PRINT January 2010



Mario Montez (René Rivera) in conversation with Marc Siegel at the “LIVE FILM! JACK SMITH! Five Flaming Days in a Rented World!” conference, Arsenal Institut für Film und Videokunst, Berlin, October 30, 2009. Photo: David Velasco.

RENÉ RIVERA IS A SLIGHT, CASUALLY COMPOSED seventy-four-year-old Nuyorican in thick glasses. He’s so inconspicuous as to stand out: It took three days of encountering Rivera in plain clothes during the “LIVE FILM! JACK SMITH! Five Flaming Days in a Rented World!” conference in Berlin this past fall before I realized he was also Mario Montez—the enchanting icon who had already appeared multiple times onstage in performance, strikingly refurbished in brunette wig and soigné gloves, shrugs, and gowns. Montez, star of Jack Smith’s two most significant films, Flaming Creatures (1962–63) and Normal Love (1963–65), participated variously in the conference as audience and cynosure, living the trembling border in between.

The story of this event was as much the story of Smith as it was of Montez’s return to his “public” (insofar as a public can exist in the underground), his encore transformation from Orlando retiree to homecoming queen of the refusés after a hiatus of more than thirty years. Montez is the original superstar of the original (i.e., pre-Warhol) superstar maker (even as he went on to appear in Warhol’s early films). Could a more direct hotline to Smith’s mythic yet chimeric charisma be conjured?

Andy Warhol, Mario Banana (Nos. 1 and 2), 1964.

To endure five twelve-hour days of a Jack Smith conference is to realize that Smith isn’t exactly the kind of figure you organize a conference for. Or rather it is to understand that to subject an artist like Smith (is there another artist like Smith?) to the institutional colloquy of scholars, artists, and peers is to risk seeking a canonical recuperation that inverts the analysand’s own tropisms. This is, after all, an artist who left no will and famously requested that his work be burned upon his death; his oeuvre, according to friend and archivist Penny Arcade, largely had to be rescued from a trash bin.

Thankfully, the conference—organized by Susanne Sachsse, Marc Siegel, and Stefanie Schulte Strathaus and comprising screenings, performances, and roundtables—was less hagiography and more “freaky pedagogy,” to use Amy Sillman’s term. The occasion was the twentieth anniversary of Smith’s death from AIDS-related complications. The location—Berlin’s Arsenal Institut für Film und Videokunst—was stranger, chosen because the bulk of Smith’s restored films are archived there. Flaming Creatures, the only avant-garde film to have been the subject of an entire US Senate hearing, is still technically banned in New York; despite their enviable notoriety, Smith’s works are largely unavailable and rarely screened, and some thought a “real” showing of his in medias res masterpiece Normal Love (which, Warhol wallah Callie Angell argued, includes “some of the rarest and most beautiful images ever created in film”) a reasonable excuse for an intercontinental trek. Each night after the lucubrations, audiences would watch a screen light up with Smith’s kohl-eyed, limp-dicked coterie.

Among the stranger highlights of the conference/pedagogical experiment’s ecumenical mix was a late-night restaging of Ronald Tavel’s 1965 play The Life of Juanita Castro. Tavel had written the screen role of Castro, shot by Warhol, for Montez, but the actor was “unavailable” at the time. This, then, marked Montez’s first time playing the part, a historic occasion of sorts. (One of the nicer things about the demimonde is the ease with which an event can become an Event.) Responding at first cautiously and then with gusto to the prompts of onstage “director” Rainald Goetz, Montez occasionally stumbled but still shined, displaying a charisma undimmed by years out of the limelight.

Jack Smith, Scotch Tape, 1959–62.

But more on Smith, who only tolerated divagation when it was self-serving. The festival explored every facet of the revenant: Smith the filmmaker, photographer, performance artist, and writer; Smith the Marxist, the friend, the impresario, the queer. Besides the presentation of Juanita Castro and scholar Ann Reynolds’s Skype conversation with onetime Smith collaborator Ken Jacobs, the most rewarding offering was the lecture series. Angell conducted a sustained analysis of Warhol and Smith’s collaborations, beginning with Warhol’s cryptic utterance that Smith was “just the only person I would ever try to copy” and zeroing in on the pair’s unfinished epic, Batman/Dracula (1964). Douglas Crimp spoke about Smith and the aesthetic dancer Paul Swan (who shared a stage in Warhol’s Camp [1965]), highlighting their similar performances of abeyance—a point that resonated with Diedrich Diederichsen’s dilations on Smith’s lifelong procrastination, which the critic counted as a disruption of normative production, an exemplary countercapitalist practice.

“I cannot work like this,” Diederichsen marked as Smith’s constant declaration, emphasizing the varying registers: “I cannot work like this.” Smith’s uncareer as a filmmaker is legendary: his trash aesthetic; his obtuse, paratactic tableaux; his aggressive ineptness in matters of money and publicity. These all add up to a sort of über-failure, a martyrlike refusal of success at any cost. Over and again, “LIVE FILM!” made the case that Smith is the real patron saint of loserdom—the loser’s loser. In this, again, Smith would seem to supplant Warhol, the perennial winner who incongruously became identified with the Loser Thing, the early-’90s attitude delineated by Rhonda Lieberman.

Perhaps some in the intelligentsia find it embarrassing that Smith’s transgressive embrace of failure and marginalia bore fruits of such acute visual pleasure and beauty. (Susan Sontag celebrated Flaming Creatures as “strictly a treat for the senses,” a cynical PR plug if ever there was one.) But then, one always wants these narratives to go both ways: redemption and failure. After several virgin midnight experiences at the Arsenal, I, too, will testify.

David Velasco is editor of