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Cult filmmaker and performance artist Jack Smith, whose most famous work is 1963’s Flaming Creatures, didn’t like the term “underground.” But his work could hardly have been more subterranean — featuring elements that would draw accusations of pornography, crafting no-budget trash manifestations of a nascent queer aesthetic, hosting art events that couldn’t hope to make money. In “a film essay concerning the works of Jack Smith,” Jerry Tartaglia produces a similarly unsellable artifact with Escape From Rented Island: The Lost Paradise of Jack Smith. Far from an introduction to Smith’s oeuvre (Mary Jordan did that in 2006’s Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis), this eccentric presentation of rare materials aims at the artist’s most devoted followers, and will thrive exclusively in academic and art-cinema venues.
Beginning with a patience-testing clip of the artist speaking haltingly into the camera — “See … What … The … Future … Holds …,” and so on — Tartaglia lets any newbies in the room know this is neither an ingratiating film nor an easy-to-digest subject. Titles then explain that the filmmaker, who has spent decades dealing with Smith’s archives, will in general be pairing elements not designed to go together, playing audiotapes of Smith’s philosophical speaking over fragments of his films, some well-known and some not.
Clips of Flaming Creatures, for instance, play in the background while Smith describes his disillusionment with the beloved avant-garde institution Anthology Film Archives. Referring to its founder Jonas Mekas as “Uncle Fishhook,” he suggests that artists were exploited there. “I perceived it was not a co-op,” he says of the organization, and that it didn’t have his best interests at heart — never mind that Mekas was arrested on obscenity charges for showing Flaming Creatures, and that he would continue to promote Smith’s work long after his death.
Elsewhere, we get bits of “live film” performances, scenes of glitter-painted drag, and an ecstatic montage of a woman being pushed on a swing. Sometimes the audio is frustratingly elliptical, sometimes it’s instructive: At one point, Smith informs would-be creators that “yes, there is such a thing as rules of art,” and that making work “really has to be boring”; as we hear this, we watch Smith tediously comb through boxes of photographic slides.
For many viewers, though, Smith’s speaking style will be too much to take. His endless “uh, uh” and meandering trains of thought make him not the best guide to this world he constructed. A long and boring stretch near the end, composed of still photos of Smith toting a toy penguin through the streets of Rome, matches this vibe perfectly.
Production company: Exotic Realism
Director: Jerry Tartaglia
Venue: Anthology Film Archives
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