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Last Stop, Mahagonny 

Harry Smith’s magical mystery tour de force

Wednesday, May 22 2002
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There was little that Harry Smith regarded as unworthy of his attention, and less that escaped his notice. "No matter where he was, Harry found the treasures of the world under his feet -- heard things, saw things and tasted things nobody ever had before," recalls Smith's friend Harvey Bialy in American Magus, a volume of reminiscences about Smith published in 1996. "If you were with Harry you could discover something new every moment." Smith needed a methodology for handling the mass of data he took in every day, hence the labyrinthine systems and elaborate, compartmentalizing structures that make up the through line in his far-flung body of work.

The best-known manifestation of Smith's genius for compiling and organizing is Anthology of American Folk Music, culled from Smith's collection of performances by obscure folk and blues artists of the early 20th century, now available as a six-CD set from Smithsonian/Folkways. Less known, but equally epic, is Mahagonny, the last and most ambitious of the 22 films Smith completed between 1946 and 1980. Smith based his four-screen, 141-minute magnum opus on Lotte Lenya's 1953 recording of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's 1930 opera The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, which chronicles the adventures of three Depression-era fugitives from justice who found a utopian city in a desolate patch of America. Smith's film debuted in 1980 with six screenings at Anthology Film Archives in New York, then immediately disappeared into the chaos of Smith's personal life. A compulsive substance abuser who lost, destroyed or gave away much of his work, Smith was a man of unusual priorities. He claimed to have remained celibate throughout his life, took terrible care of himself, and was occasionally reduced to living in flophouses -- a fate that didn't bother him at all, as long as he had money to buy books.

Through the joint efforts of the Harry Smith Archive, the Getty Research Institute and Anthology Film Archives, Mahagonny returns from oblivion with a newly restored print that screens for the first time at the Getty next Thursday. The following day, the Getty will host "Investigating Mahagonny," a symposium featuring presentations from Gary Indiana, Jonas Mekas and Patti Smith, who appears in Smith's film and performs at the Getty that night.

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"After Harry died in 1991, this was the first project I decided had to be done," says Rani Singh, who was Smith's assistant at the time of his death and is now director of the Harry Smith Archive and a staff member at the Getty Research Institute. "Mahagonny is a culmination of Harry's life's work, combining things he'd been developing for 40 years. The seeds of everything come to fruition here, and it's one of his biggest and most conceptually intense works," continues Singh, who's overseen the 1996 reissue of Anthology of American Folk Music; the publication of Think of the Self Speaking, a collection of interviews with Smith that came out in 1999; and the organization of last year's Smith symposium at the Getty. "Hardly anyone's seen Mahagonny, however, in part because it was so difficult to screen it." Mahagonny as Rorschach test

Among those who are familiar with the movie is filmmaker Jonas Mekas, founder of Anthology Film Archives. "Most people consider Mahagonny Harry's most ambitious film, and it was very well-received when we screened it in 1980 -- everyone considered it a masterpiece," Mekas recalls. "But Harry was very temperamental. The last time we screened it at Anthology, he got into a fight with someone, then ran into the projection room, grabbed the gels being used for the film, ran into the street and smashed them. So that was the end of Mahagonny. Harry could behave badly, but we respected him because he was a very erudite, complex person."

To describe Smith as complex is an understatement. Born in Portland, Oregon, in 1923, Smith was exposed to a variety of pantheistic ideas by his parents, who were Theosophists and encouraged his interest in unorthodox spiritual traditions. By the age of 15 he was recording Northwest Indian songs and rituals and compiling a dictionary of Puget Sound dialects. Following two years of anthropology studies at the University of Washington, he moved to Northern California, where, in the late '40s, he devoted himself to painting and developed animation techniques that led to the numbered series of hand-painted films that established his reputation as an experimental filmmaker. Throughout his life Smith was involved in varying degrees with the occult, and his knowledge of Aleister Crowley's hermetic fraternity, the OTO, deepened in San Francisco. In 1950, Smith moved to New York and began studying the cabala. When Harry met Patti

Smith had been a serious record collector since he was a child, and in 1952 Folkways Records' Moe Asch recognized the quality of Smith's collection and invited him to edit it down to a representative selection. More than a decade later, in 1964, Smith traveled to Anadarko, Oklahoma, to record the peyote songs of the Kiowa Indians. In the '80s, he donated his definitive collection of paper airplanes to the Smithsonian. An authority on Highland tartans, Seminole patchwork textiles, string figures and Ukrainian Easter eggs, among many other folk artifacts, Smith spent the last years of his life at the Naropa Institute in Colorado, where he was named "shaman in residence" in 1988. During his years in Colorado, Smith maintained his residence at New York's Chelsea Hotel, and it was there that he died in November 1991.

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