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.
“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.
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.”
Smith was convinced this was possible, and that all aspects of all visible and invisible worlds were connected. The cabala's Tree of Life, Brecht operas, Tibetan mandalas and tankas, peyote ritual, civilizations gathering power then destroying themselves, fairy tales, tantric art, ancient alphabets, folk music, occult formulations, string figures, the past, present and future — Smith believed if you stacked them up on some giant template in the sky, you'd find the human breath rising and falling in all of them, at the same rate, forever. Such consolations of union and continuity are the gift Smith offers, and the leitmotif of his Mahagonny.