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A Viewer’s Guide to Escape From Rented Island: The Lost Paradise of Jack Smith

I call it a “non-documentary film,” but Escape From Rented Island: The Lost Paradise of Jack Smith, is really a Film Essay that examines the work rather than the life of Jack Smith. The film tells nothing about his birth in Ohio in 1932, nor his life in Texas, Los Angeles, and New York, and not a thing about his death from A.I.D.S. related disease in 1989.

There are no details about the hundreds of artists who claim a creative connection to him. Not a single self-professed authority spends screen time waxing confidently on their personal involvement with him. No mention of Andy Warhol is made in the film, though Warhol owes much to the original aesthetic of Jack Smith.  The customary name dropping that occurs in documentary films about artists is not to be found there.

For more than twenty years I worked on restoring, preserving and exhibiting the film legacy of Jack Smith. With the support of Jack’s friends, of The Plaster Foundation, and of The Gladstone Gallery, Smith’s films are now available for future generations.

In 2015, having completed that work, I turned my attention to creating a Film Essay that consists of twenty-one short illustrations of Smith’s Aesthetic and Political principles including Capitalism, Glitter, Performance, Chance, Boredom, Thievery, Injustice, and Maria Montez.

Jack Smith left behind a cache of reel-to-reel magnetic tape audio recordings that he made in the 1970s, 80s, and earlier, in which he reveals much about his ideas of artmaking, Cinema, politics, and life. Some of the recordings are solo readings of his published writings while others are documentations of his ‘Live Film’ performances. Some are recordings that document rehearsals for his films and others are impromptu recitations on a theme.

I’ve culled the most daring and engaging of these recordings and paired them with images from his films and photography that exemplify or illustrate his ideas.  The unique feature of the film is that there are no “talking head” interviews with anyone.  The only spokesperson for Jack Smith is Jack himself!

This strategy that I have chosen creates a challenge for the viewer, particularly those who are reliant upon external commentary or non-diagetic material in the documentary film form. I have no apology to those who cannot bear the unmediated vision of Jack Smith.

I ask only that the viewers conspire with Jack’s images and sounds to effect their own escape from the Rented World embodied in Manhattan Island.


What’s Underground About Jack?

What do we make of the work of an artist who had such an enormous influence on American Art of the late twentieth century? A profoundly conscious and aware individual, his work straddles Cinema and Performance Art. He created that art form, calling it “Live Film,” a label that describes both the cinematic and the performative elements of his work.  Some have even called him the “granddaddy of Performance Art.” Yet he remains unknown outside of a hardcore, mostly European, international audience, and a growing number of critical theorists.

To some of those with a more commercial view of art, Jack’s life of poverty, obscurity, and alienation was simply a failure to communicate effectively in the art marketplace, and to take the steps that were necessary to sell himself in the public arena in the way that was embodied in Warhol. Jack made it very difficult to see his own films because he failed to exhibit and distribute them in the customary commercial manner. His melodramatic battles and decades long resentments against those who tried to help him have become a part of the Smithian lore.

His seemingly life-long, one sided feud with Jonas Mekas evolved into the creation of a character in his Live Film performances. This nemesis bore several various names.  “Uncle Fishhook, Uncle Roachcrust, and Uncle Pawnshop” were all his designations for Mekas, who championed him in life, defended him in court, and promoted his work and reputation for decades. But as fictional characters in Jack’s Live Film work, these “Uncles” were nefarious exploiters of the artist, villains who stole from the innocent, and antiheros whose function within the work was to provide a dramatic foil for the artist-victim, who was, of course, Jack Smith.

(The term “uncle” as used by Smith is an archaic description for a pawnbroker, that is, a person who lends money, at interest on the security of an article pawned. As Smith felt that he had  “pawned” his films in Mekas’ Distribution Co-op.)

Like other gay men of his generation, he strongly identified with female Hollywood movie stars, and he worshiped Maria Montez as a Camp anti-heroine and emblem of a stylized glamour. I’ve discussed this phenomenon in my essay, “The Perfect Queer Appositeness of Jack Smith,”  which can be read here. But Maria Montez became more than a mere object of heroine-worship.  In Jack’s exotic version of reality, she was herself a victim of the system. Her brilliance and stardom were occluded by the manipulative exploiters, phonies, and wannabes of the Hollywood studio system. She was undone by Yvonne DeCarlo.  In his own creative universe, Maria Montez came to embody the thwarted, ever failed artist like himself.


(Failure is an essential element in Jack’s work, and there is no better source to go to for an investigation of this constituent of his art that the foundational critical study, Glorious Catastrophe by Dominic Johnson, who is a quintessential Smithian in his own life and work.)

And in truth, he was a failure in his art.  For failure is the quintessential element and driving force in Jack Smith’s work. He does not fear it. He welcomes it. He embraces disaster. He courts it in his films by setting up situations that are ripe for disaster. Recall the scene in Normal Love in which Eliot Cukor as the Werewolf, picks up and then falls with Mario Montez, the elegantly costumed Mermaid, both plunging into the muddy sludge of the swamp because the filmmaker had given them an impossible stage direction.

To be open to failure is to not resist anything in the present. Imagine an artist making the entire creative investment in her work and then embracing the possibility of failure. That is a true openness; not a striving toward success or achievement that characterizes the contemporary art scene.

But Smith goes further than configuring the possibility of failure. When all else succeeds, he intervenes in the actions and personally interrupts the dramatic flow, exerting directorial privilege.

In the only extant and complete example of a Live Film performance by Smith, posthumously labeled Midnight At The Plaster Foundation  he begins first by chiding, then reprimanding, then SCREAMING abuse at Abbe Stubenhaus  for not following directions.  

The original title of Live Film performances that resemble the tape, Midnight At The Plaster Foundation,  was Claptailism of Palmola Christmas Spectacle.


The Three Keys to the Smithian Vault of Beet Sugar Aesthetics

Later in that same performance, as he reads from his notes, directing the unidentified cinematographer, while watching himself on the Sony Portapak reel-to-reel video monitor, he quiets his voice to a whisper and in despair at the failure of the tape, orders an erasure of what was done, and a retake from the beginning.  A redo such as that was impossible on a Sony reel to reel video system and the cameraman adamantly refuses. Smith has no alternative but to pout for a moment and then, in rhythmic harmony with the accompanying music, he continues with the monologue.

This moment is an illuminating occurrence on several levels that are keys to the Smithian aesthetic. First, it is an expression of his “Art of Failure” as noted above.

Second, it demonstrates an interventionist stance in which he modifies a conventional element of cinema, turning it in upon itself. He intrudes upon the filmic space in a way that disrupts the audience’s sedate dream state.

Third, it is a clear example of the element that is revealed in the audio recordings that are used in my film essay, Escape From Rented Island: The Lost Paradise of Jack Smith. I call it an Harmonic Correlation of word/sound and image.


In his Live Film performances (most of which included projections of his 16mm film material) he played selections from his vast vinyl LP collection.  The choices that he made for the musical accompaniment were not merely convenient background noise.  Nor are they merely “mood enhancers” designed to lull the audience into the state of his “exotic realism.”  These musical selections are chosen for their rhythmic pulse.  They are more than labile choices. Smith often chose music whose tempo coincided with the cadence of his ongoing monologue within the performance.

This peculiar cadence with which he intones his monologues is central to the creation of a Cinematic Rhythm within the performance.

In the afore mentioned scene from Midnight at the Plaster Foundation, following the cameraman’s rebuke, the audience can see Smith attend to the music and at a precise moment, resume his monologue with a dramatic flourish.

These Harmonic Correlations run throughout the audio recordings of his Live Film performances and there are several examples of it in my Film Essay.


Crustaceousness: In the Grip of the Lobster

Crustaceous – adj.  .  1.  (Zoology) of or relating to a large group of mainly aquatic arthropods, including crabs, lobsters, shrimps, woodlice, and barnacles.  2. (Smithian aesthetics) a quality evidenced in a work of art in which the essential connection between the momentary presence of life and the work itself is obscured or lost, resulting in the commodification of the work by art collectors, dealers, critics, exploiters, and human fishhooks

In a talk with art students in Toronto in 1985, Jack expounded his theory of artistic crustaceousness.  Art that has lost its connection to life has fallen into the grip of the lobster. It exists outside of the present moment, swirling in its own galaxy of monetization, commodified by the collusion of dealers, critics, and collectors. Jack lamented the fact that the artists themselves have, since the emergence of the philosophy of Andy Warhol, joined in that unholy alliance and now produce work that is made specifically for sale in the art market.

Many of us could say that we agree with Jack’s observation, but very few of us are willing to live according to its precepts, and forego a life of income: ars gratia artis.

During a panel discussion in 2014 at the 64th Berlin Film Festival, with John Zorn, Flo Jacobs, Ken Jacobs, and Marc Siegel, I said that Jack’s art and life were inseparable; that his life was his work. Unfortunately, my statement was misconstrued. I was not suggesting that the detailed minutiae of his relationships, day-to-day activities, arguments and feuds, friendships or personal triumphs and fears formed the “content” of his art. Rather, I was asserting that his art – that is, his living Cinema – his Live Film performances were an ongoing creative expression that was fully integrated with his life. His work is the full expression of this unity.

The several hours during which he “gave a performance” were not (in his conscious awareness) a separation from his life. Therefore, the dramatic motivations behind the actions, changes of music on the LP record player, voice inflections, constant rearrangement of the set – all of these were intended to pull the audience away from the illusion of watching an “artistic creation” and back into the present moment of life – a lived experience rather than a fantasy of crustaceous art that feeds the sugar zombies of the world.  


Rafique Azzouney was one of Jack’s loyal friends and supporters. In the late 1960s and 70s he was the moving force of a filmmakers’ collective called “U-P” that was located on lower Broadway in Manhattan. Five floors up a single, Amsterdam-like stairway leading to a small screening room and performance space that accommodated about fifty people, U-P embodied the word “underground.”  No Jack Smith performance ever reached that number. In the back of  the “theater” there was a second room of half the size that served as the projection booth and editing room for members of this collective. It was in that editing room/projection booth that Jack would seamlessly reedit the 16mm film material as it came off the projector, using masking tape to resplice and rearrange and restructure the montage. All while his audience of three or four stalwarts sat in the other room as Martin Denney’s music wafted off the old LP record player.

I joined U-P in 1973 while subletting Beverly Grant and Tony Conrad’s loft on 42nd Street just off Times Square. It was there that I painted Tony’s Yellow Movies for him while they were in Germany, working on Tony’s music with the group Faust.

While at U-P,  I learned a lot about film editing and 16mm production. Rafique was both a friend and mentor in my early twenties. He sometimes spoke about Jack and his work, and one story, in particular, remained with me decades later as I restored Normal Love.

He likened Jack to Scheherazade and her Thousand and One Tales. The stories of Sinbad, Ali Baba, and Aladdin are woven into the tapestry of Jack’s “Exotic Realism” along with Maria Montez, Yvonne DeCarlo, and the sullen Prince, Hamlet.

These transformations, Rafique described, are the magic spell of Smith’s work. The men and women who appeared in Jack’s films and who participated in his Live Film events were ordinary people, friends, sometimes actors, pick-ups off the street who were themselves transformed into other beings of glamour and magic, and make believe, by Jack’s presence.

Francis Francine was a doorman by day but a star by night. Mario Montez worked as a clerk but became the central figure of Jack’s universe. Transformation was what made it possible. The magic of theater, movies and imagination.

In those days before plastic trash bags, the refuse of New York City was put out on the street without sanitary concealment, awaiting pickup. Along the more affluent upper east side, one could pick through the trash at night and find clothing, jewelry, furniture, props of all kinds, and kitsch objet awaiting renewal. In the garment district, the trove of discarded material was even more amazing. Every conceivable form of costume trim, beading, ornament and fragment was on the street waiting to be picked by Jack and his cohorts. These things were transformed into the glitter and glamour of Smith’s art.

N.B.: Tony (Conrad) initiated me into the mysteries of the night-before-trash-collection on the city’s streets, though our search was generally for film and camera related equipment, and mechanical paraphernalia below Houston Street.

While Franky (Francis Francine) and Rene (Rene Rivera: Maria Montez) were engaged in a transformative life, there was an aspiring uptown “cocktail party crowd”  of writers, aesthetes, and intellectuals who made frequent excursions into the downtown underground homo-sexual jungle.  It was their trash and their own discarded memorabilia that they were looking at in the Live Film performances. Through Jack’s magical presence, objects, costumes, and people are transformed.

An ordinary shoe can become an emblem of the dead weight of Straight-America and its system of exploitative capitalism.  A ten-cent broken brooch - costume jewelry – can enchant the viewer and signify their entrance into the other world of presence that Jack creates. For it is this world without crustaceousness, without the sugar-based, phony glamour of fame and money, to which  Jack welcomes us today.

It is the world of living presence – in the present – as the images and sounds unfold before our own receptive awareness. It is revealed to us through the ever-trusting lens of Jack’s camera, confident that the moment will reveal itself in Cinema, slowly moving towards the moment that is now. 

It is the moment of the imagination in the present: so real, so present, so simple in its truth, that we cannot bear for it to end.

This essay and its contents, including still and moving images are copyrighted and  it may not be reproduced in whole or in part in any form without expressed prior  written permission.

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