Glorious Catastrophes

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31 October 2012, Beursschouwburg, Brussels., in the context of the ‘I Fail Good’ project. In collaboration with Courtisane.

“A seriousness that fails”: this is how Susan Sontag described the essence of “camp”, this transient mixture of excess, fantasy, passion and naivety that has taken up a distinctive place in the cultural firmament since the 1960’s. Andy Warhol, who emphatically responded to this trend with his film Camp (1965), saw it differently: he was rather interested in the idea of failure itself, a failure that has to be taken seriously. After all the majority of Warhol’s films consists of observations of people in and as image, who in all their fallibility reveal a genuine authenticity and startling vulnerability. Two characters who play lead roles in Camp also take up a central place in this film programme: Paul Swan and Jack Smith. Warhol’s self-titled portrait of Swan, a dancer and actor who was once lauded as the “most beautiful man in the world” is an as ruthless as affectionate observation of a man who alternately falls in and out of the role of his lifetime. The area of tension between playing and being, playful fantasy and harsh reality, is also the arena of Jack Smith, the “enfant terrible” of the post war American underground scene. The early films Smith made in collaboration with his then confidant Ken Jacobs manifest a brutal beauty and audacious hedonism, unleashing a bewildering vitality not despite but because of their deliberate “trash” esthetics. Between innocence and nonsense, order and disorder, catastrophe and utopia: what the films in this programme have in common, are forms of expression that thrive in relation to their own failing.

With film works by Andy Warhol, Ken Jacobs, Jack Smith

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Andy Warhol
Paul Swan

1965, 16mm, color, sound, 66’

“Paul Swan is Andy Warhol’s two-reel portrait of the dancer once billed as “the most beautiful man in the world.” In 1965, when Warhol filmed him, Swan was eighty-two years old and still performing his aesthetic dance routines in weekly salons attended by the likes of Marcel Duchamp and Alexander Calder. In Warhol’s film, Swan dances such numbers as “Two Hero’s Slain,” his elegy for World War I soldiers, “The Elements: Earth, Water, Fire, and Air—the Movements Seen and Unseen in Nature,” and “Three Oriental Numbers” in skimpy costumes that he spends a great deal of the time getting into and out of. Paul Swan is one of the few films Warhol shot it color in 1965, and though the camera is stationary in the first reel, trained throughout on the tapestry backdrop Swan uses for a set, in the second reel Warhol zooms right in on Swan’s aging flesh and shoe-polish eye make-up. For much of that reel, though, Swan remains off-stage (and off-screen) looking for a particular pair of black slippers that he insists must be worn with his French peasant costume. Swan’s pianist helps him look for the slippers while the crew behind the camera becomes increasingly impatient to get Swan back in front of the camera. Not surprisingly, Warhol is content to let the action take its own course. Callie Angell wrote that “Warhol’s interest in Paul Swan seems to have been based on the observation that, in his unswerving dedication to his increasingly anachronistic art form, Swan had become the living embodiment of camp.” And in fact Swan had appeared in Warhol’s film of that title around the same time that Paul Swan was made. Angell also noted that Swan’s performance in Warhol’s film recalls “the equally disorganized, equally uncompromising performances of Jack Smith,” with whom he appears in Camp.” (Douglas Crimp)

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Ken Jacobs (featuring Jack Smith)
Little Stabs At Happiness

1958-1963, 16 mm, color, sound, 15’

“’Down’ and person to person, cinema officially gets grabbed back from the professionals here. Material was cut in as it came out of the camera, embarrassing moments intact. 100′ rolls were used, the timings fitted well with music on old 78’s. I was interested in immediacy, a sense of ease, and an art where suffering was acknowledged but not trivialised with dramatics. Whimsy was our achievement. And breaking out of step.” (KJ)

“Nasty overstuffed clogged and airless American fifties. The few good Hollywood films after the Left-dumping, ‘The 5.000 Fingers of Dr. T.’, ‘The Sweet Smell of Success’, etc., are skyscrapers on the Mojave. Overwhelmed, hopeless, it was a good time for irreverence. In particular, for art film in the vernacular, like an amusing letter, me to you. Sketchy, airy, anti-precious, without a lot of geniusing at the audience. Slices of imaginative life, not choosing to hide a N.Y. specific economic reality but I can dream, can’t I? Not anti-art, which my superiors, the critics of the period, assumed. To my bafflement. I had decided, with the examples of jazz improvisation and of action painting which would buil don one impulsive stroke, and let things hang out – indications of wrong turns towards the emerging clarity, not to edit and doll up the 100-foot camera rolls. Bot to let the film materials show, the Kodak perforations and start and end roll light flares; to feature the clicks and scratchings of the 78 r.p.m. records I pirated for accompaniment (“The Happy Bird” and south-of-the-border barnyard music I’d become attached to in Alaska in the Coast guard). Camera sequence as determined impulse opon impulse by the cinematographer seemed sensible to me, and to be respected. The off-moments, vagaries, ‘tis-human-to-errs, such beatings about the bush also delineated the bush; there was the example of Cezanne’s outlines, groping for the contour. Follow the impulses, I thought, and let appearances fall as they may. That’d be perfect enough.” (KJ)

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Ken Jacobs (Camera: Bob Fleischner, featuring Jack Smith)
Blonde Cobra

1963, 16mm, color and b&w, sound, 33’

“BLONDE COBRA is an erratic narrative -no, not really a narrative, it’s only stretched out in time for convenience of delivery. It’s a look in on an exploding life, on a man of imagination suffering pre-fashionable Lower East Side deprivation and consumed with American 1950′s, 40′s, 30′s disgust. Silly, self-pitying, guilt-strictured and yet triumphing -on one level- over the situation with style, because he’s unapologetically gifted, has a genius for courage, knows that a state of indignity can serve to show his character in sharpest relief. He carries on, states his presence for what it is. Does all he can to draw out our condemnation, testing our love for limits, enticing us into an absurd moral posture the better to dismiss us with a regal “screw-off”.” (KJ)

“Jack says I made the film too heavy. It was his and Bob’s intention to create light monster-movie comedy. Two comedies, actually, two separate stories that were being shot simultaneously until they had a falling-out over who should pay for the raw stock destroyed in a fire started when Jack’s cat knocked over a candle (Jack was behind in his electricity bill). Jack claimed it was an act of God and wouldn’t (couldn’t) pay for the burnt film. In the winter of `59, Bob showed me the footage. Having no idea of the original story plans I was able to view the material not as the fragments of a failure, of two failures, but as the makings of a new entity. Bob gave over the footage to me with the freedom to develop it as I saw fit. I think it was in late 1960 that Jack and I ignored our personal animosities long enough to record his words and songs for the sound track. The phrases he repeated for me into the tape recorder were mostly ones I’d at some time heard him say; most were pet phrases he loved to recite, over and over, his lessons, and a very few I made up in his style. This was the procedure for recording his monologues and songs: I played him selections from my 78 collection, music from the `20′s and `30′s, often only the beginning of a record and if he liked it we would restart the record and immediately record. I don’t think there was a second take of anything, the Cult Of Spontaneity was in the air. Any lack of clarity is due to the very second-rate equipment, third-rate, fourth-rate, we were using. I play a piano harp for the Madame Nescience monologue, Jack supplied the Arabic music from his small but choice collection. There’s also some SAFARI IN HIFI; a Villa-Lobos string quartet speeded up; a haunting section of a children’s 45… Baby Wants To Sleep. A small amount of my own previous shooting was cut into the film, the “drowning in nescience” color sequence near the beginning.” (KJ)

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Jack Smith (featuring Ken Jacobs)
Scotch Tape

1959-1962, 16 mm, b/w & colour, sound, 3’

“A Master sense of spiritual nothingness…the most recent explosion of a major creative force in cinema has in this film filled a New Jersey junkyard with life and movement and spiritual
weightlessness.” (Jonas Mekas)

“Jack Smith’s first released movie is an apparently edited-in-camera 100-foot roll of Kodachrome II shot in 1959, using Ken Jacob’s 16mm Bell & Howell at one of Jacob’s Star Spangled to Death locations – the rubble-strewn site of the future Lincoln Center on Manhattan’s west side. Despite its brevity, Scotch Tape anticipates the epic quality of Smith’s subsequent films and theater pieces. The alternation of long shots and close-ups suggests considerable elapsed time between each set-up. Jacobs, who appears in the film, frantically dancing and mugging along with another Star Spangled to Death performer Jerry Sims, proposed that Smith call his film “Reveling in the Dumps” and even drew titles. Instead, Smith chose to name his movie after the dirty piece of stickum that had wedged out in the upper right corner of the frame. For a three-minute film, Scotch Tape carries considerable conceptual weight. The title anticipates Andy Warhol’s go-with-the-flow acceptance of cinematic “mistakes”, even as it draws the viewer’s attention to the perceptual tension between the film’s actual surface and its represented depth. Scotch Tape’s audio accompaniment was created, some three years rhumba, “Carinhoso,” to match the footage. The resultant sync event, Conrad recalled, had a decisive effect on his own life, inspiring him to become a filmmaker. Flaming Creatures aside, Scotch Tape would be Smith’s only completed film.” (J. Hoberman)


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