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On DVD: “Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis,” “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown”

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09082008_jacksmithatlantis.jpgBy Michael Atkinson

“Our starved instincts have been clamoring for centuries for more and more substitutes,” Henry Miller once wrote, “and as a substitute for living the cinema is ideal.” There may not be a single filmmaker that Miller’s cynical observation describes better, sans the cynicism, than Jack Smith, famed New York avant-gardist, gay downtown gadfly, rebel performer and temperamental film artist. All Smith ever wanted was to create a new world for himself, separate from the mundane, ugly and unjust world he saw around him, and if we know his name today, it’s because he largely succeeded. Mary Jordan’s documentary “Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis” (2007) is, for a new generation with heretofore unprecedented access (on DVD) to the entire legacy of experimental film, a smashing introduction into the world of mid-century, iconic D.I.Y. rooftop moviemaking, where penniless idiosyncrats could become world famous with a borrowed camera, some thrift-store accoutrements and the will to transgress.

Almost all writing about avant-garde film (or labeling of it, for that matter) is inadequate to its subject — fascinating but hopeless — and so documentary portraits like Jordan’s, employing wide swaths of the films themselves, are an ideal indoctrination; the often badly needed context is present, but the experience of the footage can speak for itself. Smith is the perfect candidate (bio-docs of Cornell, Deren and Markopoulos could come next), because his life has the tortured arc of a rock star: born in Middle America left-of-center and gay and crazed about B-movie queen Maria Montez, Smith emigrated to Greenwich Village after the war and found freedom to be himself, lived on next to no income, and made photographs and eventually films that spoke only to his inner mythology. The film that made him a celebrity, “Flaming Creatures” (1963), is typical “new American cinema” — an arch, irreverent, overexposed costumed ritual that exudes an undeniable, totemic vibe — and got censored and talked about enough to instantly install Smith at the head table of the era’s leading counter-culture figures. But Smith, sort of a functioning Dadaist at heart, couldn’t (or wouldn’t, being a fierce anti-capitalist) ever finish another film; his epic, “Normal Love,” was largely shot in 1963 and shown but never completed, according to Smith, who’d tinker with it for years. By the 1980s, Smith was an emaciated Village godhead, raging at the world, but producing live theater in his outrageously decorated apartment sometimes only for himself. Deciding AIDS was “a fabulous way to die,” Smith frequented the porn theaters, got infected and died in 1989.

Jordan’s film scrambles interviews and footage of Smith with his own films and recordings of him ranting in his painfully unique, suppressing-a-burp squeak, and makes the case for his kind of cinema beautifully — her love letter to “Normal Love,” in a montage scored with Rimsky-Korsakov, should make any awake cinephile pine for the film in its entirety. (Pine away, Smith’s films are all unavailable.) Jordan also makes Smith matter historically, reminding everyone how much Warhol stole from Smith, and how much Smith’s lurid, dime-store pageants influenced Fellini (she visually compares “Normal Love” and Fellini’s “Satyricon”), and nearly everything else. (“Half the rock videos you see look like a Jack Smith,” someone scoffs.) Smith’s is a primal cinema, divorced from narrative and character, but obsessed to an almost devotional degree with image, gesture, spontaneity, an almost Art Nouveau sense of compositional beauty, and the forthright expression of Smith’s pansexual, pagan, self-invented view of the world he wanted to live in. At the same time, the films are worshipful parodies of B-movieness. Smith’s work is hard to describe; you have to be there, and at the very least, Jordan’s lovely film could prep the willing for the day a Smith DVD box hits the streets.

09082008_greatpumpkin.jpgExperimental in its own way, though never underground, and so thoroughly evocative of its own private universe that once it’s implanted in our cortices it stands little chance of being evicted, “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” (1966) is one of the great masterpieces of American television, a waist-high autumnal idyll like no other, and as evocative of a preteen universe — a place where Halloween has epochal significances, if it’s always difficult to figure out exactly what they are — as any film made in English. Of course, it’s in our genes, relentlessly rerun in October for 30 years now, but look at it again: it’s a lyric, a Frostian ode to the omens of fall, the fire of the imaginative furnace, the awkward tribal brutalities of children, the yearning for a cosmic justice in a landscape where social tension leaves unhealable scars. What is the legend of the Great Pumpkin if not an answer to the preadolescent rule of might is right? Linus van Pelt’s poignant compulsion to follow his private star (predicated on the “sincerity” of a pumpkin patch) and invent his own mythic resonance is recognizably Jack Smithian, and his fate echoes Smith’s. Still, the cartoon’s greatest passage, and arguably the most mysterious and magical sequence ever animated for TV, is Snoopy’s vivid journey through the night battlefields and barbed-wire trenches of WWI, making concrete for us finally what we knew as children: play is realer than real, and can set us free.

[Photos: “Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis,” Sundance, 2007; “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown,” Paramount, 1966]

“Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis” (Arts Alliance America) and “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” (Warner Home Video) are now available on DVD.

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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