Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Jack Smith And The Destruction of Atlantis - Mary Jordan Interview

Jack Smith is a figure I've heard about for years and yet, because his work is so difficult to get a hold of, I have never been able to see his films. For those who haven't read anything about him, he's usually described as a 60's weirdo who had endless parties where people dressed up and pretended to make a film. The films themselves usually get dismissed as home movies of those events. So, walking into the screening at SIFF, my expectation was to see some hippy/druggy stuff that might be nostalgically amusing. What I got instead was 95 minutes of jaw dropping beauty. Although working with no budget, Smith planned, designed and choreographed sequences and images that have the Baroquely ornate beauty of Fellini or Cindy Sherman. If that praise seems extravagant, please note that both of those artists acknowledged Smith as an influence. Indeed, Smith was as influential as any 'underground' artist could be, which is remarkable for a guy whose stuff has been difficult, if not impossible, to see. The reasons for that during his lifetime had to do with a general lack of interest combined with Smith's sometimes exasperating refusal to make his work commercially available. The continuing lack of access since his death has mainly to do with the protracted legal issues surrounding his estate; the battle over which has involved members of his family vs. the film critic J. Hoberman and the performance artist Penny Arcade. A host of other actors have entered into this dispute, including film and art critics, reporters, art institutions, collectors, longtime friends of Jack Smith, a film distribution company and a raft of onlookers, mostly from the experimental film community; the ensuing melee sometimes resembling It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, World.

Into this fray waded Mary Jordan, who came to the world of filmmaking via anthropology and human rights advocacy. Her first exposure to Jack Smith was through the writer Irving Rosenthal, an old friend of Jack's. Jordan recalls Rosenthal showing her a photo by Smith and being 'just blown away.' Managing to track down a pirated copy of Flaming Creatures she became further captivated and determined that, within the body of Jack Smith's work and life, was a story demanding to be told. She evidently convinced quite a few others, because the resulting film, Jack Smith And The Destruction of Atlantis, enlisted the cooperation and talent of Michael Almereyda, Tony Conrad, Gary Indiana, George Kuchar, Taylor Mead, Jonas Mekas, Billy Name, Andrew Sarris, Ronnie Tavel, John Waters, Robert Wilson, Holly Woodlawn, Nick Zedd and John Zorn. Despite the stellar quality of this list from A to Z, one individual not happily associated with this documentary is veteran film critic J. Hoberman. That's because, during her efforts to make the movie, Jordan's relations with some of the parties involved in the dispute, most notably Jim Hoberman and Penny Arcade, became entangled and estranged.
Jordan's difficulties with Hoberman and Arcade is a story on its own, the facts of which have been studied and debated within the pages of the Village Voice and various postings on Frameworks [an international forum on experimental film]. What is not debatable is that the film itself has been well received. With screenings at Tribeca, Rotterdam, Miami and Seattle under her belt, Jordan has festivals in San Francisco, Sydney, Los Angeles, Antwerp, Montreal and London to look forward to. As far as critical reception goes, the film won an honorable mention at Tribeca and received a glowing write-up from Scott Macaulay at Filmmaker and Jay Weissberg at Variety.
Since Mary Jordan didn't attend SIFF, I interviewed her via phone on June 1st at 9:30 a.m., Seattle time. Not being morning oriented, my thoughts were largely held together with coffee and baling wire, which might explain the somewhat discursive nature of the conversation. In any case, the interview was fun. Mary didn't shy away from any issues, often giving me answers that were more forceful than I expected. Indeed, there is much in what she says that will keep the debate rolling over Smith's role within art culture, film culture and queer culture. As for Hoberman, Arcade and the issues surrounding his estate, I spent roughly %15 of the interview discussing those topics. For those who wish to delve deeper, I recommend C. Carr's article from the March 2004 Village Voice and innumerable postings on Frameworks. Since neither Carr nor anyone on Frameworks operates with thorough disinterest, one will enounter a hash of hearsay, allegations, assertions and the occasional fact. In addition, one can find other critical comments posted at Filmmaker.com. Regardless of your take on these issues, what should not be overlooked is that the film is a terrific and loving tribute to an artist who has long deserved such attention.
ESF: I want to start off by reiterating how much I liked the film.
MJ: What did you like about it?
ESF: I thought it was a really good portrait and that you really brought Jack Smith and his work alive in a way that was very dynamic.
MJ: Good, because the sensibility I was trying to create was to let Jack be the narrator, to kind of orchestrate the film and give a sense of what it's like, maybe, to be inside of his head or what his thoughts were, even though his political thoughts don't necessarily match his imagery, which I don't think they do. I think his aesthetic work and mindspace are very different from what I had read and heard.
ESF: That's interesting because, like most people, I too was pretty unfamiliar with the films. I had only seen some stills and such. So having read descriptions of them, over the years, I had this sense of them as being very static.
MJ: Exactly.
ESF: But actually seeing the films was just unbelievable. Not just the motion but, in some of them, the vibrant color.
MJ: The colors are incredible.
ESF: And the compositions and just everything. I mean, his work really has an ecstatic quality. I can tell you the screening I was at, people were sighing. They were oohing and aahing over the images.
MJ: Yeah. Well, that's kind of why I made the movie [laughs], because I oohed and aahed and thought, wow, this stuff is beautiful and it's so different from,AeP you know I studied a lot of anthropology and art while I was growing up and I didn't get exposed to Jack's stuff and when I finally saw the images I was like 'this stuff is so beautiful.' It's so different than anything else that was being produced at the time, which was very minimalist and post-modern, even the experimental stuff was very minimalist and strange, not centered around really being beautiful in the Baroque sense of the word and so Jack was like the only person who was really reaching out for a completely different aesthetic. I think that's why he stands out, certainly to me and the pictures are so, the images are just so,AeP you know, you can place that imagery with any music, any voice and, believe me, it was hard to pin down music to put to it, because everything worked.
ESF: I wanted to ask about the music. Was it reflective of his personal tastes? Was he really into exotica?
MJ: Some of the music was from his actual record collection, which John Zorn was wonderful and happy in aiding us on which records he was listening to at various times and a lot of it was my own picking and half of the music was composed and written for a certain direction I had for the movie.
ESF: Yeah, it was just great. It's like, one of the best soundtracks in a while. The Martin Denny,AeP
MJ: Yeah. Martin Denny was one of Jack's favorites, so I had to stick Denny in there somewhere.
ESF: I also recognized some Andre Kostelanitz.
MJ: Yes. Andre Kostelanitz is definitely in there.
ESF: I have that recording. It's "The Moon of Manakoora" from the Lure of The Tropics album.
MJ: Yeah, that's it. Isn't it awesome? I have it on vinyl and most of the records, you'll notice, I recorded off vinyl so there would be a scratchy, staticy sound that would match the period he was playing them in and the aesthetic as well, because records, you know they're staticy, I love listening to them with the static, especially in a clean film scenario it really kind of,AeP I feel that it becomes kind of nostalgic and takes you somewhere else.
ESF: I also couldn't help noticing that the film clips look really well restored.
MJ: Which stuff? The clips of Jack?
ESF: Yeah, they looked really good.
MJ: The stuff of Jack is mostly taken from other people's films and they've obviously taken very good care of their footage and have restored it or converted it many times. It's also because, actually, some of the stuff didn't look so great, which was why we did an HD transfer, stepped it up to HD, so that it could look nicer and punchier and people could actually see the images, the vibrancy.
ESF: And how about the clips from his own films. What sort of condition were they in?
MJ: I don't think we got the best copies of Flaming Creatures and Normal Love. Certainly, Flaming Creatures we can get away with. Normal Love, I've seen screenings of the film in other places, so I know we didn't get an exactly great copy, because we've seen and managed to compare prints. I don't even know if the reel we got was, and my producer would know this, even really preserved because the condition seemed very poor according to the many labs that analyzed footage for us.
ESF: Were there ways you were able to correct for that in HD?
MJ: Well we wanted to correct for it by getting back the films, but that never happened because they didn't want to give them back to us, so we had to work with what we had, which basically entailed a lot of meticulous work that took a long time.
ESF: Well, you did a very good job because everything looks pretty good.
MJ: Thank you. It was a lot of work. Not just my work, but the work of many people who contributed to the film over the last, almost five years now.
ESF: One of the names I noticed in the credits was Michael Almereyda. What was his role in the film?
MJ: Michael was kind of a guide and an aid when I was dealing with my script, having so many places to go. He was an amazing pillar, leading me and offering great advice and guidance into,AeP you know, things that he said were already there within my voice, but sometimes they just needed to be bounced off and tossed from someone else. So, he was fantastic in support of the narrative process.
ESF: Had he known Jack Smith?
MJ: No. He had never known Jack Smith. He knew of his work, but had seen very little of it and so it was a real eye-opener for him as well. I think when I showed him the rough cut he was pretty excited about it.
ESF: I was curious about the audio material you have of Jack. What was the source of those tapes? Who originally recorded them?
MJ: A couple of those tapes were from True Comedy Planet by William Niederkorn in which he did an extensive interview with Jack. It was a fantastic, most important source. Another one was an interview done by Sylv/(R)re Lotringer for Hatred of Capitalism, which was a book and there are also recordings of him from answering machines, from various performances, anything we could find, even if it was two or three lines. We just listened to everything and listened to what everyone else had to say about what he would say to them and we basically realized that Jack was a person who would rant and talk and these were the things he was talking about. So, it's kind of like having a day with Jack or a lifetime with Jack, you're in his head, you're listening to what he's saying and here's his work.
ESF: Can you tell me about the process of editing those recordings?
MJ: What you hear is what I would call an excellent sound mixer working with very bad cassette tapes, because a lot of that stuff was recorded on cassette and the sound was really... I mean Jack's voice stuff probably took the longest to work with. It was very staticy, there was background noise, sometimes there were layers and layers of stuff and there was a lot of stuff we wanted to use that we couldn't, because it was just inaudible. At some points we had to use subtitles, just in case people had problems understanding what he was saying.
ESF: John Waters is in the film quite a bit. I know he's a lifelong fan of Jack Smith, but was he a friend of Jack's as well?
MJ: He met Jack a number of times and Jack wrote a wonderful review of Pink Flamingos. You know, Jack really enjoyed the film and wrote a rave review and certainly John and the trajectory of his career, from a film cultish alternative lifestyle to Hollywood is very much in the trajectory of what Jack himself would have moved towards. So, it's about the other lifestyle or the other types of filmmaking that engenders people like Fellini or John Waters or Todd Haynes or, for that matter, Gus Van Sant. I think it's kind of in that pocket. He's often classified as an experimental filmmaker, which I believe he is, but I believe he's much more than that. I think he actually is in the Hollywood realm somewhere, maybe the 40s' glamour realm. Where the glamour of 40's Hollywood and experimentalism meet, somewhere in there.
ESF: Watching the juxtaposition of the clips of his films and the Maria Montez films it seems, in retrospect, that those films were not that far apart, given how some of those 40's film were so theatrically artificial.
MJ: Absolutely.
ESF: And, if anything, the Hollywood culture now is far more distant from his aesthetic than it was from the 20's through the 50's, when the sets were like papier-m/cche and cardboard,AeP
MJ: Yeah, you see, he liked that stuff.
ESF: It's funny. Watching the clips juxtaposed you can see the kinship between them.
MJ: Exactly.
ESF: And how he was basically doing the same things on a microscopic budget.
MJ: I think had he had a budget, a full budget, I think we would have seen him make a Hollywood 40's film, fully scripted in fact.
ESF: His greatest misfortune, perhaps, was that he should have been born thirty years earlier.
MJ: I agree. He should have been born in 1910. He really could have gotten in there between the 30's and the 50's.
ESF: He should have been a silent film star.
MJ: He loved silent film. He really did. He was a Buster Keaton fan. Really loved Zero de Conduite and a lot of those black and white silent French films. He was also a big fan of Von Sternberg, which is not in the film, because that could be a whole other essay, but if you see the work of Von Sternberg, the veils and Marlene Dietrich as this strong, predatory, gorgeous, veiled creature you see that in his work. All over his work.
ESF: Von Sternberg was also working within his own limitations, because he didn't really have the use of deep focus, he was heavily stacking his shots and using heavily foregrounded objects to create the illusion of depth and perspective.
MJ: That's what Jack's work is doing too, when you watch his movies. Every time I watch them I find something new and I'm amazed that I can find some new detail, a movement or an object in the background. There are a lot of mysteries in the work that keep you engaged in it.
ESF: Another filmmaker I would think he would have a kinship with is Kenneth Anger.
MJ: Oh sure. I mean, that's a whole other film altogether. Yeah, the two go side by side, but they have very different aesthetics. They do have a very interesting sort of psychedelic aesthetic as well that's very transformative and a different type of consciousness, if you will. There's a lot of consciousness in the work.
ESF: Yes, in the sense that they both viewed the filmmaking and artistic process as an act of alchemy.
MJ: Exactly.
ESF: It wasn't simply that they were creating films, but that they were trying to transform their lives or reality through this work.
MJ: Yes.
ESF: So this film was recently at the Tribeca Film Festival and Scott Macaulay did a nice write-up in Filmmaker and you also got a very favorable review from Variety. What was the reception of the audience like at Tribeca? Was there a lot of enthusiasm?
MJ: Yeah, I was very surprised. You know, we sold out, there was a lot of enthusiasm, some people who never knew anything about Jack left the theater crying, saying they felt they could continue with their work because they felt motivated and felt a certain kinship with the character and other people were just amazed and,AeP yeah, there were a lot of people who didn't know who Jack Smith was who were very enlightened and wanted to see more of the work and it was really interesting to hear from the people who didn't know the work to hear what it did for them and it seemed to cast a lot of motivation and lot of reassurance that they could continue doing their work and that it's okay. They felt like the Jack Smith character kind of reassured things and directions they were into that were maybe anti-monetary, in a way, but still had meaning somewhere.
ESF: There were also some odd or, should I say, interesting comments on Frameworks and the Filmmaker website from people who, I hate to say this, seem to deride the picture out of sheer jealousy; most of whom don't even seem to have seen it.
MJ: Yeah, but they still need to comment on it.
ESF: There were all these posts where people were saying, 'who is she to be making this film?'
MJ: I'm not anyone! That's just the point. I'm not anyone. I'm just a person who is very interested in the subject. I couldn't get access to that subject. And despite being just an absolute nobody, I embraced the work completely in wanting to share it with a bunch of other people, regardless of whether it was three people or three million. I did the film because the stuff wasn't accessible and I tried to show it to friends and when I did I noticed that they were blown away by it and that it motivated them artistically and creatively and I wanted to share that. Really, that was the premise for doing the film and, believe me, I had no idea that it was going to be in a festival, that it would win at Tribeca, that it would even entertain a write-up of any sort, because that's not what we went in to do. We were into making something that could be used educationally. I mean, in the end, we put all our energy and time into it, because we were the type that believed, if you do something, you do it the best of your ability and that's what we did. We fought against the odds, we tried to get as much of Jack's work as possible, despite the loss of access, despite people hating the fact there was a nobody doing a film about a person in their genre or what have you. I'm not an experimental filmmaker, you know, it's my first feature. I'm very proud to have had a subject like Jack Smith. Had someone told me I would be in for so much jealousy and envy and what have you, would I still have done the film? Yes, I would have, because for me it was about the subject, not about the external ugliness around it. I've learned, throughout the years of doing this film, that there would be a lot of arrows slung. For what reasons, I don't know, because like you read, 'she didn't even know Jack, why does she get to do it?' And my response is, basically, fuck you. You guys had since 1989, when he died, to do something and nobody did anything. So, he's all important, but nobody wants to pick up the stick and put some action in it. So, I did and that's where I think, if there are any pats on the back, it comes to me and all the people who participated in making it happen.
ESF: Well, one of the things that gets flung out there is, 'oh, well, they got to make the picture because they got in good with the family.'
MJ: Essentially, not true at all. The family, the sister was one of the last people to be interviewed, because Penny Arcade and Jim Hoberman would not give me the sister's number. They said they didn't have it , they didn't have her address. Nothing. They were the last people I interviewed and the family, you know, they didn't have anything to give us. They didn't have anything in their hand, they couldn't give us anything, but what they did give us was a rich and beautiful history of Jack's childhood which really plays into understanding his aesthetic and his social existence and the sister isn't,AeP. She got portrayed in the media by two people who painted her a certain way and when I went to meet her she wasn't that at all and so the continuing contradictions of what people were was just alarming to me. Because she was just so sweet and so kind and really wanted to know more about her brother, but had been kind of denied, so it goes a lot deeper than that. It's always deeper than it appears on the surface and the media has a lot of power interpreting and misinterpreting historical information, especially when you're dealing with a Texan housewife from the Midwest and a film critic and a performance artist who've got some clout and then all of a sudden the history is repainted in a way. So, I find that very interesting as a study of what Jack was saying when he said when the writing starts and people start to engage in analyzing art, when the artist is living right there, when they could ask the artist, but they don't and they write what they think anyway. Sometimes that can be really debasing as it was for him on the subject of Flaming Creatures.
ESF: Was there some history between Smith and Hoberman?
MJ: From what I've heard from three different people was no, he didn't even like Hoberman. He didn't like critics, period. He met Jim Hoberman once, very briefly, at a performance and that's about it. You know there was no friendship, no kinship, no connection, no phone-calling back and forth. He's basically a stranger who's continued to have ownership of Jack Smith's goods.
ESF: Despite the fact that you have Ken Jacobs and a lot of other notable people from that community and that period in the film was Hoberman pretty much resistant to your project from the get-go?
MJ: No. I actually interviewed Jim Hoberman and Penny Arcade quite thoroughly, but there was a point in the interview where I started asking questions about the archive and where the movies are going and why have they publicly announced that there's a non-profit organization,AeP when I started asking questions about the archive he got very defensive and closed the door. After that, when I tried to investigate further about, you know 'hey there's some weird things I have to ask because all these other people are making some noise about this,' he basically wasn't going to provide an answer and said in a roundabout way that if I didn't make him look good, as he patted me on the shoulder leaving the interview, that obviously his influence would debase my career in some way and that didn't matter, because I didn't care about that, because I didn't really think anybody would be watching my film. So, for me it was 'well I have to ask these questions' and then after these questions were asked I was denied everything. The interview was over, the doors were closed, no conversations, no e-mails. In fact, I was accused of calling the sister up and making her come back to the table, to the court, to take her brother's things back. But in fact it wasn't me at all, it was someone else and I only learned of it almost a week before the hearing.
ESF: So what is the current status of the estate? Where is everything now?
MJ: It's still in Jim and Penny's hands. They want money, they want to be paid out, so I guess there's a sale pending.
ESF: So, is the stuff,AeP
MJ: It's been locked up in a storage facility for years. It hasn't been preserved. When I went to get some pictures they were spilling out of a paper bag. They weren't even organized in any clean way. It was really quite alarming, almost brought some of us to tears that the stuff was being mistreated in such a way.
ESF: So, is there a chance that all of the material will wind up in a museum?
MJ: I believe so. It seems that it will go in that direction. I think it needs to be preserved first. So, I think that whoever takes it on will need to preserve it and clean it up and organize it and then hopefully get it out so that people can enjoy it.
ESF: It seems odd that it hasn't gotten its way into a museum all these years. You would think that the Whitney or the MoMA would be dying to get their hands on this stuff.
MJ: Well there's no getting their hands on it,AeP these are people who wouldn't even open the doors to anybody. I'm not the only person. Apparently there was someone else who tried to make a documentary about Jack and they didn't want to deal with Jim and Penny, they were so tough, so un-giving. So, I think what you have is, the stuff was being locked up. There was a PS1 show in 1997, a retrospective and, if you can believe it, they never even invited the family to come check it out. The family knew nothing about it. They didn't know about one show, one announcement, zero. Instead, what they kept hearing was the stuff was expensive to keep. It was worthless, priceless but worthless. They basically tried to push her out of the scenario, because after five years you can claim statute of limitations, which is what they could actually legally claim, that the sister had abandoned the work and that's what they were trying to do, because in the court case they said 'well the sister is homophobic and she abandoned the work' and that's what they were looking to do; to transfer the ownership, not invite her to anything and keep the stuff on very low profile until they could claim ownership. That's what a lot of people thought they were doing and I didn't think that until I realized that's exactly what they were doing.
ESF: But the judge didn't go for that.
MJ: No, because there's letters that the family wrote, both the nephew and the sister, saying 'we never intended to abandon Jack's stuff, we're here 100% to realize his legacy and whatever we can do please let us know' and the judge read that letter out loud and just laughed the whole case out of court, saying to Penny and Jim, you guys don't own this stuff.
ESF: It's an odd coincidence, but that was the same judge who presided over the whole battle over Warhol's estate.
MJ: Yes, I know. She's quite a famous one.
ESF: She's the niece of Otto Preminger.
MJ: Yes she is, indeed.
ESF: Another interesting twist.
MJ: You know the really interesting thing here is when Jack Smith's mother died in the late 70's, when she passed on, she died intestate with no will and Jack was called to collect money, of which he got quite a reasonable amount, along with little articles of jewelry and things. When he went to talk to that lawyer, he asked very specifically if you die intestate, whether your stuff goes to your next of kin and the lawyer explained the whole process. So when Jack was lying on his deathbed and Penny Arcade tried to force him to sign a will to leave her everything, he refused to sign the will, which meant that he wasn't interested in leaving her anything and yet, here she is, half-owner with Jim Hoberman of his things and some people say 'oh well, he just didn't want to sign a will' and I say no, the guy was really smart, he knew what was going to happen if he didn't sign a will. So he knew, because he said to Penny stop trying to steal from me when I'm alive. He knew these people were going to try to come in and steal when he was dead and that's why he said to Ivan Galietti 'let them fight over it.'
ESF: The website mentions that a book is in the works.
MJ: Yes. I'm doing a book. It's a visual and written biography, the real biography of Jack Smith from very intimate moments in his childhood all the way to after his death with a lot of contributing photographs from various people and things and some movie clips from other movies he was in and lot of writing and it's gonna be done in the way in the way I believe a Jack Smith book should have been done and it's also going to illustrate a number of his photographs.
ESF: Where were you able to get copies of his photos?
MJ: There are some people who actually own some of his photos and there are some people who have just like copies or a bad scan or something like that. So we managed to get that and other stuff. The photographs took a meticulous time cleaning because none of them were, we managed to scan some of them at high resolution, but we never gained access again so we had to deal with what we had.
ESF: Well, the photos you have posted on the website look pretty good.
MJ: Well, they're low res, so they look good.
ESF: Getting back to some of the reception of the film. Generally it's been fairly well received, but one or two people made some comments to the effect this presents the conventional wisdom and I was trying to figure out, given the thoroughness with which you presented the subject, what would the unconventional wisdom have been?
MJ: There's a lot of points, there's many subjects in Jack and anyone who says that,AeP I mean that's the most ridiculous comment I've ever heard. It doesn't say anything. If it means the conventional wisdom is needed to communicate,AeP I mean if I communicated some other unconventional wisdom I don't think people who don't know Jack Smith would get it. You can't give everything away in an artist. You've got to leave something for people to find. After people left I got so many e-mails and general film box comments that said 'wow this is great, I just went online to read more and I found out he was also involved with so-and-so.' So there's no way you can get everything in and you've got to remember that the stuff that's left out is stuff that's interesting enough for people to read.
ESF: One of the comments I saw was that somebody felt you didn't sufficiently explore his sexuality, which I thought was pretty apparent in the film.
MJ: Well, I know from the interviews and also from Jack's voice and from his writings that he hated those labels and associations. He didn't want to be labeled gay or homosexual or queer. Well, queer was a word he used in the true sense of the word as in 'different'. But, when Jack Smith says in the film 'I make this stuff for everyone on earth' he's not saying I just make this for the people who are in this category or that category. And the people who knew him very dearly for a long time, they told me 'no, no, no' because I had approached that subject and they said 'no, he hated that' he hated these divisions and this constant dividing of subcultures. You know, cutting up the gay world into dykes, femmes, homos, leather homos, whatever. He said that was further dividing people, not uniting them.
ESF: His own aesthetic seems very broad and inclusive and pansexual, if anything. I mean, he wasn't really making those divisions in his own work.
MJ: But also, what's more important to me is that, he wasn't going around going 'I'm gay, I'm a homo, I'm proud to be queer.' He wasn't like that. He was kind of private but, you know, I find the comments funny, because all you have to do is look in the work, it's in the work. The queerness, the gayness, the lesbianism, the polymorphousness, it's all in there. It's one gigantic melting pot.
ESF: Yeah, it's funny, because you can say his work really comes from,AeP
MJ: His work comes from smashing all that. That's why that comment to me is funny, because his work is about smashing those borders, smashing those ideas and breaking them apart and just opening up the floodgates. It's not just about queerness, it's about all of it, it's about all the sexuality, what is it, how is it, why is it, it's just like, you know, it's a very visionary statement and it's really beyond its day.
ESF: What were his feelings on use of the term 'camp'?
MJ: Didn't like it. He didn't like it. He was against, to a certain extent, Susan Sontag's writing, again, because he felt like it was labeling his work and he doesn't feel that his work is, as he says, 'cutie-pie art.' That is, he says, he's really doing Baroque art, he's working with that kind of stuff.
ESF: A lot of the discussion in the film of Warhol is fairly negative, basically saying he just appropriated Jack's ideas. Is that something you personally feel as well?
MJ: I don't think it's negative actually. I think it's a discussion of where Jack needs to get his credit, it's time, and people need to know a little bit that Jack was the stone and not the ripple and Warhol was a bit of a ripple and actually I'm a fan of Warhol's work in another way. I know they're both incredibly interesting to look at and I think that teachers and educators should teach Warhol, while they teach Jack Smith as well, because they go in different ways. One goes into complete manufacturing and embracing the whole capitalistic domain and actually, in Warhol's embracing of it, he shows us what capitalism is. With Jack, he goes against it, and then decides to make every work unique and becomes anti-product and shows us what the art world can be without such commodification. They both have a place in the art world and they're both very political places and they're both choices. They're both very interesting to look at in terms of understanding art and capitalism and where art is going today and how our culture is being stripped, because if you make things for a bottom line mentality, you're making a certain kind of thing and when you're making stuff that's not for the money it tends to be maybe more political, it tends to have more messages, it tends to be more visceral, more interesting, more unique, because you're not looking to copy anyone to make money, to copy what's being sold.
ESF: Warhol was in a unique position in that he made so much money as a commercial artist in the 50's that he was pretty much set. I don't know if you've read Death And Disaster: The Rise of The Warhol Empire and The Race for Andy's Millions by Paul Alexander.
MJ: Yes, I've read it.
ESF: The most astonishing fact in that book was that there were years in the 50's when he was making upwards of $100,000 a year, which was a huge sum of money back then. So he was able to crank out all those films because he had the capital to do it.
MJ: He had the capital and he had the people who had the facility to do it.
ESF: On the projects where he collaborated with Jack, the tensions that ensued seem to point toward the differences in their style and their methods.
MJ: Exactly.
ESF: In the way that Jack would get very engrossed in the process, that the process itself was as important as the film,AeP
MJ: Whereas Warhol would turn the camera on and walk away, not being interested in the process.
ESF: Yeah, he was the opposite. For him it was all about, turning it on and whatever happened, happened and whatever didn't happen, happened.
MJ: Exactly.
ESF: I really loved the clip that you had from Batman Dracula.
MJ: Yeah, it's one of my favorites. With the cape?
ESF: Yes. Is that the one that's also on the rooftop?
MJ: Yes.
ESF: That's amazing. It's incredible that you have something which is , in of itself, extremely simple and yet, because it's beautifully shot and because the people in it are fascinating to watch, the film becomes thoroughly absorbing. Jack was such a charismatic figure. He was one of those people you could literally just watch sitting still. Well, in the film portrait Warhol did of him, Jack is just sitting still and he's fascinating to look at. Some people just have that quality. They could be reading the phone book and you'd watch it.
MJ: Yeah, you're right on. One of the ways people,AeP there's a relationship there with Warhol, a mass amount of people understand him and the idea to bring Warhol in was not only to get into the mood for the period, but also to get into the mood for where the trajectory of that artwork and art-world went and what Jack was standing for and I feel like Warhol is a person or a persona people understand and know about, but they don't know about Jack. So, it was more about opening the doors a little to let some light out.
ESF: The thing you also notice from Jack's films is that he chose people with strong faces, with so much character. It's something you used to see in Hollywood quite a bit and you barely see it now.
MJ: Now they're all too perfect for words.
ESF: They're all utterly interchangeable. They're basically a bunch of Barbie dolls with no personality and I think that would explain some of the reaction people had to those clips, you know, the element of surprise. You're seeing something people often don't experience in films anymore, which is the projection of a fascinating and beautiful personality which is, at the heart of it, what cinema is supposed to be.
MJ: Oh, thank goodness you got that. That for me is my favorite part, the unusual characters. They're not perfect, the strangeness of the proportions, and what you realize is what's not conventionally beautiful, is actually the most beautiful. You can't stop looking at them, because they're so unusual and different. That's what makes it compelling and alive and interesting and mysterious. The predictability of the perfect face and all the perfect features and perfect hair is like, yawn,AeP big yawn,AeP
ESF: I wanted to ask about his political views. Do you think they were genuinely felt or were they emanations of his frustrations?
MJ: I think they were both. I think he deeply felt them, because I learned that in his childhood, he was already speaking for things that he had politically woken up to. I think that it also came out of his frustrations. A lot of people called Jack a visionary. I think he was a visionary because he could see what would happen within the context of art and film and he didn't like it. He really wanted artists to be supported and wanted funding and wanted original work not to be suppressed, but to be really enthused over. So, I think his politics were pretty real. I don't think, necessarily, that his politics have anything to do with his films. I think that an artist can have an immense amount of politics and it doesn't have to be included in the work. I think his work is his work.
ESF: But he had a very totalizing view of things, in the sense that the films and the performances were just a part of a transformative way of being and that led to his political views about the way things ought to be.
MJ: Exactly. He has this great quote which I've always loved where he says 'the more boundaries broken, the more enriched becomes the activity.'
ESF: I wanted to ask about the clips you showed from the Maria Montez films. Those films themselves are not generally seen.
MJ: No, no, that took a quite a bit to get. They're not seen, barely at all. I hope that, through Jack, they'll put them all on DVD, particularly White Savage, which you can't even get on VHS.
ESF: Yeah, I think some of them you can find on VHS, but certainly not on DVD. So, for those film clips, did you mostly have to go through Universal? Who has those?
MJ: Yeah, Universal.
ESF: Were they fairly cooperative?
MJ: Fairly cooperative. You know, we've been very lucky. We've dealt with a lot of nice people and we were able to prove why we needed it and why we didn't have maybe the funding or facility, but why we wanted to include it and if not, then fine. So people were pretty cool about it, actually. We've been very happy with people's response, cooperation and artistic collaboration throughout all aspects of the film.
ESF: Yeah, it's a really well produced film. It's really well edited. It's a very polished piece. It was almost shocking in a way, because the expectation of seeing a well produced documentary on an underground film artist is so low.
MJ: I know, I know, it's so interesting that people would have that expectation. You know, I'm not going to treat a subject that I feel is of the highest artistic order as some, you know, just scrape some films together and knock it together. I believe that he's a very important figure and should be treated just the way one would treat Fellini, Scorsese , Orson Welles or anyone else. With the highest respect and the greatest of one's ability.
ESF: What do you think of Matthew Barney?
MJ: Oh, you can't look at Matthew Barney and not think, hey, there's Jack Smith commercialized with a lot of money. In fact, very early on I read, Matthew Barney early in his career did voice Jack Smith as an influence. I haven't seen anything since then, which was many, many years ago, but I think it's undeniable and the fact that it doesn't get referred to often is funny in itself.
ESF: How about Cindy Sherman, has she acknowledged an influence?
MJ: She's always acknowledged an influence. Same with Nan Goldin. They've always acknowledged Jack Smith as a major influence within their work.
ESF: Has David Lynch?
MJ: David Lynch has also.
ESF: And Guy Maddin?
MJ: Guy Maddin has also. Many other filmmakers.
ESF: It's amazing when you think of the scope of his influence, it's incredible.
MJ: And there's a ton of musicians. His effect on music is also a whole other story.
ESF: In what ways was Tony Conrad helpful?
MJ: He was helpful in all sorts of ways. He's just a terrific, wonderfully talented human being who was a real participator and collaborator and who gave me countless and countless hours, often on-camera; everything he could remember about Jack and connecting me to other people who might have had an association, no matter how small or large. So that was all really good. And, you know, just musically, I had him watch the cuts as I was going through it, to get feedback from him and he was very supportive and, in the end, loved the picture very much. Thought it was an excellent portrait and that Jack Would be quite proud.
ESF: You have a lot of great festivals lined up in San Francisco, Sydney, Los Angeles, Antwerp, Montreal and London. Is there already talk about distribution?
MJ: Yeah, we're in talks with a number of people.
ESF: When the film shows theatrically in Seattle would you be willing to come and talk?
MJ: For sure, I would definitely like to.
ESF: Say it wound up showing at the Northwest Film Forum. They would love to have you.
MJ: That would be awesome.
ESF: Last spring they did a retrospective of Harry Smith.
MJ: Who I love.
ESF: So, who knows, maybe someday in the future they'll be able to do a retrospective of Jack Smith.
MJ: Yeah, they could do Jack Smith next year and then the year after that they could do Patti Smith.
ESF: And then, maybe, The Smiths. Well, that about wraps it up. This has been really great.
MJ: Thank you for your positivity. You know the word 'critic' has this negative connotation.
ESF: The thing is, Mary, I'm not really a critic.
MJ: All the better.

1 comment:

  1. XLNt interview. Jack Smith is one of the most brilliant artists ever. His films, photos, essays, plays, costumes, events, sayings, etc. At heart, they show a deep love of life and humanity.