I’m late out of the gate with this one, and I know it. But! I was recently introduced (through my favorite channels, classroom gasps and whispers) to independent filmmaker and queer visual poet Jack Smith. I know everyone is gasping, ready to read me down for cultural dilettance. But just in case there are those out there, who, like myself, are sleeping Jack Smith disciples unknowingly dreaming, here is a primer and dreamy elocution on the patron saint of NY queer trash cinema.
Although filmmaker Jack Smith is known primarily for his infamously banned film Flaming Creatures (1962-63), his reduction to the land of shock-cinema boils out his richer contributions as an artist in all forms: as a photographer, a live theatre performer and director, and as a filmmaker. Under each of his artistic hats, Smith elaborated upon his total utopia- an alternate reality of exotic sets, vibrating against his subjects in muted Technicolor. Smith’s medium was a bricolage of life, an aesthetic performance of identity.
A photographer in his initial days in New York, Smith revived the photographic medium with his specifically cinematic mise-en-scene constructions of sets. If we think of photography as a medium of index or trace, Jack Smith’s photographs, films and performances are indexes of an ever unfolding daydream, of a lucidly exotic, decadent and vapidly Technicolor tableaux that exists only in the careful calibration of Smith’s vision and then let loose into the realm of the real.
Smith moves from form-as-content to form as a decadent luxurious fullness, overriding content with an optic hedonism. Reclaiming the Baroque, the screen seems to burst forth with layered images, characters, colors, sets. Within the screen space, the images kaleidoscope and collage together. Outside of the screen space, Smith staged elaborate performances, often to correspond with the screening of his films. Although Flaming Creatures ran as a complete cinematic feature, Smith’s film Normal Love (1963) is literally pasted together, edited in-house during screenings at Smith’s house/performance space titled
‘The Plaster Foundation of Atlantis’. These performative screenings collaged together mediums from live theatre, photography, cinema, and sculpture. His filmic performances unfolded, unending, into the wee hours of the night, meticulously calculated and entirely improvisational, polished and perishable… the perfect paradox of performativity.
experiments in celluloid.
In the early 1960s, Smith experimented in the film format, releasing several films. Scotch Tape, a 100-foot reel of Kodachrome edited in-camera, was released in 1959 and can boast of being one of only two “complete” films in Smith’s oeuvre (the other being Flaming Creatures). In 1962, Smith released Flaming Creatures, which was confiscated from its premiere and later banned because of “pornographic” content. Flaming Creatures is arguably the only feature that Smith ever created. While Normal Love (1963) has a conventional length of 105 mins (with an extra 20 mins of addendum footage, titled “The Yellow Sequence”), each screening of the film under Smith’s supervision was constantly edited, in-house, during the screening, to allow for an infinite number of combinative forms for the film. This performative aspect of filmmaking and editing may have been a partial catalyst for Smith’s later endeavors in live theatre.
Smith, in his work, was constantly cross-referencing text and image. In a collection of his photographs, titles are written on the back, languidly describing scenes and giving them life beyond their visual splendor. Smith constantly invokes a specific and odd textual reference, using the term ‘pasty’ repeatedly throughout his work. In the flipbook edition of Buzzards over Baghdad, the only caption over the action reads, “Meboubeh, the slave woman, lifts the artificial elephant off the Love Bandit’s chair and creates a pasty novelty.” Smith’s first one-person photography exhibition in 1965 was titled “The Great Pasty Triumph”, and indeed, Normal Love was first titled The Great Pasty Triumph, before being changed, first to The Pink and Green Horrors and finally settling on its current designation. After the “sickeningly pasty reception” of Flaming Creatures, Smith translated the term into the color palette and demonstrable theory behind Normal Love, calling it a “pasty, pink and green color movie that is going to be the definitive pasty expression…”1
An odd descriptive term, ‘pasty’ invokes a pastel color palette, a gelatinous texture, and the adhesive qualities of glue, or paste. The last signification seems especially astute as a trope through which to read Smith’s adhesive artistic process. Constantly melding mediums together, Smith is as much a collage artist as he is specific to any one medium. He pastes together pastel photographs with the cinematic mise-en-scene of still live paintings and the Baroque, gluing the liveness of theatre with the precise indexical motion and sound capture of cinema.
This performative cinema was a moment explored in the “expanded cinema” movement, but embodied fully by Jack Smith. In “Ontology of Performance”, Peggy Phelan outlines performance’s fleeting temporality in the present moment. Averse to documentation, the performance lasts only in the time shared between the audience and performer. It is an irreproducible act. As Phelan outlines, “performance cannot be saved, recorded, documented, or otherwise participate in the circulation of representations of representations: once it does so, it becomes something other than performance.”2 In this sense, Smith’s films are already outside of the realm of the performance. The films are always already indexes of lived traces. Though they are fantastical and ethereal, they are still traces of constructed moments. As traces, the films themselves survive to be reproduced and copied, digitally transferred, updated and thus saved from obsolescence.
Instead, the film strips themselves act as accomplices to Smith’s constant performative upending. Each performative gesture of Normal Love remakes it, an instantaneous utterance of its own history. The degradation of the film through in-house edits allows for the type of slow entropy usually saved for traditional mediums, such as painting. During each performance of the film, the entropy is quickened to the pace of performance itself, a witnessed ‘now’ in a lived present; once it is over, the pace is slowed once again to the gradual decay of emulsion and film. Without access to pasted together filmstrips, the only recreation of the Normal Love performances lies with the trace of witness accounts and documents.
Smith worked on constantly unfinished projects, their never-ending infinitude a testament to their constant performing. Smith’s films and filmic performances wait for an apocalypse, the end of civilization, they wait to be abandoned and discarded, awaiting an end to their immortality. Smith himself, never declaring an end, only created and created, never ceasing or proclaiming finitude, because nothing is ever done when you are building a world. Performances are never finished- they are only documented to end, when they are forsaken by their audience, when the critics leave… But for Smith, the performances just go on the next day, and the day after that and so on and so on until one day he isn’t around to imagine the world’s creation anymore, himself taken object by entropy.
Smith mimes the illusionary nature of the Hollywood film, but usurps its temporal constraints into an unending, constantly unfolding world. If performance’s media limitations locate it to a specifically authored space and time, the viewer is a necessary completion to the work. But for Smith, the viewer is simply eavesdropping, spying, a reluctantly accepted voyeur, allowed the pleasure of the look but denied access to the totality of immersion in Smith’s inhabited visual world.
1 Hoberman, J. On Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures (and Other Secret-Flix of Cinemaroc). New York City: Granary Books/Hips Road, 2001. Print. Page 89 Cited from Jack Smith “Wait For Me…”
2 Phelan, Peggy. “The Ontology of Performance” in Unmarked: The Politics of Performance. New York, NY: Routledge, 1993. (p 146)