PRINT October 1997

Ken Jacobs

Jack Smith’s location within The Physiognomic Code (the common system whereby we read bodily attributes as character references; movies rely on and reinforce it; TV-commercial instant-dramas would vaporize without it, but there’s no chance of that calamity befalling us, seeing as The Code is built on the bedrock of human nitwitism) seemed unstable when we met in the fall of 1955. His appearance could edge toward Gary Cooper when suddenly you’d be talking to Slim Summerville, while the manner was an even more fey Sterling Holloway. The manner became volatile when later, during my filming of Star Spangled to Death, he absorbed Jerry Sims.1

He might jubilate, “I’m six foot two and blond!,” clown about how he’d been given the ticket, and sometimes strive to dress the part, but mainly his height seemed but one more alien attribute laid on him crosswise to figure what to do with, how and where to tuck or hide. (He’d already begun the great satirical art he’d make of his bodily discomfiture.) “Stretch,” he’d be called, and he did look elongated, like a ten-year-old at a loss to understand how he’d gotten so far from his feet. It was the self-conscious operation of those arms and legs, his looming noodleness together with a coiled inoffensiveness, that signaled others to cautionary, distanced wonder. (Blonde Cobra was Jack’s title for the film-portrait Bob Fleishner shot of him and I composed, and he described the cobra as a lovely companion, endearing, that would meet your gaze dotingly until some random moment when it struck you dead . . . withdrawing its fangs to dreamily turn its jeweled head elsewheres.) Yes, it was Jack’s unlocatability as a person, fabulizing pasts at will, a creature off the charts, that allowed him, time and again, to walk away from his raucous assaults on the serious business of life (“doing God’s work” he probably thought, but it was a taste for disruption he acquired swallowing me).2

For instance: despite having been given the ticket, he was, we were, often seriously hungry. We were of course hungry for many things, suffering “shadow hunger” when not a film in New York could a mind fix on and one subsisted on a Lola Montez screening for months. But here I speak of food.

We’re at the water faucets deep in the cool interior of a midtown cafeteria, broke, our sensibilities offended by the decor, hungry. Scattered patrons feed themselves, a Julius Knipl here and a Julius Knipl there. Heads will lift but not a word will be spoken during the following, my eyewitness account. Jack approaches a table and lifts a slice of bread from a man’s serving. Undulates forward to another hunched fellow and lifts a morsel from his dish onto the bread. He continues table by table the length of the cafeteria, transfixing selected donors. Close to the revolving streetdoors he tops his hefty sandwich with another slice of bread and steps unhurriedly, munching, out into the street. Fluid as Keaton, not a wasted frame.3

We bartered hi-jinx, for which America—not that it knew it—was sorely in need. We saw that America had learnt nothing from the war but war. To avoid skidding back into the Great Depression, or the radical restructuring called for to properly garden the land, the country had opted for dumb movies and war and there was reason to believe that well before the universe wound down our bluffing leaders would deprive us of our place in it. Jack and I would learn we were not alone, we were Beat. But who would think that foolishness made harmless—as inspired gesture, pointless street theater—might offset a juggernaut? Cult of sensibility, cult of personality, yes. But that a ’60s would happen?

Ken Jacobs is a filmmaker who lives in New York.


1. Jack, as The Spirit Not Of Life But Of Living, gravitates about Jerry in the pivotal role of Suffering. Compared to Jerry, Ratso Rizzo is debonair. He cackles, obsesses on Lugosi. Jack is fascinated . . .

2. Blond was not a given but something he had to work at, a lot of summer and lemon rinse.

3. Jack did not offer to share.