Ahorn | Monday February 26th, 2018
Filmmaker Jerry Tartaglia can’t let go of Jack Smith even after 10 years. Find out why in Andrew Horn’s critique of the film essay about the eccentric performance artist:
A few years ago, filmmaker Jerry Tartaglia was here in Berlin to show the last program of his decade long work in curating and restoring the work of NY filmmaker and performance artist Jack Smith.
At that time Jerry told me how happy he was to have come to the end of the project that, as fulfilling as it was, had completely taken over his life and submerged his identity for ca 10 years. He said he was looking forward now to finally being Jerry Tartaglia again.
So what did he do? This year he has a new film playing in Forum Expanded, “Escape from Rented Island: The Lost Paradise of Jack Smith”. I couldn’t believe it. So after the show I asked Jerry how it was that he found himself back in Jack Smith Land after having celebrated his new found freedom. He replied, “well they found more stuff.”
The stuff they found was a cache of reel-to-reel tapes of Jack’s voice – recordings made as part of performances, as preparation for performance, assorted random musings and a number of tapes of music that he used to accompany his films and shows. For Jerry, this was a final missing piece in terms of re-creating the experience of Smiths films, namely Smith’s own presence – sometimes explaining, often times complaining, offering direction to his performers, and generally making pronouncements such as “we are all zombies, sugar babies banished through a desert of exoticism”, or “everything went down the drain with Maria Montez’s bath water in 1951”.
Calling it a non-documentary, Jerry says the film is his own collection of favorite pieces that he felt were somehow lost in the general Kodachrome rush of Smiths own films. The film lays out the material thematically in 21 chapters with names like ‘Queer Sacrifice, a Nagging Heartbreak’, ‘The Love Scene at the Bottom of the Pool’ and ‘The Art of Failure”. Jerry says that “Art of Failure” as a concept is particularly emblematic for Smith’s work in general, which has been called “a glorious catastrophe”. Certainly part of the beauty of this film – and or any of Smith’s films – are all the things that would normally be discarded as mistakes: flash frames, burn outs, run outs, flare outs, out of focus shots and double exposures, as well as video dropouts and signal failure.
And the film collects many of Smith’s cast of mythological “zombies and sugar babies”: men impersonating women, women impersonating women, men impersonating men, and everyone impersonating harem girls, weimar vamps, flamenco dancers, Egyptian pharaohs, Baghdad wizards and occasional leopard women and lobster men. And it’s all made out of silk scarves, cloth remnants, plastic toys, Christmas ornaments, junk jewelry, tinsel, feathers, wax fruit, bad wigs, smoke effects from steam coming out of a NYC manhole, and glitter. Lots of glitter. And lots of color.
The idea that scenes from various works would be picked out, put together, and juxtaposed with not-always-in context commentary from Smith’s audio tapes is very much in tune with Smith’s own way of working – his films and performances traditionally existed in a perminent state of flux, being constantly revised and re-arranged before, and sometimes during, any given show. And he was always about taking something old and making something new.
When Jack Smith died, it was found that his apartment had been transformed into an elaborate stage set for a new and never-to-be-filmed epic “Sinbad In a Rented World”. At the end of the screening, Jerry said that “Escape from Rented Island: The Lost Paradise of Jack Smith” was his own escape from the ‘rented world’ and his last goodbye to “the lost paradise’.
P.S. Unless of course they find more stuff.