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In The Grip of The Lobster: Restoring Jack Smith

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Saturday 1/31
5:00 pm
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Jerry Tartaglia presents newly restored films from the Jack Smith Archive, courtesy of Gladstone Gallery, NY and Brussels, and discusses the issues of preservation and exhibition of Smith’s work as filmmaker and performance artist.

Jack Smith was one of the most accomplished and influential underground artists in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, and a key figure in the cultural history of film, performance, photography and art in America. From the late 1950s until his death from A.I.D.S. related disease in 1989, Smith was chiefly recognized for his work in film and performance.

In his filmmaking, Smith created a sense of "aesthetic delirium." Through his use of outdated film stock and baroque subject matter, he pushed the limits of the medium, liberating it from the straitjacket of "good"' technique and "proper" behavior. Beneath the glitter and the camp there lurks a biting political satire; an irony born from the alienated sensibility of a Queer American artist.

His best known film, Flaming Creatures (1963), became the subject of a protracted legal battle over its alleged pornographic content. The controversy marked a pivotal moment for Jack. He shot and edited his next film, Normal Love, which is arguably a masterpiece of underground cinema, in the conventional way. But thereafter, beginning in the 1970s, his films—until then screened under typical viewing conditions—were incorporated into his Live Film Performances with film, slides and music from his vinyl LP collection.

He re-edited footage on the spot while the reels of film were being projected. He intercut camera original with workprint material, using an ingenious method of masking tape splices. This continual changing, shifting, and repositioning of his celluloid film, slides, LP records with live action meant that the work remained in a continual state of flux – always different with every viewing.

It begs the question whether or not they could ever be “finished.”  Because of this, the work resists ending. Watching a Jack Smith film is like being at the end of a party in the presence of the last guest who refuses to go home.

The restored films in this program are examples of these “performance reels” and other “Gems” from the archive, as well as the uncompleted film version of Hamlet In the Rented World. With the restoration of this film material, all of the 16mm and Super 8 mm film by Jack Smith has been preserved.


Milk Bath Scene from Normal Love    

US, 1964-69, 16mm transferred to video, 16 min.

From time to time, Jack removed material from his feature film Normal Love and used it for projection during his performances but never returned it to the “completed” film reel. This excised material is Kodachrome original, edge number dated February 1964. It has been preserved as all of this material is, with the edits and formatting as found at the time of Smith’s death.  Mario Montez is featured along with the cast of Normal Love that appeared in the Cow Scene and Milkbath Scene.

Midnight At The Plaster Foundation                         

US, mid 1970s, 16mm transferred to video, 28 min.

This is the only known complete recording of a Jack Smith Performance. It is a failure from start to finish, embodying Smith’s aesthetic of Catastrophe.  The piece was originally shot on the early Sony ½ inch Portapak video format and digitally remastered.

In The Grip of the Lobster                                                           

US, 1969-1972, 16mm transferred to video, 34 min. live audio presented from Jack Smith’s record collection       

Two weeks before his death in 2013, Mario Montez identified this material as the footage that was to mark the next Smith-Montez collaboration following Normal Love. Smith opens with images of Mario as the Mermaid that he excised and printed from Normal Love. Irving Rosenthal appears in a sequence of card playing before Mario Montez returns with Agosto Machado. The reel shows the duplex Plaster Foundation studio space that Smith created by smashing through the floor of his apartment. The reel ends with the Mermaid at the Maria Montez altar.

Song For Rent                                                                   

US, mid 1970s, 16mm, 6 min., live audio presented from Jack Smith’s record collection  

Jack appears as his alter ego, Rose Courtyard, in this tribute to America, and apple pie.

Part One total running time: 78 min.


Gems, Clips and Shorts                                                

US, 1968 – 1977, 16mm transferred to video, 45 min.

The current excavation of the archive has also yielded some fascinating shorter film fragments that have been assembled onto a single reel for viewing. This reel is a collection of pieces that are complete executions of a single, cinematic visual idea featuring one or more of Jack’s notorious “Creatures”: Mario Montez, Tally Brown, Irving Rosenthal and Silva, the drag queen mentioned by Stefan Brecht, above. Like almost all of his films, the narrative is obscure or completely dismantled, yet there is a driving filmic purpose in each of them.

“Coffin Scene” 

Late 1960s, b/w, 6 min.

featuring Jack Smith, Tally Brown and others. Mourning and veneration.                              

 “Abortion Pit Nightmare”                           

Early 1970s, b/w, 8 min.

featuring Jack Smith and Maria Antoinette.  An irreverent treatment, shot on high contrast film stock at Smith’s Plaster Foundation Studio

“Nun and Zebra” 

1969 – 1971, color,  9.5  min.                                                                       

featuring Mario Montez, Irving Rosenthal and others. Contains imagery recycled by Smith in Boiled Lobster of Lucky Landlady Lagoon. The troublesome hair caught in the camera’s pressure plate is reminiscent of Scotch Tape.

“How to Select A Victim”             

Mid 1970s, color, 9 min.

featuring Jack Smith, Maria Antoinette, Mary Woronov, Ondine, and Charles Henri Ford. Multiple superimpositions that were filmed during the making of I Was a Male Yvonne DeCarlo in the loft behind U-P at 814 Broadway.  Followed by a series of titles in B&W, each successive card bearing altered names.

“Jack Smith at the Cologne Art Fair”  

1974, color, 12.5 min.

Jack Smith in performance at the Cologne Art Fair.  Audience expectations, artist’s preparedness, and the Smithian aesthetic of indecision are foregrounded in this reel of Ektachrome workprint outtakes, shot by a television crew, and discarded.


Hamlet in the Rented World (A Fragment)                        

US, 1970 – 1973, 16mm transferred to video, 30 min.

As early as 1970, Jack Smith had been working on his own, improved version of the Bard’s play.  Stefan Brecht notes in his book, Queer Theatre, that Jack felt the play was "…very badly written, no structure, more like a radio or TV series, but can be salvaged by much cutting. Only the good lines are to be retained. It will be in the family: just Hamlet (Jack Smith), Gertrude (Maria Antoinette, one of Vaccaro’s actresses), Ophelia (Silva – a drag Queen I don’t know), and Plodius (Polonius + Claudius, – to be played by myself).  It will be Jack’s first talking movie, in lush colors. The U-P film studio will help with the sound…

The 16mm film material, however, is not the only Hamlet in the archive. Typical of Jack Smith is his cross-media/cross-art form methodology.  He staged at least one Live Performance of Hamlet and the 1001 Psychological Jingoleanisms of Prehistoric Landlordism of Rima-Puu. He also left behind several different typed scripts (some running to about 40 pages) which were either intended as shooting scripts for the uncompleted film or for the actualized performances. The title on some of these scripts reads Hamlet in the Rented World while others are titled Hamlet and the 1001 Psychological Jingoleanisms of Prehistoric Landlordism of Rima-Puu

The audio that accompanies this preserved fragment came from several ¼-inch reel-to-reel tape recordings of Jack as he is reading selected lines from some of these scripts. These tapes reveal themselves to be more than merely “wild sound” (that is, unsynched audio) for the 16mm film. It seems that these tapes are themselves a kind of audio-performance of the scripts. With his usual aplomb, Jack rehearses and repeats a single line over and over again, apparently feigning dissatisfaction with his own delivery, then repeating exactly the same line with the same style of delivery. Jack Smith invites us to wade with him into the swamp of uncertainty where we can expect to be surprised by his humor and political acumen.

Notes by Jerry Tartaglia

Jerry Tartaglia is an experimental filmmaker and writer whose work in Experimental Film and Queer Cinema spans four decades. He studied with the Abstract Expressionist Painter, Harry Koursaros, who introduced him to the work of Jack Smith, Jonas Mekas, and Gregory Markopoulos.

Later, he co-founded Berks Filmmakers Inc, one of the longest surviving Micro-Cinema Showcases for Experimental Media Art in the U.S. In the 1970s he produced his lost feature, Lawless with Warhol Factory star Pope Ondine. He also assisted Tony Conrad in the manufacture & production of the Yellow Movie series in 1973.

He was the first to write about the gay sensibility in American Avant-Garde film (1977) and his work is an ongoing examination of Identity and media politics through Cinema.

The A.I.D.S. Trilogy (A.I.D.S.C.R.E.A.M., Ecce Homo, and Final Solutions) made during the early days of the epidemic in America, has been screened around the world. His work was included in the Century-end retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, "The Art of the 20th Century." Seven of his films have been premiered at the Berlinale since 1990.

In 1993 he was one of the twelve artists who created the Red Ribbon as a symbol of A.I.D.S. awareness through the Artists' Caucus of Visual AIDS in NYC, paving the way for awareness ribbons of all kinds.

In the early 1990s, he began the work of restoring and preserving the film legacy of Jack Smith. He reconstructed Smith's three feature films and eleven shorts for the Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels.

He teaches Cinema, writing, and media production and is now completing a new film.

All images, films and video, courtesy of The Jack Smith Archive and Gladstone Gallery, NY and Brussels

Support for this program comes from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts