A Prophet Against Empire: Jerry Tartaglia’s Escape from Rented Island: The Lost Paradise of Jack Smithby David Bruin
Despite his outsized importance and his direct influence on artists such as Andy Warhol, Federico Fellini, and Robert Wilson, Jack Smith has eluded the public almost since the beginning. This is due both to the ephemeral nature of his work and his own peculiar odyssey. After his first feature film, the rapturous Flaming Creatures (1963), was banned on charges of obscenity, Smith avoided commodification by perpetually iterating his work. He edited his next two films live, using scotch tape to put the reels together and playing records on a phonograph to provide an ersatz soundtrack. From the late 1960s on, Smith increasingly incorporated theater into his evolving practice. He staged freewheeling performances in his Lower East Side loft that started after midnight and went until nearly sunrise for audiences in the single-digits. In addition, Smith’s work has survived censorship, neglect, legal miasmas, and even his own request to have his papers destroyed after his death (which was, thankfully, not obliged). While Smith has received a handful of prominent retrospectives, his estate—purchased by the Gladstone Gallery in 2008—remains stored in archives.
Jerry Tartaglia’s Escape from Rented Island: The Lost Paradise of Jack Smith, which premiered at Anthology Film Archives in April, arrives as an exciting corrective to this deficit. The film intends to offer audiences that which they have often been denied: Jack Smith and his work. From the late 1950s until his death from AIDS-related complications in 1989, Smith worked as a photographer, actor, filmmaker, and performance artist. In addition to his artistic output, Smith wrote essays and recorded polemics in an idiom as distinctive as his performance style. His writings and audio recordings capture his ideas about topics such as the art world, filmmaking, acting, and landlordism, which he detested as irrational, unnatural, and immoral. While Smith may appear at first glance to be an aesthete, Escape from Rented Island makes the case that his artistry and politics form a unified project of resistance against the insidious machinations of capitalism and heteronormativity.
The film does not, however, tell the story of Smith’s life and work. Mary Jordan already undertook that project in her energetic documentary Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis (2006). While Jordan exerts a strong editorial hand, propping up the remains of Smith’s work with a wonderful flurry of interviews and graphics, Escape from Rented Island consists exclusively of a panoply of film clips, video documentation of performances, photographs, and audio recordings from Smith’s archive. Tartaglia presents Smith uninflected by commentary or context, save for spare title cards, and he eschews the voices of critics, colleagues, and acquaintances entirely. Tartaglia, an experimental director who has also worked for over twenty years to restore Smith’s filmography and documentation, has arranged the material into twelve chapters. Occasionally, the video and the audio are from the same source, but more often they are distinct yet thematically connected pairings.
Tartaglia uses this format to showcase Smith’s unmistakable aesthetic across media. In his photographs, films, and performances, Smith transfigured the glamor and camp of classic Hollywood into a queer fantasia with a sharp anti-capitalist sensibility. The 1940s B-movie actress Maria Montez served as Smith’s lifelong lodestar and muse. Early in Escape from Rented Island, drag queen extraordinaire Mario Montez, whom Smith discovered and christened, wears a fabulous mermaid dress as he reclines in a pool of white liquid. The outré tableau evokes Venus rising from the sea. For Maria Montez devotees, the scene recalls the actress’s untimely death in a Paris bathtub in 1951, and so this (gender nonconforming) Venus is also a vanitas—the ecstasy of birth and the portent of death traced with the same kitschy contours.
Such productive contradictions run throughout Escape from Rented Island. In another scene, Smith sits at the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool in Washington, D.C. In a white suit, he unwraps chocolate eggs and methodically places the ripped tin foil in the water. The shards glimmer slightly as they float, their luminosity washed-out by the grainy 16 mm, which has preserved this moment. A voiceover accompanies the scene. In his high, hypnotic drawl—one that’s not so much regional as it is oracular—Smith describes how cities should have a central junkyard that would be a kind of sanctuary, a refuge for the disused where people could get what they needed. As the sequence unfolds, it’s hard not to view Smith’s petty act of vandalism as a gesture toward utopia, an attempt to enact the paradise of his dreams through stagecraft. In this and many other scenes, Escape from Rented Island demonstrates Smith’s uncanny ability to unlock the sublime through detritus, both material and cultural.
The film highlights other remarkable features of Smith’s work. Pools, lagoons, shorelines, and other bodies of water recur, wavering between the roles of oasis and abyss. It is no accident that Smith adored La Penguina, his fake pet penguin, with whom he traveled to Rome, a slideshow of which makes up an entire chapter of Escape from Rented Island. There is something amphibious about Smith and his work; they traverse boundaries fluidly. His works and his performances are both masterfully crafted and prone to complete breakdown. Their camp trappings shelter a deep melancholy.
The content of Escape from Rented Island flickers between the prelapsarian and the apocalyptic. Scenes in some kind of Eden (a live serpent caresses the face of “Cobra Woman” in the verdant groves of the film Normal Love [1963 – 65], for instance) give way to ceremonies that signal the end of civilization. In the final scene, Smith drags a large Santa Claus doll across the floor. Cloaked in black and donning glittery ebony eye make-up, Smith plays the title character in his own Hamlet in the Rented World. As he pulls the limp figure (Claudius? Polonius?) to a grimy refrigerator-cum-coffin, his voiceover repeatedly asks, “How can I pay the rent?” suggesting that such a query has assumed the gravity of “To be or not to be?” Against the backdrop of the underpopulated, impoverished Lower East Side of the 1970s, Smith’s critique of landlordism achieves the force of prophecy.
At its best, Tartaglia’s editing provides enough connective tissue to reanimate Smith’s protean corpus. But, just as often, the amputated parts appear lifeless, all too clearly excised from an irrevocable body of work. Compounding the matter, the film’s lack of historical and critical context perhaps does as much to obscure Smith’s artistry as it does to bring it into relief. The value of Tartaglia’s film, no doubt a significant document for a growing cadre of Smith scholars and aficionados, is edged by the patina of impenetrability it presents to the uninitiated. Whether or not that coat of opacity radiates with enough enchantment to spark a neophyte’s curiosity or whether it comes off as simply dense and dull depends on the viewer. Smith’s place in history seems more assured than ever, but unlike artists who leave behind scripts, sculptures, and scores, it will take a constellation of efforts—artistic, curatorial, critical, and scholarly—to preserve Jack Smith’s legacy, even if that legacy is, like paradise, defined more by loss than recovery.
DAVID BRUIN is the associate editor of Theater and the artistic director of un sphinx incompris.