April 12, 2007

Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis

Influential avant-garde artist ushered from oblivion by sober, inquisitive doc

By Eric Kohn

He was doing just fine until he left Ohio and came to New York. That’s the verdict provided by the sister of quintessential avant-garde artist Jack Smith in Mary Jordan's inquisitive documentary Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis. Her perception of his life, as someone far away from the Sixties counterculture that famously birthed Andy Warhol, serves to explain both the radicalism that fueled Smith's work and the futility that ultimately led to his undoing. Jordan pulls together a variety of talking heads and combines them with plenty of footage from Smith's eclectic creative accomplishments, resulting in a fairly tame collage masquerading as a movie. But to parse such abstract and frequently confounding forms of expression requires a certain amount of sobriety, which Jordan competently provides.

One of the intriguing paradoxes of Smith’s experimental films is that they embrace commercial cinema while simultaneously subverting it. In lavishly designed productions like the famously banned Flaming Creatures, Smith demonstrated his love for Hollywood Technicolor classics, particularly those starring Dominican actress Maria Montez. But he channeled those studio-funded wonderlands through his penchant for unhindered expression (hence the implementation of transvestite Mario Montez). Smith, who died in 1989, tries to ignore the contradiction of his art in many of the fascinating audio samples that Jordan uses throughout her documentary, claiming that he isolated the authentic creative elements of pop art and magnified them with his own esoteric creations. “I want to be un-commercial film personified,” he said. That much Smith accomplished, making actors out of homeless people and sometimes editing his films in the middle of their public screenings. But his devout anarchistic sensibility forced him into a state of denial about anything positive regarding mainstream culture, which makes the eventual marginalization of his reputation outside of New York’s ersatz underground scene seem like an inevitability.

Ultimately, the decline of Smith’s work after Flaming Creatures in 1963 symbolizes the death of a scene that was sustained primarily by his efforts. The collection of interviews that form the glut of Jordan's movie provide a guide to classic East Village eccentricities, but they also show the neighborhood’s current wear and tear, especially in a brief segment where several former Smith collaborators bitch about the skyrocketing real estate prices. But the artists who survived the end of Smith's era, most notably Ken Jacobs and John Waters (a Baltimorean, but heavily appreciative of Smith nonetheless), offer plenty of insight into the sincerity of his motivations.

You don't necessarily have to like Smith's movies or his bizarre performance art to appreciate his obvious drive to derive beauty from the rawest elements of his mind. It was his realization, as an interviewee explains, that one doesn’t "become a part of a culture by making an appointment," that allowed him to access a freedom that few others dared to approach. That his influence entered the mainstream in everything from Warhol to Fellini illustrates how the vitality of his boldest feats defied his own attempts to keep them contained. If Smith himself vanished into oblivion, his disciples offer hope that some semblance of the vision lives on.

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