people don't necessarily have any agendas; they're not necessarily involved in Jack Smith. They might say, "Well, my husband has this story he told me about this time he went to a Jack Smith show..." And they recount it the way their husband might have told them. I was very interested in listening to the bits and pieces, because not only is Jack's output individual and unique, but so is he to each individual person. It was like trying to follow around an oracle or a magician, you know? All these tricks and things were left, and some of them were mysteries, some of them were myths.

And many by his own making, of course -- consciously pitting people he knew against each other. Was there anybody who may have been treated as such, and whom you really had to persuade to cooperate?

No, actually. People were remarkably giving in terms of friends and acquaintances and people who worked with him. For me, interviewing people was about getting to know as much about Jack as possible in order to give that back. And so eventually, once you start reading all these transcripts, you find threads that all match, and you grab those threads, and those are the ones that are reliable or real. And you take those and that becomes the basis of how I constructed the narrative, essentially. I could have done 10 movies on him.

You had some well-publicized troubles dealing with the Plaster Foundation (the New York trust set up to oversee Smith's estate before a judge determined it belonged to his family) in trying to acquire footage and stills for the film. In the end, though, I never felt like there were really any gaps or missing pieces.

I always went in to make an homage to Jack Smith. That was the one line I could say that I went in with. I became like any normal person when going to find out, 'Hey, what's this? Why is this like this? Why am I paying you and not this archive?' These all became questions that I asked. And as soon as I started asking too many questions, the door really got slammed closed tight, and access was denied. And I couldn't understand why, if you're promoting someone's archives, you weren't doing everything you could to support a documentary on that subject. It just seemed strange. And then, of course, there were endless interviews of people complaining about them, and so many people with issues about how Jack Smith died. Then you're listening to that, and you have to listen to that, because people are offering you that in their interviews. So then of course, I continued to ask that of other people, just to get feedback: "What the hell is going on here?"

I believe I have a clear picture because I have interviewed everyone on the subject -- including Jack's sister, and I don't find her to be some greedy sister coming in for money. In fact, she's just the opposite. It's just that some people have a run in the media and make up revisionist historical thinking. It's a shame that it goes that way.

Few people talk about how clique-ish the New York indie and underground film scene actually is. Was this something you had encountered before in your work?

No. Absolutely not. I had never encountered it; it's my first time in the society, and I was pleased with some and very displeased with others. I was just confused. It was like, for this '60s, hippie-love flavor, they were actually not as giving, as independent and as sharing as I would have thought. That was a little interesting to encounter that bitterness. But I don't know if it's a bitterness because they didn't succeed commercially? Because in another way they're all about not being commercial. But in another way there is quite a lot in the undercurrent of that emotion or expression.

In the film, Jack is the embodiment of that philosophy -- he keeps huge audiences waiting for hours and then only does his show after they leave.

Yeah, but Jack's one of a kind. There's a brilliance in his decision-making, even when the decisions are a mistake. I think Jack was bitter because he didn't gain some success. Sure. It must be hard to watch people take from your genius and go on to make money and live better lives. Sure. He was only human. But I think he just rose above it and moved on.

Do you think Jack Smith would have wanted or cooperated with a documentary about him?

You would have had to give him your footage at the end of the day. [Laughs] Yes and no, in a way. Yes, and could almost lose your life, and no, because maybe he has to be dead for you to document him. He's a myth, and all we have is a myth. And that's the way he would have liked it.

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