"If you were with Harry you could discover something new every moment."

23 MAY 02: “If you were with Harry you could discover something new every moment.”


Harry Smith circa 1975

Last Stop, Mahagonny

Harry Smith’s magical mystery tour de force

by Kristine McKenna

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.”

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.

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.

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.”

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.