JACK SMITH: The Flame Goes Out

Maybe there ought to be a different language in which to talk about Jack Smith. lord knows he talks to us in his own language, his own imaginative language in which trash is tender and "exotic" means "sacred."

The problem with my language is that it allows me to be schizophrenic.

One side is academic, theoretical, abstract, remote. This side speaks in sort of ponderous quotations. "Although classicism decrees that it's the other way around, the theater of Jack Smith -- which has passed down, directly or indirectly, to Charles Ludlam, John Vaccaro, Robert Wilson, Jeff Weiss, Spalding Gray, Lee Breuer and the like -- implies that life is order while art is chaos."

The other side is whiny, skeptical, impatient, realistic. It says what it sees: Jack Smith's performance Exotic Landlordism of the World, at the Times Square Show, is just nothing. His "flaming creatures" are burnt-out, sad, morose, unexciting, inept, pitiful.

People flocked to see this performance, paid $4 apiece at the door, and now they're sitting cramped and uncomfortable in this tiny storefront theater, craning their necks to see what is or isn't happening "onstage." Nothing happens in the playing area for a long time except that someone sets up some electric wiring and the loudspeaker emits "exotic" hoochie-coochie music and tapes of street noise. A figure wrapped in veils like an Arab or a bag lady appears. When the figure removes a veil to drink from a paper cup, you can see his beard. It's Jack Smith.

He digs through a pile of cloth and other junk. He has rings on every finger. he takes out a faded pink brassiere and spends the next 10 minutes or so putting it on over his ragged veils. The soundtrack is wonderful, weird '50s fantasy music ("Green Fire," sung by June Valli maybe, a chorus singing "The Wonderful World of Aloha," Patti Page singing "You Belong to Me"). A woman in a harem outfit appears, kneels on the long table that more or less comprises Jack Smith's set, and salaams, saying, "I bow to the image of Maria Montez." She does an awkward pseudo-bellydance waving a $20 bill.

Jack Smith lights a bunch of incense and his veil catches on fire. The belly dancer helps put it out. A guy wearing ripped pantyhose, binocular-shaped false boobs and leather boots falls down the steps to join them. Nothing really happens, just a lot of bumbling. Jack Smith smokes a pipe of dope or something, holds up an empty beer can, shakes it, strokes it (hoping for a genie?), picks up an overloaded extension cord and pronounces it "the Octopus of Atlantis." He asks "Sinbad" (the Brassiere Boy) to read a story -- "Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves" -- aloud from a children's picture book. The guy does so in a flat, fast monotone.

Every so often, Jack Smith says, "Show them the pictures," and the guy flashes a picture to the audience, someone claps facetiously, the guy bows and says, "Thank you, thank you." During the story, frighteningly loud explosions happen outside on 41st Street (cherry bombs). After the story, literally nothing happens for a while except that the soundtrack plays -- a woman screaming as if being tortured, a man grunting. Behind us, some men at the door ask the ticket taker, "Is that a sex show? I want to see!" The soundtrack switches to meowing. My companion gets fed up and leaves; people have been leaving the performance steadily since it began. Some German radio drama comes over the loudspeaker. The Brassiere Boy and the harem girl act out a scene, dancing clumsy pas de deux on the table. "You will marry only Hitler, the most magnificent of men," he says. "Well, at least he's a vegetarian," she cracks.

All the while, Jack Smith wanders silently in the background, fiddling with lights and curtains and junk strewn around the stage. For a little while, the Brassiere Boy reads from handwritten pages of script Jack Smith hands him. Then, while the guy is gibbering on and on into the microphone, Jack Smith produces a clear plastic disc attached to a paper stick (it looks like a plastic lollipop) and announces, with much hesitation and stammering, "It's a new health food...because you merely open the package and drop it directly into the toilet bowl." Some muttering about "Sugar Hollywood...brain-picking...
lobster vampire..." More fumbling around. Jack Smith gives the Brassiere Boy "the humility award of Baghdad...from Klap Magazine, K-L-A-P, the magazine of life and art." The guy wraps himself in a black curtain. "Steve is overcome by exoticism," says Jack Smith. Then he says, "The blue spotlight has overstimulated me" and slowly makes his way over to the blue spotlight and toys with it. Then he looks up and says, "We're gonna have an intermission now anyway." Nothing changes. Some people leave, including me.

I mean, what is this shit?

This is not what I expected from Jack Smith. Jack Smith the legend. Jack Flaming Creatures Smith. I expected to "like" Jack Smith. He talks a good game, or at least his fans and critics (Jonas Mekas, J. Hoberman, Susan Sontag) do. His bio is fascinating: did you know he was born in Columbus, Ohio, in 1932, studied dance with Ruth St. Denis and directing with lee Strasberg, acted in Ludlam's Big Hotel and Wilson's The Life and Times of Sigmund Freud? I love reading the titles of his works: Rehearsal for the Destruction of Atlantis, Spiritual Oasis of Lucky Landlord Paradise, Fear Ritual of Shark Museum, Horror of the Rented World, I Was a Mekas Collaborator, How Can Uncle Fishhook Have a Free Bicentennial Zombie Underground, etc. I expected charismatic performance, virtuosity, fantastic and distilled dementia along the lines of Ludlam's unforgettable sci-fi puppet show, Anti-Galaxy Nebulae, the Performance Group's terrifying chaotic Nayatt School and Point Judith, Jeff Weiss's messy and mind-boggling bravura revues.

No such thing. Just a dreary, bitter melancholic with no zest, no fun, a fantastic record collection, and a twisted mind, perched on the edge of the abyss and sifting through fragments of an ancient fantasy he can no longer communicate.

Soho News, May 1980