“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.
Experimental 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.