The Black Hole of the Camera

Me And You and Memento and Fargo

 

Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis

Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis, Mary Jordan’s absorbing documentary portrait of the legendary filmmaker and performer, certainly gives a strong flavor of this underground artist, whose importance never really has been disputed within avant-garde circles, even if he’s not a household name or nearly as famous as many of the other major artists he influenced, including Andy Warhol, John Waters, or the Italian director Federico Fellini.

Jack Smith (1932-1989) led a very troubled life. Smith was born in Columbus, Ohio. His mother, who married three times, moved to Galveston, Texas and then to Kenosha, Wisconsin. The film reveals that she left Jack and his sister, Sue Slater, alone for two weeks before the final relocation. It’s no wonder that Smith blamed his mother for sending him “crippled” out into the world. In a letter to her, which he recites in the film, he confesses, “I’m left with feelings of jealousy, mistrust of women, homosexuality, impotence.”

Jack Smith’s issues were not only with his mother, but with the world at large. A militant anarchist, the intensely political Smith railed against capitalism in the guise of “Landlordism” and “Lobsterism” – his own colorful vocabulary for “exploitation” – as the source of much of his own and society’s ills. A modern-day Proudhon, Smith couldn’t fathom either paying rent or art collecting – to him both were merely different forms of theft.

Smith vented against people and institutions for not supporting him in his artistic endeavors, believing that “real art” was destined to get “mutilated” within capitalist culture. He became famous for making one of the most notorious underground films of the 1960s, Flaming Creatures (1962) – a baroque, gender-bending orgy of naked and costumed bodies, which was busted and became a test case of censorship laws. The experience had a traumatic effect on both Jack Smith and his career. The reception of Flaming Creatures became a rationalization for his “never making any masterpieces again” or finishing any of his later films.

As a child, Smith became enthralled with the B-movie actress Maria Montez, who became a lifelong obsession. According to the composer John Zorn, Jack would cry whenever he watched her movies. The late playwright and Warhol screenwriter Ronald Tavel calls the actress a “diva,” while John Vaccaro refers to her as “the apotheosis of the drag queen.” Only filmmaker Nick Zedd counters that he couldn’t understand this adoration of Montez because she was such a “mediocre actress.” When Smith was dying in the hospital after deliberately contracting AIDS, Tavel suggests that rather than being bored, Jack was happy because it gave him more time to ruminate about Montez.

For Jack, Maria Montez represented the epitome of exotic glamour. To him, she became a fantastic imaginary world that replaced the ugly one in which he found himself. Smith turned the NYC loft where he lived for the last nine years of his life into a virtual fantasy land. The film provides a glimpse of Smith’s glorious inner life by tracking through what was in reality an elaborate and colorful stage set, which was dismantled and destroyed after his death.

Jack’s performances were notorious within the art world. He would announce that an event would begin at a certain prescribed time and then delay it for hours, causing many audience members to flee when nothing happened. Tavel suggests that Smith did this deliberately. He quotes Jack as saying, “I don’t want the scum of Baghdad. I want only the best.” The artist who insists that art should be made free to the masses turns out to be an elitist at heart. Jack Smith was full of contradictions, but his own response to the issue of audience was simply: “Something had to be done in order to keep them from becoming sofa-roosting cabbages.”

My only personal experience with Jack Smith was being invited to a small gathering at someone’s loft in the late 1970s where it was rumored that Jack was going to perform. Throughout the night, he made strange faces, glared at people suspiciously, periodically whispered in the host’s ear, and continually disappeared into a hall closet, where he seemed to rummage around for hours. Needless to say, Jack lived up to his reputation, and I finally left around midnight. Yet what he was actually doing could be construed as a weird performance of sorts.

Jack Smith’s personal animosity for Jonas Mekas became another major fixation. Smith despised Mekas for using Flaming Creatures as part of an anti-censorship crusade during the 1960s. Smith complains that Mekas could “be made to seem like a saint, to be in the position of defending something, when he’s really kicking it to death.” Ronald Tavel suggests that Mekas’s strategy was to make “as much money as possible from those films and give as little as possible to the filmmaker.”

Although Jonas appears in the film, it’s never clear that he’s ever responding to such charges, which is one of the unfortunate drawbacks of Jordan’s decision to make a heavily-edited compilation film. As far as information obtained from interviews, it’s simply not possible to understand either the questions or the context of the answers. In any event, I seriously doubt that there were buckets of money to be made from screening Flaming Creatures at the time, or that Jonas secretly was pocketing money that was owed to Smith.

Smith began to refer to Mekas by a variety of disparaging names, including “Uncle Fishhook.” Sylvère Lotringer helped to legitimize Jack’s personal attacks on Mekas in a 1978 issue of Semiotext(e). As Lotringer explains in Jordan’s film, Uncle Fishhook became a symbol of the system: “Uncle Fishhook became like this kind of embodiment of a myth that was so much bigger than Jonas Mekas could be.” Jack also had the bad habit of turning on people. Lotringer tells of hearing rumors that Jack was walking around the East Village with an ax and wanted to kill him.

There are plenty of published sources on the ongoing feud between Mekas and Jack Smith, but we never do get to hear Jonas’s side. There is an explanation for why Mekas withheld the original film of Flaming Creatures from Jack Smith once it came into his possession. As an archivist, Mekas wanted to preserve Jack’s legacy, especially because Smith would project and edit his originals during screenings that he turned into theatrical events. Is trying to save the original of Flaming Creatures such a bad thing? For Smith, it became part of a larger paranoid conspiracy in which he cast himself in the role of victim.

Jordan’s film also glorifies Jack Smith at the expense of Andy Warhol. As Nayland Blake rightly states: “So many contemporary artists trace their practice back to Warhol at this point, and a lot of the important ideas in Warhol come from Jack.” Robert Wilson indicates that Warhol couldn’t have made the films he did without having known Jack. John Waters claims of Jack Smith: “He did it all first. He started something that other people took and became more successful with.”

Lawrence Rinder, the museum curator and director, along with noted composer and filmmaker Tony Conrad, point to Warhol’s Factory and the whole notion of superstars as deriving from Jack Smith. Artist Mike Kelly mentions the fact that Warhol used Smith’s actors for his own films. Yet none of this is really news. Warhol, who watched films at the Filmmakers’ Cinemateque prior to making them, was influenced by many experimental filmmakers, including Kenneth Anger, Ron Rice, and Jack Smith. Warhol never denied his admiration for Smith’s work. Instead he indicates that Smith was “the only person I would ever copy” and adds, “I just think he makes the best movies.”

Jack Smith appeared in a number of Warhol films, including the unfinished Batman/Dracula (1964), Camp (1965), and Hedy (1966). George Kuchar points out that in Batman/Dracula, Warhol failed to record all of Jack Smith’s performance because of bad framing. Henry Hills and others claim that Smith took over Camp, where he managed to get Warhol to move his camera. Mekas suggests that the two artists clashed because Smith wanted to have complete control. If Smith was all about control, Warhol was the exact opposite – he was interested in abdicating authorial control.

Mario Montez, Jack’s drag-queen incarnation of Maria Montez, appeared in a number of Warhol films as well, which Smith didn’t appreciate. Like an overly protective parent, Jack Smith criticizes how Mario Montez was being employed by Warhol. While Smith never specifies a title, he seems to have in mind Screen Test # 2 (1965) when he laments: “I just hate to see this happening to Mario. Slowly watching Mario’s brain being eaten away . . .”

The schism between Smith and Warhol was personal, but also represents the difference between a baroque and pop sensibility. Smith had a trash aesthetic. His art was about making something beautiful out of nothing. Warhol used techniques of mass production in his art, hence the whole idea of The Factory, which enabled him to become an incredibly prolific artist. Jack Smith takes a direct swipe at Warhol when he suggests that “manufacturing and making art” are  two different endeavors.  Warhol obviously didn’t think so. Smith insists, “I want to be uncommercial film personified.” Warhol, on the other hand, always had commercial aspirations and made the fact that art was a business only too evident.

While the film certainly sides with Smith over Warhol, the film’s compilation technique allows it to move, for instance, from John Waters saying, “He [Jack Smith] was a great personality and a great filmmaker who changed everything” to someone claiming that “Jack Smith was the real Warhol.” Frankly, I find that to be an incredible leap. There is no question that Jack Smith exerted an enormous influence on Warhol, but what does it mean to say he was “the real Warhol?” In different voices of various interviewees, Jordan also edits fragments of the interviews into the hyperbolic assertion that Jack Smith reinvented theater, photography, film, performance art, glitter, installation art, time, and music videos.

Many notable artists get a chance to discuss Jack Smith and the brilliance of his work, which alone makes this film worth viewing. Voice critic J. Hoberman, who has written extensively on the work of Jack Smith, is sorely missing as an interviewee for reasons that have to do with the making of Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis and issues related to Smith’s estate (For details, click here and here). And the inclusion of scholars, such as Callie Angell, might have provided the film with a more balanced perspective on Warhol.

Smith’s social critique extended to curators, museums, and foundations, whose real function he believed was “commercialization.” Only John Waters introduces a dose of reality into Jack Smith’s vilification of museums: “He bit every hand that could ever, ever feed him. And so, the problem is nobody knows his movies because of that. And he never finished them. And if he maybe had been a little less difficult, maybe we would have seen his movies more. They’re very obscure now. He bit the hand! Museums. . . who else is going to show them? It’s [sic] not going to play at Radio City Music Hall!”

Toward the end of the film, Smith makes a startling and rare admission about himself in terms of his artistic career: “It’s my fault. I haven’t been organized properly. . . I was never organized nearly enough. I didn’t know those things.” But, as Jack Smith insightfully points out, had he done all the things he should have done or that were expected of him, “I wouldn’t have been the same person.”

Posted 29 May, 2009

Happiness

 

The strand of American independent cinema known as “underground film” often used explicit or provocative sexual material to push censorship boundaries in the 1960s. Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures and Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising, for instance, became highly publicized censorship cases. Independent features, such as Shirley Clarke’s The Connection, also provoked court battles for other reasons. This explains why “The First Statement of the New American Cinema Group,” which was penned by Jonas Mekas, had made censorship in any form one of its major issues. In the case of Todd Solondz’s Happiness (1998), the matter of contention was not government censorship, but self-censorship on the part of October Films and its parent companies, which refused to release the film due to its controversial subject matter.

Happiness tells the story of the three sisters who live in New Jersey, and their Florida-based parents who suddenly find themselves getting a divorce. The three Jordan sisters – Joy, Helen, and Trish – are remarkably different from each other, yet on a same trajectory for an unhappy fate. Joy (Jane Adams) is the family loser, the one with the lowest self-esteem, who struggles with her career and relationships. Both of her relationships end disastrously. Her break-up with an office-mate, Andy (Jon Lovitz), leads to his suicide, while a later fling with one of her ESL students, a Russian immigrant named Vlad, leads to embarrassment and humiliation.

Joy’s sister Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle) is a best-selling writer whose commercial success only confirms her creative doubts. Despite the international set of physical hunks who orbit around her, she is sexually unsatisfied and winds up responding to an obscene phone call from her computer-geek neighbor, Allen (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Only the obnoxious and superficial Trish (Cynthia Stevenson), mindlessly ensconced in suburbia, believes she has it all. But her suburban illusions of the happy life have blinded her to the marital problems with her husband, Bill Maplewood (Dylan Baker), a mild-mannered psychiatrist with serial-killer fantasies and his own dark secrets. His attempts to counsel their son, Billy, with his awakened pubescent sexuality eventually leads Bill to molest two of his son’s friends, destroying Trish’s “model-perfect” life.

In many ways, Happiness seems to be a sequel to Solondz’s previous film, Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995). It is easy to imagine the middle school kids of Dollhouse growing up into the kind of adult misfits we find here. Solondz uses their interlocking relationships and stories to paint an extended portrait of contemporary suburban life. The sanitized image of the suburbs as a refuge from urban problems gets turned upside down in Happiness. Solondz presents the suburbs as a nightmarish breeding ground for the worst tabloid excesses – child molestation, incest, murder, rape, exhibitionism, autoeroticism, sadomasochism, phone sex, drug abuse, suicide, divorce, and partner abuse.

The multiple plot structure of Happiness makes it a far more complex film than Welcome to the Dollhouse. Unlike Dollhouse, which has Dawn Wiener as its obvious central character, Happiness focuses on a host of characters, but nevertheless has the Jordan family at its center. There are the three Jordan sisters and their parents, Lenny (Ben Gazzara) and Mona (Louise Lasser), along with their families, friends, neighbors, and lovers.

Joy becomes involved in relationships with Andy and the petty criminal Vlad, who has a possessive girlfriend named Zhenia. Trish has a three-kid family, but the film only concentrates on her husband, Bill Maplewood, and their son, Billy. There is also Billy’s Little League teammate, Johnny Grasso, and his father, Joe, as well as Billy’s classmate Ronald Farber, who plays an off-screen role in Bill’s eventual downfall. Allen, the obscene phone caller, is Helen’s neighbor as well as Bill’s patient. To further connect the many dots in the plot, Allen makes obscene phone calls to both Joy and Helen. Kristina (Camryn Manheim) is another neighbor of Helen’s, but she only enters the film because of Allen. She, in turn, relates a murderous story involving an alleged rapist Pedro, the building doorman. And finally there’s Lenny’s friend, Diane, who threatens Mona by making a play for Lenny, but he turns out not to be interested.

The numerous plot threads of Happiness makes an analysis of the film’s structure difficult, especially in terms of segmenting the acts. The script of Happiness consists of 116 pages, which translates into approximately 134 minutes of screen time. Even though there are over a dozen major characters and multiple, often intersecting plotlines, Bill Maplewood has to be considered the central character of Happiness because he has the most at stake.

The first turning point occurs when Bill Maplewood drugs Johnny Grasso during a sleep-over at 48 minutes. The second turning point happens when Johnny tells his mother about the blood in his stools. From this point on (82 minutes), it will only be a matter of time before Bill will be caught. The overall act-breakdown would be a first act of 48 minutes, a short middle act of 34 minutes, and a long third act that is 52 minutes. The first act takes longer than most films because so many different characters have to be introduced. The middle act is short because there are not the usual escalating obstacles blocking the characters’ desires. Instead, the middle act simply develops the other character plots – Mona’s attempt to buy a condo, Diane’s play for Lenny, Allen’s obscene phone call to Helen, Kristina’s awkward attempt to befriend Allen, Joy’s sexual encounter with Vlad, as well as Zhenia’s assault of Joy. The final act is unusually long because so many plotlines have to be resolved.

Another way to segment the act-structure of Happiness would be to look at various plots and subplots in terms of their plot points. Bill Maplewood publicly masturbates at 19 minutes. Mona tells Trish Lenny wants a divorce at 25 minutes. Joy learns of Andy’s suicide at 35 minutes. Bill drugs Johnny at 48 minutes. Allen makes an obscene phone call to Helen, who gets turned on by it, at 65 minutes. Joy sleeps with Vlad at 78 minutes and gets assaulted by Zhenia at 81 minutes. Johnny informs his mother about his physical problems at 82 minutes. Bill stalks Ronald Farber at 87 minutes. Lenny rejects Diane at 96 minutes. Kristina confesses her murder of Pedro at 106 minutes. Helen spurns Allen at 112 minutes. Joy pays Vlad five hundred dollatrs to retrieve her stolen possessions at 118 minutes. At 121 minutes, Joe Grasso calls Bill and tells him, “You’re a dead man.” Bill mistakenly mentions Ronald Farber to the police at 123 minutes. Trish and the kids split at 129 minutes.

A look at the plot points above suggests that there are enough significant events occurring at regular intervals to maintain audience interest over the course of a very long and complicated film. In an interview in Filmmaker, Solondz discusses the ensemble structure of Happiness in practical and intuitive terms: “I had a bunch of different story ideas, and I couldn’t make up my mind which one I wanted to make a movie about. I wasn’t willing to do one over the other, so I figured out a way to combine them, hoping that they would cohere and play off each other.”

Even the three Jordan sisters, Solondz maintains, became a plot contrivance “to thread the different storylines together.” In the same interview Solondz insists the thematic links were of greater concern, and adds: “But I think the process of writing is a process of discovery.” Rather than diffusing dramatic tension and character, the elaborately intricate structure of Happiness actually allows Solondz to present a broader spectrum of suburban life. Despite having to juggle so many different characters, the film’s ultimate strength lies in its ability to create snapshot studies of this group of lonely suburbanites, who flounder about in manic searches for love and happiness.

Like Dollhouse’s Dawn Wienerdog who believes that sex with an older heart throb will make her popular, Billy views ejaculation as crucial to social acceptance by his peers. In a manner reminiscent of Dawn Wiener’s propensity to say or do something inappropriate, the film ends when Billy interrupts the family holiday dinner to share his excitement at his first orgasm. For this brief fleeting moment of happiness, Billy can overlook the sad events that have transpired around him and the future taunts that await him as a result of his father’s stigma. That Billy can exult in the fact that his ability to ejaculate makes him normal like other kids, but sexuality, as we witness throughout Happiness, turns out to be the root core of adult problems. The adult misfits who populate Happiness aspire to be loved and happy, but their efforts only leave them feeling more rejected and miserable.

Although the various characters in Happiness are given nearly equal screen time, Bill Maplewood’s story creates the dramatic glue that holds the other stories together for the simple reason that he has the most to lose. Lenny and Mona can divorce without any consequences. Helen’s masochistic obsession with an obscene phone caller does not have any bearing on her literary career. Joy’s affair with her Russian student, Vlad, will not get her fired or cause her to quit her ESL job, because teaching English to immigrants carries no emotional investment for her because she has no real direction to her life and is simply passing from job to job. On the contrary, Bill’s actions have serious and dramatic ramifications. His sexual abuse of minor children will not only ruin his professional career and break up his family, but stigmatize them forever. And while there is no allusion to it in the film – other than the symbolic closeup shot of Billy gazing at Johhny through the metal fence at the Little League game – his sexual transgressions will no doubt cause him to be locked up for a very long time.

Bill Maplewood is a homosexual version of Mr. Kasdan, the neighbor obsessed with Missy in Welcome to the Dollhouse. But whereas Mr. Kasdan’s kinkiness never got beyond the fantasy stage even after he kidnaps Missy, Bill Maplewood calculatingly follows through on his pedophilic fantasies by raping two of his son’s classmates. A seemingly reasoned professional and suburban family man, Bill is not beyond drugging Johnny Grasso during a sleep-over or stalking Ronald Farber, the Home Alone kid whose fatal mistake is bragging about the size of his penis. A walking time bomb, Bill Maplewood wreaks havoc on those around him, including his own son, Billy.

The scene where Billy interrogates his father about molesting his two classmates near the film’s end is one of the most disturbing scenes ever to appear in a movie. In an interview about the film in Indie magazine, Solondz provides his own spin on this painful-to-watch scene: “The boy becomes the psychologist and his father becomes the patient. The scene is crucial in any understanding of Bill the pedophile. He is not a monster, but he has a monster within him. He succumbs to his demon, and the only redemption for him is his honesty and openness with his son.” While it is certainly true that Bill’s honesty with his son is crucial, what seems even more remarkable is Bill’s lack of repentance. His admission that he would do the same thing again is perhaps indicative of his sickness, but it nevertheless contradicts the ordinary meaning of what is meant by “redemption.” And Bill’s additional incestuous admission will no doubt have a troubling effect on Billy.

Solondz’s characters go about their daily lives trying to balance enormous contradictions. In Happiness, sadomasochism has become the operative norm in relationships. The film’s opening scene becomes emblematic of this dynamic when the teary-eyed Andy gives Joy a reproduction pewter ashtray, only to snatch it back. Allen, the next character we meet, ups the ante. In his therapy session with Bill, he details the most violent and sadistic sexual fantasies about Helen, only to comment: “Not that I could ever actually . . . do that . . . See, if she only knew how I felt, how deep down I really cared for her, respected her, she would love me back.” When Joy visits Trish and tells her how terrible she feels because so much hostility is being directed toward her, Trish uses Joy’s vulnerable state to deflate her self-esteem even more completely. Her sisterly advice is laced with devastating cruelty.

Yet Joy seems to invite such behavior. After Vlad robs her guitar and CD player, he also tells her he loves her. But we’ve just seen signs of his love in Zhenia’s black eye and the bruises on her face. Low self-esteem and masochistic behavior seem to be a common thread linking the Jordan sisters together. In marrying a pedophile, Trish has set herself up for the most devastating punishment. Early in the film, Trish tells Bill her secret: “Like how come no matter how much you treat me like shit, I can’t help loving you even more.” She says this, presumably in an effort to arouse both herself and him sexually. And Helen, who laughs at Joy to her face, longs to be raped and abused.

Solondz breaks one of the cardinal rules of conventional dramatic screenwriting by not providing an external antagonist. There are no obstacles to be overcome as there are in most Hollywood films, which suggests that the film may have a gaping hole for a middle act. The characters do not battle outside obstacles or forces, but rather themselves. They are their own worst enemies; their various conflicts are fundamentally internal. Only Allen seems to go through any sort of psychological struggle over whether he should attempt to follow through on Helen’s demand that he have sex with her. But deep down, Allen already knows he’s hopelessly inadequate to the task.

Whereas the classical Hollywood paradigm depends on characters being able to make choices, Solondz replaces freedom of choice with a grim determinism. Happiness suggests that no matter what road these characters take, no matter what actions they choose, happiness ultimately will elude them. Their fates were long ago determined by their dysfunctional families, youthful peers, and the cultural forces that have shaped their contradictory, no-win desires.

Posted 7 May, 2009