PRINT October 1997

P. Adams Sitney

There was a short time, late in 1963, when audiences for avant-garde cinema in New York could witness two intersecting entourages converging upon film screenings. The one group, Jack Smith and his “creatures,” was breaking up just as the other, Andy Warhol and his associates, was expanding. Warhol was by then a solidly established painter with his most original work behind him, but as a filmmaker and charismatic leader he was an astute student of Smith’s. It was probably the succès de scandale of Flaming Creatures that lured Warhol to the downtown and Murray Hill showplaces of avant-garde film. In turn, he drew Smith and the creatures to his midtown Factory, where he used them in some of his early, silent films. Among Warhol’s extended network of art-world society, Smith found one of his first patrons, Isabel Eberstadt.

In the faculty of the imagination called invention, Jack Smith was preeminent among filmmakers. The fecundity with which he envisioned startling, sensual arabesques and his capacity for transforming lowly, ugly material into pyrotechnic spectacles invested even his most fragmented films and plays with a promise of exquisite elaboration. The immediacy of his invention was most apparent when he seized on the chaotic exigencies of low-budget filmmaking to enrich the atmospheric density of the art he was creating before the camera.

Warhol shared Smith’s fascination with Hollywood and parodied its star system; he distilled and formalized the dense black and white texture of Smith’s cinematography, and he, like Smith, encouraged his followers to give themselves ironic pseudonyms. But above all, Warhol radicalized and mechanized Smith’s aggressive use of time. Smith was a master of delay. One remembers a full audience, packed into a dilapidated loft, waiting hours for a performance to begin as Smith puttered around or ran about in a tizzy adjusting a set or costume just off-stage while over and over again recordings narrating Jackie Kennedy’s childhood alternated with the life of St. Vincent de Paul. Was that part of the play? Was Normal Love really rushes, regularly screened in public, for a film that was never supposed to be completed? Against the backdrop of delay and anticipation his imagination shone most vividly.

Unlike Warhol, who had a genius for attracting and holding on to collaborators and powerful supporters, Smith, who was fully as charismatic, was a Blakean agonist in his personal relations, thriving on enmity, with the power to mythologize his antagonisms, his obsessions, and his fantasies. His reluctance to complete films after the making of Flaming Creatures coincided with a violent obsession with Jonas Mekas, whom he blamed for ruining his career. Mekas had gone to excessive lengths to support the filming of Normal Love. Mekas had been tried and convicted of obscenity for showing Flaming Creatures, while the filmmaker was left untouched by the law. Mekas’ defender, Emile Zola Berman, who later represented Sirhan Sirhan, did not want Smith in the courtroom, and Smith never got over his resentment that he alone was ignored in the furor over the film he made.

The relationship worsened as Mekas could not provide the increasingly extravagant support Smith fantasized: a film laboratory at his disposal, an opportunity to film his creatures in Morocco. So, as he evolved from a filmmaker to a maker of dramatic spectacles, he made the conflicting experiences of his brief filmmaking career, and above all his demonization of Mekas, the foundational narrative of his theater.

The irony of Smith’s career as a filmmaker is that, once he established himself and found an audience with Flaming Creatures, he never completed another film for public exhibition. He screened episodes from Normal Love as rushes while the film was in production, orchestrating the eager anticipation of each fragment as if it were a movie serial: each scene was enhanced by the anticipation of marvels to come. (Warhol adapted this strategy for a while with a weekly installment of Kiss.) No President too was screened as a work-in-progress but never finished. Yet Smith’s reputation as a filmmaker survived, even thrived, in the absence of a completed project. An oral tradition—descriptions and elaborations on segments of Normal Love many had not seen, and including narratives of the shooting that some had witnessed—binding his audience in a mystique of hyperbole testifies to the resiliency of Smith’s cinema.

P. Adams Sitney is professor in the Humanities Department at Princeton University. He is the author of several books, including Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde 1943–1978.