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So convinced was Harry Smith of the kinship between dreams and film that he once stated the ideal response of the viewer to his films was to fall asleep. Harry Smith, Heaven and Earth Magic. Film still, 1957.
Review: Harry Smith: The Avant-Garde in the American Vernacular, ed. Andrew Perchuk and Rani Singh (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2010) As any outlaw-country fan will tell you, "cosmic American music" was Gram Parsons' term for the hybrid of country, gospel and hard-living rock that he forged in the sixties, first with the Byrds, then the Flying Burrito Brothers, then solo, before launching the career of singer Emmylou Harris and mysteriously dying in the California desert at age 26. What Gram exactly meant by ‘cosmic’ is still up for grabs, but by the sound of things the term was clearly de-coupled from psychedelic connotations. Instead, the word seemed to mark a relation to artistic tradition – Parsons applied the term as well to “Exile on Main Street” by his friends the Rolling Stones, an album which eschewed studio polish for a penetrating foray into the backroads of American musical history. We might think of Parson's idea of cosmic practice, as operating within a particular vernacular, often associated with folk or popular culture, in order to adorn its elements with an allegorical, at times even mythic, degree of signification. Yet the twentieth-century’s original cosmic American wasn't Parsons, arguably, but Harry Smith. What Parsons and the Stones were to American music, Smith was to Americana as a whole, including music, ritual practice, folk and outsider art, pop culture and the urban landscape. Furthermore, it’s perhaps Parson’s understanding of cosmic Americana that can facilitate an understanding of Smith’s maddeningly diverse output. The very title of a new scholarly volume on Smith would seem to support this: Harry Smith: The Avant-Garde in the American Vernacular. By turns an ethnographer, collector, painter, filmmaker and Kabbalist, Smith’s interdisciplinarity reached such an extreme that often people who knew him in one context weren't aware of his other endeavors. This was poignantly evident at Smith’s funeral in 1991, where folk music collectors mingled with experimental filmmakers, religious scholars and members of the Ordo Templi Orientis, the Crowleyite sect in which Smith was an ordained Gnostic bishop. Harry Smith’s body of work included not only the groundbreaking six-album Anthology of American Folk Music and his highly-influential experimental films, but a myriad of paintings and drawings, many lost to oblivion, as well as a host of unusual collections, such as Seminole textiles and Ukranian Easter Eggs. Smith also maintained the only existing collection of string figures, and an extensively annotated paper airplane collection posthumously donated to the Smithsonian. Furthermore, as cohorts like Allen Ginsberg attest, Smith tape-recorded virtually everything, documenting peyote rituals, sticking a mic out of the window to get street sounds at various times of the day, even recording death rattles at the Franciscan flophouse on the Bowery. Smith's obsessive zeal for recording, together with his visionary capacity for synaesthetic relations between
disciplines, produced a labyrinthine oeuvre of collections, works, insights and images. Assembled from texts delivered by music, film and American studies scholars at symposia held by the Getty Institute in 2001-2002 and co-edited by Rani Singh, Smith's onetime assistant, Harry Smith attempts for the first time to contextualize Smith’s work and thought in an academic context, drawing connections to the avant-garde tradition, as well as emphasizing the contiguity of Smith’s modernist relation to folk art with that of Fluxus, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol, and exploring tangential connections to everyone from Melanie Klein to Bertolt Brecht and John Keats. It’s a necessary volume not only for its scholarly apparatus but because a large part of Smith’s corpus remains out of print, as do the only two other volumes on his work, American Magus and Think of the Self Speaking. Given its goal of historicizing, evaluating and above all attempting to produce meaning from Smith’s work, however, the Getty volume necessarily sacrifices a certain oral richness that abounds in the other two books: American Magus relies on a kind of idiosyncratic folk history of Smith offered by his most intimate friends, including Allen Ginsberg and Robert Frank, while the interviews that comprise Think of the Self Speaking present Smith as his own best/worst representative, engaged in shaggy-dog tangents, deliriously associative ramblings and tall-tale provocations. Commentators variously employ labels like "aesthetic anthropology" or "ethnographic modernism" in order to describe processes Smith developed in which taxonomic and scientific operations are governed by artistic predilection. The underlying aim of such processes was to locate correspondences, synchronicities, rhythms, cycles and patterns that supposedly index transhistorical structures. Smith’s stridently modernist emphasis on such structures permitted profound epistemological and artistic traffic between seemingly unrelated fields. Having decided that "books are an especially bad way of recording information,"1 Smith set out to transmit these structures through painting, film and music compilations. As a result his works often reflect a semiotic intensity that one commentator sees as prefiguring internet culture, insofar as they express “a highly annotated reality where diverse subjects are linked in unexpected ways."2 The reliance on structures to produce such interdisciplinary traffic marks one of the more significant registers of alchemy in Smith’s work. A lifelong student of the Kabbala, Smith’s early films display a strong interest in the structural transmutation of sound into image, and his master work Heaven and Earth Magic depicts a dense cosmos of relentless alchemical transformation. Smith’s path towards alchemy, we’re told, supposedly began with a paternal injunction: Smith’s father, a Freemason and Theosophist, sent his son at a young age to work the blacksmith’s equipment in the family basement with the order to
"perform that magic feat which no one in the history of the world has yet performed: the conversion of lead into gold."3 The veracity of this primal scene however must be kept in question, as it traffics alongside other claims by Smith that his real father was Aleister Crowley and his mother Anastasia Romanov. Such self-mythologizing seems fitting for a man who throughout his life played the role of a Bohemian eccentric to the hilt: Smith repeatedly obscured his own origins and left false trails of creative influences, remaining to some extent aloof and unpredictable to those sought to penetrate the veil of his output. He also staunchly refused to work, enduring bouts of willful homelessness, occasionally ‘liberating’ film equipment from friends, and living off the generosity of private benefactors and institutions like the Anthology Film Archives. During his heyday in the sixties Smith could be found holed up in New York’s storied Chelsea Hotel, presiding over an impossibly cluttered live/workspace where he mesmerized guests with marijuana, homemade films, and a seemingly bottomless cabinet of curiosities.4 Had Smith’s output consisted solely of the three-volume Anthology of American Folk Music, it would have still sufficed to leave a mark on the country’s cultural legacy. Originally released in 1952, the Anthology presents Smith as a kind of beatnik Aby Warburg, trading in the tradition of European painting for the previously-unexplored terrain of American folk culture, exploring webs of semiotic correspondence. At times the song selection and ordering are fairly straightforward to grasp, elsewhere they are bound by markedly more gnomic affinities. The selections themselves defied traditional aesthetic criteria: "I was looking for exotic records,” Smith once said, “exotic in relation to what was considered to be the world culture of high class music."5 The result is a vivid, cryptic portrait of what music critic Greil Marcus has called the “old, weird America,” a cultural landscape obscured by the sunny optimism of the postwar fifties. The Anthology’s booklet further showcases Smith’s penchant for creative curatorial practice – the reader encounters a collaged tapestry of disparate artifacts, including Fludd’s monochord and numerous cut-outs from commercial catalogues. Tunes are annotated with pithy, hermetic descriptions: the narrative depicted in Chubby Parker’s “King-Kong
Kitchie Kitchie Ki-Me-O,” for example, is summed up as "Zoologic miscegeny achieved in mouse frog nuptials, relatives approve." For Robert Cantwell, Smith’s compilation is remarkable for its lack of any claim to authenticity or access to “history as such” – instead one meets a “dense throng of stories, reports, complaints, confessions, outcries, choruses, dances and the rest, all driven by desire and terror.”6 Cantwell offers his own vivid summary of these often grim accounts: “Two presidents are assassinated, and two murderers executed by hanging. A riverboat dandy shoots his adversary over a poker game, and a betrayed woman shoots her man, in flagrante delicto, through a solid oak door. Two trains crash, the Titanic goes down, and several farms fail.”7 Stories pile upon stories, illuminated by their juxtaposition. In this way the Anthology could be said to promote a kind of Benjaminian view on American folk history, in which allegorical fragments are gathered into a kind of fragile signifying constellation, one that casts a dim light on the whole while the parts remain in curious half-shadow. Those who discovered the Anthology in the fifties became the folk revivalists of the sixties, among them counterculture luminaries such as Jerry Garcia, John Fahey, and Bob Dylan, who lifted lines from songs like Bascom Lamar Lunsford’s “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground.” Upon receiving a lifetime achievement award at the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences in 1991 for his efforts, Smith remarked that he had lived to see “America changed by music.” The Anthology’s impact was the result of a thinking of social change inspired, Smith once said, by Plato: In the Republic Plato was “jabbering on about music, how you have to be careful about changing the music because it might upset or destroy the government. Everybody gets out of step. You are not to arbitrarily change it because you may undermine the Empire State Building without knowing it."8 While commentators like Luc Sante and Greil Marcus view the Anthology as a sort of Rosetta Stone for a lost era of American culture, it is evident is that there is no such master decoder for Smith’s own films. Meaning is offered and withdrawn through cryptic interconnections between each piece, as well as Smith’s own hermeneutic subterfuge. The catalog of his early films in the Anthology Film Archives contains descriptions such as “Hand-drawn animation of dirty shapes – the history of the geologic period reduced to orgasm length.” The summary of another film announces that “the action takes place either inside the sun or in Zurich, Switzerland.”
The series of films titled “Early Abstractions” shows Smith creating abstract works handpainted frame by frame, as well as developing various material manipulations of color on celluloid, including stencils, cutouts, tape, color gels.9 A number reflect Smith’s obsession with synaesthetic translation, particularly in the form of visually recording jazz music: Film #17, for example, functions as a graphic notation of Thelonious Monk’s ‘Misterioso.’10 Such translation efforts are traceable back to the time of Smith’s teenage anthropological excursions to Kiowa peyote rituals in his native Washington, when he developed a notation system designed to record ceremonial dance movement.11 According to Allen Ginsberg, Smith “had a theory that the time of movement would be a cross-current of…certain kinds of brainwaves, the average heartbeat pattern, certain biological rhythms…and he was animating his collages and setting the time according to archetypal body rhythms. His references to this were certain drumming patterns of the Australian Aborigines and Zulu music.”12 Figure 1: Early Abstractions
Smith’s experimental techniques arguably reached their apotheosis in the muchdiscussed Heaven and Earth Magic, to which the Getty book devotes a separate chapter. Here the process of surrealist juxtaposition produces images of a near–mystic inscrutability. Magic and cultic power for Smith were inherent in visual signification - as one Smith acolyte notes, the word image contains the root for magic, Figure 2: Heaven and Earth Magic mage.13 Subsequently the magical image was not something unique to experimental film, but belonged to all film as such. Smith once allegedly scolded a class of film students screening a neo-realist work: "you shouldn't be looking at this as a continuity. Film frames are hieroglyphs, even when they look like actuality."14 Composed of cut-out figures manipulated against a black backdrop, Heaven and Earth Magic aims for a kind of pure hieroglyphic communication, offering "a mixture of pictures, visual puns, conventional signs, a rebus for our deciphering."15 The film’s narrative movement plays out a long series of permutations – “hammer hits dog; woman hits dog; dogs jumps into vase, so forth. It was possible to build up an enormous number of cross references.”16 As Sitney points out, since the viewer never knows the desired end of an operation, attention must be divided evenly among these endless procedures.17 Smith all along believed that the chance operations behind the film were guided by mystic purpose: “I tried as much as possible to make the whole thing automatic, the production automatic rather than any kind of logical process. Though, at this point, Allen Ginsberg denies having said it, about the time I started making those films, he told me that William Burroughs made a change in the Surrealistic process – because, you know, all that stuff comes from the Surrealists – that business of folding a piece of paper: One person draws the head and then folds it over, and somebody else draws the body. What do they call it? The Exquisite Corpse. Somebody later, perhaps Burroughs, realized that something was directing it, that it wasn’t arbitrary, and that there was some kind of what you might call God. It wasn’t just chance. Some kind of universal process was directing these so-called arbitrary processes.”18 Elsewhere Smith referred to his chance procedures as a kind of ‘sortilege,’ or aleatory divination – it is this artistic practice which perhaps most clearly positions Smith at a crossroads between the twentieth-century avant-garde and the mystic tradition.
The narrative undergirding the film’s alchemical semiotics concerns a ‘homunculus’ or ‘little man’ who attempts by various magical means to restore the destroyed body of the heroine, a quest reflecting the “theme of the divided being or splintered consciousness which must be reintegrated."19 In Smith’s own words, “the first part depicts the heroine’s toothache consequent to the loss of a very valuable watermelon, her dentistry and transportation to heaven. Next follows an elaborate exposition of the heavenly land in terms of Israel, Montreal and the second part depicts the return to earth from being by Max Müller on the day Edward the Seventh dedicated the Great Sewer of London.”20 While all of the characters in Heaven and Earth Magic are appropriated from other sources, the film’s ‘little man’ has a particularly curious origin: he began life as an illustration in the Kallipädie (1858), one of several highly popular texts on child-rearing by the 19th-century German physician Daniel Gottlob Moritz Schreber. Schreber’s pedagogy relied heavily on systematic remedial exercises Figure 3: Schreber's Kallipädie and disciplinary techniques including the Geradhalter, a wooden contraption designed to maintain posture during meals. In the past century however Schreber’s reputation has been eclipsed by the infamy of his son, Daniel Paul Schreber, whose Memoirs of My Nervous Illness has since been regarded as one of the most vivid autobiographical testimonies of schizophrenic experience in the twentieth-century, becoming a key testimony for psychosis in the theories of Freud, Lacan and Deleuze. It is not hard to recognize that Schreber played a meaningful role in Smith’s private pantheon: the transcript of his talk at the Queens Museum of Art (included in the Getty volume) depicts Smith reading passages from Schreber’s memoirs aloud to the audience while Heaven and Earth Magic unspools behind him. While the overlays and circuits between Smith’s film and Schreber’s memoirs are too rich to completely address here,21 it is worth noting that filmmaker and madman (if it is clear who is who) are both prepossessed by acts of puppeteering. In the case of Schreber, it seems that his father’s pedagogical efforts left a profound mark on his delusions, turning the son into a psychotic puppet-figure: “Schreber’s entire delusional system can be seen as a projection of the system of constraints
imposed upon the body of the psyche of the child of this extraordinary, totally controlling, Godlike father.”22 If the role of puppeteer in Schreber’s cosmos is played by the God/Father, in Smith’s film it is performed by Smith himself and by his little magus, who in turn is both puppet and puppeteer, subject to Smith’s cinematic processes but himself an alchemical manipulator of his world, bent on a form of cosmological restitution that parallels Schreber’s construction of a schizoid universe in the wake of his psychotic breakdown. Starting from the presupposition that “the reparative impulse is the ground of creative action," Annette Michelson interprets the film’s narrative of restitution by way of Melanie Klein, calling the film "an elaborate articulation by an artist of what has come to be known as the Kleinian scenario of infantile development. It is, of course, the scenario of a horror feature, and the longest running one known to us. For it presents the narrative of the ever-recommencing struggle of the little man, endowed in phantasy with magic powers..constantly engaged in the repetition compulsion of murderous assault upon and fragmentation of Mummy's body and the restoration of its integrity in an act of reparation."23 In this context a psychoanalytic reading would not want to ignore Smith’s own account of his relation to his mother: "I mostly lived with my mother. I performed what might now be considered sexual acts with her until I was eighteen or nineteen maybe. No actual insertion or anything, but I would always get up in the morning and get in bed with her, because she had a long story she would tell me about someone named Eaky-Peaky. She was a really good story teller. My posture is derived from trying to be exactly her height; for she was shorter."24 The attempt at restoration of the mother’s body then in a way is also an attempt to restore the capacity or site of story-telling and narrativity. Furthermore, from a historical perspective one could read Smith’s ‘divinely-guided’ chance processes as themselves a kind of alchemical restitution of traditional narrativity, the sort whose efficacy, Benjamin argues, has been eroded by the traumas of the twentieth century.25 The possibility of an alchemical transformation of narrative through collage process is also underscored in Smith’s unfinished Mahagonny, a 221-minute, four-screen attempt to absorb the Brecht-Weill opera Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny into a psychedelic cinema where, in a kind of occult-beatnik update of the ‘city symphony,’ the titular Figure 4: Mahogonny
metropolis becomes seventies New York refracted through mirrored images, multiple exposures and other disorienting effects. Smith’s creative process was not “directed towards making a ‘realistic’ version of the opera, but rather toward the translating, as nearly as I can, of images of the German text, into universal, or near universal, symbols and synchronizing of the appropriate images with music.”26 As in Heaven and Earth Magic and some of Smith’s earlier films, this process operates at a structural parallel to alchemical procedures, which are intended to purify and transform raw elements. In Mahagonny the alchemical translation of ‘images’ from the text into universal symbols first involves locating analogs to these images in the milieu of New York City street life and then ‘purifying’ them by way of collage processes such as superimposition in order to reveal their universal symbolic content. The final version of Mahagonny was intended to be “just as intelligible to the Zulu, the Eskimo, or the Australian Aborigine, as to people of any other cultural background or age."27 In light of this goal, however, the film's visual techniques and imagery open up once more the question of transmissibility in Smith’s work as a whole. If Mahagonny is supposed to traffic in a universal intelligibility, it’s not immediately clear what sort of intelligibility Smith has in mind. The very inscrutability of the images in Mahagonny or other works like Heaven and Earth Magic provokes the question whether this would not in fact be a universal intelligibility whose meaning was universally barred, equally inaccessible to all. Smith claimed he wanted to make films of a ‘universal nature’ because “everybody knows what it means when an egg breaks or when tears run out of eyes or when someone dies." This is a telling statement, not least because it begs the question whether in fact anyone knows what it means when someone dies, or, for that matter, what it means when an egg breaks. The possibility of understanding the notion of transmissibility in Smith’s work thus ultimately depends on the possibility of unpacking his implicit notion of ‘knowing what things mean.’ This would lead to a further consideration as to whether what is transmitted by Smith's works is not in fact a certain impossibility of transmitting, and finally whether any project for universal communication would have to necessarily operate within the confines of a certain non-understanding or shared lack of communication. In this sense it is perhaps unfortunate that the Getty book does not in its myriad of discursive interventions bring up the question of allegory in a sustained way, as it would seem that recent critical readings of allegory as a signifying process could be productively employed when theorizing the strange sort of alchemically-produced universality in Smith’s work.
Harry Smith, 7, and Think of the Self Speaking: Harry Smith – Selected Interviews, ed. Rani Singh (Seattle: Elbow/Cityful, 1999), 79.
The Heavenly Tree Grows Downward: Selected works by Harry Smith, Philip Taaffe, Fred Tomaselli (New York: James Cohan Gallery, 2002), 52. 3 Harry Smith, 99. 4 "Smith left the Chelsea Hotel in the late seventies after a tumultuous several years when the idealism of the sixties gloriously crashed and burned around him. After three fires in his room, incarceration of several friends in prisons and mental institutions, the casting of numerous black magic curses and spells, and an armed robbery in which he was tied to a chair, slashed, and pistol whipped by a former assistant, Smith decided it was time to move on. Under great secrecy he moved to the Breslin Hotel on 28th St and Broadway. At the Chelsea he left behind a seven thousand dollar hotel bill." The Heavenly Tree Grows Downward, 39. 5 Harry Smith, 30, Think of the Self Speaking, 68. 6 Robert Cantwell, "'Darkling I Listen': Making Sense of the Folkways Anthology," in Harry Smith, 187. 7 Ibid, 187-188. 8 American Magus: Harry Smith, A Modern Alchemist (New York: Inanout Press, 1992), 134. 9 The influence of these practices on filmmakers of Stan Brakhage's generation is palpable – Brakhage used to introduce Smith's work to his film history classes by saying “you are about to see the work of one of the most extraordinarily inventive artists of all time.” Harry Smith, 51. 10 Harry Smith, 36. 11 See Harry Smith, 16-17 and Think of the Self Speaking, 47-48. 12 In Harry Smith, 229, and Think of the Self Speaking, 4. 13 The Heavenly Tree Grows Downward, 43. 14 Harry Smith, 44, P. Adams Sitney, Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde, 1943-2000 (USA: Oxford University Press, 2002), 257. 15 Annette Michelson, "The Mummy's Return: A Kleinian Film Scenario," in Harry Smith, 87. 16 Harry Smith, 86, see also Sitney, Visionary Film, 255. 17 P. Adam Sitney, "Film #12: Heaven and Earth Magic," in Harry Smith, 79. 18 Harry Smith, 36, Think of the Self Speaking, 57. 19 Sitney, Harry Smith, 81. 20 Harry Smith, 103, see also "Smith, Harry," Film-Makers' Cooperative Catalogue, no. 3 (1965); 57-58. 21 And on a broader scale, the legacy of Schreber on twentieth-century filmmaking has yet to be fully accounted for – another example would be Stan Douglas' "Der Sandmann" (1995), which takes place in a Schrebergarten, a shared plot of land whose concept was invented by the elder Schreber as a way for city-dwellers to connect with nature. 22 Michelson, Harry Smith, 98. 23 Ibid., 90. 24 Harry Smith, 92. 25 See Benjamin's essay "The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov" 26 Harry Smith, 165 and 272. 27 Ibid., 41.
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