Restoration and Slavery (1997)

Restoration and Slavery 

(First published in Jack Smith: His Amazing Life and Times. Ed Leffingwell,editor)

By Jerry Tartaglia

“At first I thought the creature was sent by Fishhook.” Jack would not believe that the camera original material of Flaming Creatures, which I had just returned to him, had simply been lost for thirteen years and found by accident. He seemed intent upon spinning a tale in which the film had been stolen by Fishhook, hidden away in the “Safe,” and for some unrevealed reason, was now being returned to him, by me, an agent of Roach crust. By the end of our evening together, spent over a cup of lukewarm-tap water-instant coffee, he came to accept the bizarre truth that I had simply found the film stuck in a pile of sound fill which had been discarded by a lab. He projected some slides for me, talked to me about being queer, and  promoted his theory of voluntary slavery. When I was ready to leave, he said that this story of the finding of Flaming Creatures was “very Baghdadian.” As I walked out, he quipped, “I guess I owe you one.” That was in 1978.

Jack had many voluntary “slaves” over the years. I have heard of people who spent hours painting and re-painting a single comer in his loft, or endlessly rearranging props and materials in seemingly eternal preparation for a film shoot. Though Jack died in 1989, his system of voluntary slavery lives on in the restoration of his work. In choosing to work on the preserving and restoring of the films of one of the great filmmakers of our time, I discovered that the only will to which I can be subjected is that of Jack Smith. The fact that he isn’t here to dictate the exact execution of the details requires of me an internalized taskmaster. This discipline requires that traditional filmmaking and restoration practices be set aside. The reason is simple. In the collected body of work by Jack Smith, we are dealing not with a straightforward film auteur, but with a theatrical and cinematic genius who prescribed his own parameters in film and performance. The task of restoration and preservation of this enormous body of work demands that we begin with the utmost respect for the processes which brought him to produce this work.

In his time, Jack was both a filmmaker and what was later to be called a performance artist. In many ways, he was the grand daddy of performance art. His events involved people, objects, projected slide images, film, and lots of time. The film material was projected with music which he selected on the spot from his large and eclectic collection of vinyl LP’s. Some of the material was work print from his “completed” feature films like No President or Normal Love, some of it was new material, and some of it was comprised of some of his other short films, inserted in their entirety into the “performance” reels. “

To a restorer, this set of circumstances is enough of a challenge. However, Jack added a small twist to his performances. Oftentimes, while the film was screening, he would remove the take-up reel and begin re-splicing the material into a new arrangement. Obviously, this had to be accomplished quickly, before the remaining material had run through the projector. Jack developed an ingenious way of re-editing during a performance. He used tape splices.

Sometimes the tape was conventional film splicing tape, most of the time it was cheap masking tape, paper tapes, even duct tape. The bits of tapes were just large enough to hold the film strips together, and small enough to pass through the projector gate. The visual result of this method was astonishing. The splices were visible, of course, but the material was re-woven into a new tapestry of visual excess with each screening. One hour of film material, in this way, could be transformed into a three-hour film experience.

Twenty years later, those same splices turned brittle, leaving a hardened adhesive residue and projection gate dirt at each joint. The restoration of Normal Love was particularly encumbered by this problem. Each splice had to be disconnected. The celluloid had to be gently scrubbed free of the residue, and a new hot splice had to be done, In some situations, the bond was too tight and the film too brittle, so the masking tape splice had to be entirely excised.

When possible, I left some of those splices intact. I wanted today’s viewers of the work to have some inkling of the visual effect which punctuates the film through the surface activity created by masking tape passing through a projector gate. Fortunately, the lab which did the inter-negative understood the challenges which we faced in this restoration work, and accommodated the peculiar needs of the project.

Since the objective of the restoration is to preserve Jack’s work, a new print had to be struck of all the film. Jack had shot all of his work on 16mm reversal film stock. Smith often used outdated stock because he had no money. This frequently produced very beautiful color. At the time of his death in 1989, color reversal film in 16mm was almost completely phased out as a viable medium. Therefore, the work had to be prepared for an inter-negative from which prints could be struck. It certainly allowed for the preservation of the work in all of its luscious and vibrant color, but it also prompted serious aesthetic questions about the restoration process itself.

If Jack had been only a filmmaker, the restoration would have been rather straightforward. But, since he, himself, had re cut Normal Love into new versions for performances, the restoration of the original film version could actually destroy the performance reels which themselves were legitimate work. Some filmmakers advised that Jack had cut up his films for these performances, and that this somehow reflected a deterioration of his creative abilities. Others claimed that his high-strung temperament had gone over the edge, and he was “destroying” his own films. Neither of these assertions reflects the truth about Jack Smith’s art.

My responsibility as preservationist is to preserve the work as Jack created it, and not according to the dictates of the various factions of his many friends and even more former friends, all of whom insist that their particular experience and memory of him and his work reflects the sum total of his oeuvre. Likewise, I bear a responsibility to preserve the performance reels as they constitute a major portion of his lifetime of work in film.

The solution thankfully came in the form of a music cue sheet from Tony Conrad, who had created the soundtrack for Flaming Creatures. Jack had asked him to do the same for Normal Love, so Tony began by preparing a cue sheet. Apparently, that was as far as he was able to go. Jack’s personality intervened and Tony left the project, although Jack left Tony’s name in the credits. The cue sheet provided the order for the scenes in Normal Love.

My task was to identify and locate those scenes and reassemble the film. I spent a good deal of time looking at the reels of film, over and over again. I had to familiarize myself with Jack. I had to understand what he had done. I did not believe that he was insane, nor that he was a cinematic nihilist who had randomly cut up his movies. Surely, an artist who had created the beauty and humor of Flaming Creatures knew what he was doing. I kept watching and reviewing the tens of thousands of feet of film. Some of it I clearly identified and put aside for the No President restoration. Some of it I recognized form the verbal accounts given to me by Jack’s closer friends, and by people who had seen many of his performances and had taken notes. These performance reels were also put aside, even though some of them contained images from Normal Love. But, Jack knew what he was doing, after all. These images were mostly duplicates of the images on the reels which he had labeled “Normal Love.” Some scenes were clearly part of Normal Love but were not listed on the cue sheet, and therefore were apparently not intended for inclusion in the original version of the film. Those scenes comprise the “Addendum” to Normal Love. The only extant material from the film, which is not included in either the restored version nor in the addendum, are some shots which Jack himself put into the performance reels entitled: “Exotic Landlordism” and “Cement Lagoon.” I decided to leave them where they were. Those performance reels were edited by Jack Smith, and I did not want to impose my interpretation upon the chronology which he himself created.

These performance reels actually comprise the bulk of the oeuvre. They include a number of completed films, as well as material which appears to be intended only for inclusion in his performances. Many of them include Jack in various roles, or should I say “costumes,” since he worked on the assumption that a costume created a role. I Was A Male Yvonne DeCarlo, Jungle Jack in Cologne Zoo, Bald Mountain, Love Thing, Abortion Pit Nightmare,

Wino, Cement Lagoon, and Hamlet are some of the performance reels in which Jack appears.  These reels have not been as widely screened as the more infamous “completed” films: Flaming Creatures, Normal Love, No President, Scotch Tape, and Overstimulated. Sometimes, when Jack screened them, he gave the performances themselves different titles. In any case, I leave that jigsaw puzzle to some other researcher. I do believe, however, that these performance reels will, in time, elucidate the genius of this artist, and clarify his role in influencing a generation of filmmakers, photographers, theater artists, and erstwhile volunteer slaves.

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