By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
THE RESTORATION OF MAHAGONNY HAS BEEN NO SMALL achievement, and has required every penny of the $200,000 provided by the Warhol Foundation, the NEA and Sony Pictures. "The mode of presentation was a key issue we had to resolve," says Michael Friend, a Sony Pictures film historian and archivist who's been a technical adviser on the Mahagonny project. "When it was originally shown, four projectors and two projectionists who were frantically changing reels were crammed into a tiny booth. In order to be able to show the film without the acrobatics -- with four matching projectors -- we essentially made a 35mm print of the four 16mm frames being projected simultaneously. So now all that's required to show the film is a single 35mm projector."
It's hard to estimate what it may have cost Smith to make Mahagonny; he tended to squander whatever grant moneys he received on book- and record-buying binges, drugs and so forth. He was, in fact, quite the amphetamine enthusiast during the early '70s, when he began work on the film. His friend Debbie Freeman was on the scene at the time, and she recalls in a 1993 interview published in American Magus that "Mahagonny was made in some kind of diabolical frenzy."
Smith confirmed as much back in 1976, in an interview he gave to A.J. Melita. "As the sort of film I make is improvised through the dictates of a diseased brain, I can never tell in which direction it's going to jump any more than I can tell what I'm going to dream of a week from next Thursday," declared Smith, who spent two years compiling 11 hours of footage, then cut the film based on an elaborate set of charts he made. "Mahagonny is particularly difficult," he said. "You have to live Mahagonny -- in fact, be Mahagonny -- in order to work on it."
Opening with a nighttime shot of Manhattan glittering like the Emerald City, Mahagonny is a kaleidoscopic work that juxtaposes passages of astonishing beauty with images that are difficult to parse. Much of the action takes place in the Chelsea Hotel, though the camera compulsively returns to the streets of the city, which is always out there, throbbing with life. It's essentially a silent film, with "actors" moving in the theatrical fashion of silent film stars, and Lenya's recording of Weill's music further lends it the quality of a period piece -- which, of course, it is. The New York City of the early '70s wasn't so very long ago, but it is, nonetheless, a vanished world. As we progress through the film, we watch a young girl knitting, Allen Ginsberg eating a banana, lovers kissing and quarreling. Sequences of stop-action animation give way to slow pans of intricate patterns created with glitter, colored sand, marbles, shells, candies, origami figures and painted blocks. It can be a challenge to connect the dots between Brecht-Weill's Mahagonny and Smith's, but it is possible once you surrender to Smith's vocabulary of symbols.
In the midst of cutting the film in 1977, Smith told film historian P. Adams Sitney that Mahagonny was an attempt to "translate an opera into an occult experience." Then again, Smith was a wickedly playful man who said lots of things. In a 1974 grant application submitted to the American Film Institute, Smith summarized Mahagonny as a "mathematical analysis" of Marcel Duchamp's The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even-- which is akin to saying the film is a mathematical analysis of Mona Lisa's smile. Also known as The Large Glass, The Bride is a mixed-media work that obsessed Duchamp for eight years and is often described as a study of the mechanization of sex. However, nobody's absolutely certain of anything about that inscrutable piece.
"Harry may have said there was a connection between these two works, but I can't see it," says Mekas. "The only insight I could offer is that one shouldn't try to interpret Harry's Mahagonny by comparing it with the Brecht opera, because, as The Large Glass is shattered, Harry shattered Brecht's original. He didn't interpret Brecht's opera, he transformed it. He basically used that piece of music as a launching point into a work of his own."
Tom Crow, director of the Getty Research Institute, finds the film's link with Duchamp less of a stretch. "Brecht's Mahagonny is a parable of capitalism's destructive tendencies, and Smith created a fairly literal interpretation of that, but at the same time, Mahagonny is evocative of The Large Glass in that both are about interruption and disharmony. I wouldn't have pegged Smith as a Marxist or a Duchampian ironist, and it seems impossible to combine those two things in a single work, but Smith believed any conflict could be resolved through a visionary grasp of harmonic relationships."
ULTIMATELY, HARMONIC RELATIONSHIPS ARE what it was all about for Smith. "I selected Mahagonny as a vehicle because the story is simple and widespread; the joyous gathering of a great number of people, the breaking of the rules of liberty and love, and consequent fall into oblivion," Smith explained in his AFI grant application. "My photography has not been directed toward making a 'realistic' version of the opera, but rather toward translating the German text into a universal script based on the similarities of life and aspiration in all humans. As far as I know, the attempt to make a film for all people, whether they be Papuans or New Yorkers, has not been made so far. The final film will be just as intelligible to the Zulu, the Eskimo or the Australian Aborigine as to people of any other cultural background or age."
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