November 26, 2007 8:00 pm
($9, $7, $4)
box office at 213-237-2800.

Film/Video, Jack H. Skirball Series


“The hand-painted films with which [Smith] began his career are the most remarkable ever achieved in that technique; and his subsequent stature as one of the central filmmakers of the avant-garde tradition.” films, both animated and photographed from actuality, sustain his.” P. Adams Sitney

“You shouldn’t be looking at this as a continuity. Film frames are hieroglyphs, even when they look like actuality. You should think of the individual frame, always, as a glyph, and then you’ll understand what cinema is about.” – Harry Smith

Harry Smith (1923–91) was a unique visionary whose art and interests moved freely between music (most notably, with the seminal Anthology of American Folk Music), film, painting and the occult. Smith’s ground-breaking experimental films are rarely shown, and this screening includes several of his hand-painted Early Abstractions (1941–57, assembled ca. 1964, 23 mins., b/w and color, 16mm)), featuring live musical accompaniment; Film No. 17: Mirror Animations (Extended Version) (1979, 11 min., 16mm), collage-animation laden with Smith’s symbology and mythic imagination; Film No. 14: Late Superimpositions (1964, 28 min., 16mm), a quasi-autobiographical account of Anadarko, Oklahoma; Film No. 15 (1965–66, 10 min., silent, 16mm), Smith’s animation of Seminole patchwork; and Film No. 16: Oz, The Tin Woodman’s Dream (1967, 15 min., silent, 35mm CinemaScope).

Curated by Rani Singh, director of the Harry Smith Archives and senior research associate at the Getty Research Institute.

Early Abstractions (1941–57, assembled ca. 1964, 23 min., b/w and color, 16mm) is a set of seven films between two and six minutes in length produced between 1946 and 1957. Each film is numbered (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, and 10) in the order they were made (a system animation pioneer Oskar Fischinger and Austrian experimental filmmaker Kurt Kren also employed). This numbering imposed an order and axis on these works from the beginning and suggests a commitment to a sustained “arc” that Smith undertook and achieved in his film-work. – Senses of Cinema
Featuring live musical accompaniment

Film No. 17: Mirror Animations (Extended Version) (1979, 11 min., 16mm). “If, (as many suppose), the unseen world is the real world and the world of our senses but the transient symbols of the eternal unseen… we could logically propose that any one projection of a film is variant from any other. This is particularly true of Mirror Animations. Although studies for this film were made in the early 1960s, the non-existence of suitable printing equipment until recently, my inability to locate the original camera footage until 1979, and particularly, the lack of an audience ready to evaluate L. Wittgenstein’s ‘Ethics and Aesthetics Are One and the Same,’ in the light of H.C. Agrippa’s earlier, ‘there is no form of madness more dangerous than that arrived at by rational means’ – have all contributed to delaying until now the availability of a print in the full mirror-reverse form originally envisioned.” – Harry Smith

Film No. 14: Late Superimpositions (1964, 28 min., 16mm) “Superimposed photographs of Mr. Fleischman’s butcher shop in New York, and the Kiowa around Anadarko, Oklahoma–with Cognate Material. The strip is dark at the beginning and end, light in the middle, and is structured 122333221. I honor it the most of my films, otherwise a not very popular one before 1972. If the exciter lamp blows, play Bert Brecht’s Mahogany.”– Harry Smith

Film No. 15 (1965–66, 10 min., silent, 16mm)

Film No. 16: Oz, The Tin Woodman’s Dream (1967, 15 min., silent, 35mm CinemaScope). One of the three surviving fragments of Smith’s aborted major project of reworking Wizard of Oz (the others being Oz/No. 13, ca. 1962 and Fragments of a Faith Forgotten/No. 20, ca. 1981). “Smith’s Wizard of Oz film (co-animated with Joanne Ziprin) would have chronologically followed his Heaven and Earth Magic. The project was begun in the early 1960s and received major financial backing from a consortium (which included Elizabeth Taylor). This was to be a widescreen film, using a number of colored glass plates in front of the lens at varying distances in order to create strange effects. Smith drew on a number of sources in order to produce a cabalistic environment within which the Oz story would unfold: these included the drawings of Hieronymous Bosch, Tibetan mandalas and sketchings of microscopic life by biologist Ernst Haeckel. Unfortunately, the major backer of the film, Arthur Young, died and the project was abandoned.” – Senses of Cinema

About Harry Smith

Although best known as a filmmaker and musicologist, Harry Smith (1923-1991) frequently described himself as a painter, and his varied projects called on his skills as an anthropologist, linguist, and translator. Born May 29, 1923, in Portland, Oregon, he spent his early childhood in the Pacific Northwest. His parents were Theosophists, and exposed him to a variety of pantheistic ideas, which persisted in his fascination with unorthodox spirituality and comparative religion and philosophy. By the age of 15, Smith had spent time recording many songs and rituals of the Lummi and Samish peoples and was compiling a dictionary of several Puget Sound dialects. He later became proficient in Kiowa sign-language and Kwakiutl.

Smith studied anthropology at the University of Washington between 1943 and 1944. After a weekend visit to Berkeley, during which he attended a Woody Guthrie concert, met members of San Francisco’s bohemian community of artists and intellectuals, and experimented with marijuana, he decided that the type of intellectual stimulation he was seeking was unavailable in his student life. In San Francisco he began to build a reputation as one of the leading American experimental filmmakers. He became close with other avant-garde filmmakers in the Bay Area, such as Jordan Belson and Hy Hirsh, and traveled frequently to Los Angeles to see the films of Oskar Fischinger, Kenneth Anger, and other Southern Californians experimentalists. He developed his own methods of animation, using both stop motion collage techniques and hand-painting directly on film. Often a single film required years of painstakingly precise labor.

Smith’s films have been interpreted as investigations of conscious and unconscious mental processes, while his fusion of color and sound are acknowledged as precursors of 1960s psychedelia. He also spoke of his films in terms of synaethesia, the search for correspondences between color and sound and sound and movement. Smith’s paintings and films were influenced by Kandinsky, Marc, and others who formed the foundation of the collection of the Museum of Non-Objective Painting (later the Guggenheim Museum). He developed a relationship with Hilla Rebay, the museum’s director, and she arranged for him to receive a Solomon Guggenheim grant. He moved to New York permanently in the early 1950s.

In 1952 Folkways issued Smith’s multi-volume Anthology of American Folk Music. It was comprised entirely of recordings issued between 1927 and 1932. Released in three volumes of two discs each, the 84 tracks of the anthology are recognized as having been a seminal inspiration for the folk music revival of the 1950s and 1960.

From the late 1940s, Smith was also a passionate jazz enthusiast, and created paintings that are note-by-note transcriptions of particular tunes. He spent much of the 1950s in the company of jazz pioneers like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonious Monk. His involvement with recording continued into the 1960s and 1970s as he produced and recorded the first album by the Fugs in 1965. His long term friendships with many of the Beat writers led to the release of Allen Ginsberg’s First Blues in 1976 as well as unreleased recordings of Gregory Corso’s poetry and Peter Orlovsky’s songs. Smith spent part of this era living with groups of Native Americans, and this resulted in his recording the peyote songs of the Kiowa Indians.

Smith donated the largest known paper airplane collection in the world to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum. He was a collector of Seminole textiles and Ukrainian Easter Eggs. He also considered himself the world’s leading authority on string figures, having mastered hundreds of forms from around the world. Smith spent his last years 1988-1991) as “shaman in residence” at Naropa Institute, where he offered a series of lectures, worked on sound projects, and continued collecting and researching. In 1991 he received a Chairman’s Merit Award at the Grammy Awards ceremony for his contribution to American Folk Music.

For more information on Harry Smith please visit the Harry Smith Archives website:

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About Jay Babcock

I am the co-founder and editor of Arthur Magazine (2002-2008, 2012-13) and curator of the three Arthur music festival events (Arthurfest, ArthurBall, and Arthur Nights) (2005-6). Prior to that I was a district office staffer for Congressman Henry A. Waxman, a DJ at Silver Lake pirate radio station KBLT, a copy editor at Larry Flynt Publications, an editor at Mean magazine, and a freelance journalist contributing work to LAWeekly, Mojo, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Vibe, Rap Pages and many other print and online outlets. An extended piece I wrote on Fela Kuti was selected for the Da Capo Best Music Writing 2000 anthology. In 2006, I was one of five Angelenos listed in the Music section of Los Angeles Magazine's annual "Power" issue. In 2007-8, I produced a blog called "Nature Trumps," about the L.A. River. Today, I live a peaceful life in the rural wilderness of Joshua Tree, California, where I am a partner in with Stephanie Smith.

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