Mirror Men

Increasingly famous in the decade since his death, the enigmatic Harry Smith pushes to the limit any number of conceptions of the artist as eccentric polymath, mysterious junk collector, beatnik seer, mad scientist, irascible crank, misunderstood genius, and colorful character. Indeed, Smith was something like an authentic version of the flophouse modernist Joe Gould, and Mahagonny, the newly restored, two-hour-plus multiple-screen magnum opus on which he worked for most of the 1970s, is a suitable head-scratcher that walks a thin line between masterpiece and curiosity.

Ahead of us all or trapped in the prison of his own particular sensibility? Smith's project involved translating the 1930 Bertolt Brecht-Kurt Weill opera The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny into universal symbols or "ideograms" so as to produce a movie "intelligible to Eskimos" as well as "the most complicated underground film ever made." In no way literary, Mahagonny is predicated on a hypnotic use of pattern and repetition. (By his own account, Smith played the 1956 German-language recording of the opera that serves as his score, compulsively for 20 years.) Mahagonny makes no effort to ingratiate itself with the viewer. As the artist once told his exegete P. Adams Sitney, "The best response to the film is if the audience goes to sleep."

The Brecht-Weill Mahagonny is a brutal satire of Weimar Germany and contemporary capitalism, set in a degenerate (American) utopia where everything is permitted and the only crime is lack of money. Smith's Mahagonny is essentially an object of contemplation, like an altarpiece or a 19th-century "philosophical toy." Indeed, the only time it was shown during Smith's lifetime, at Anthology Film Archives during the spring of 1980, it involved a quartet of 16mm projectors rattling away in concert. (The restored print is a composite of all four images on 35mm.) The screen is divided into quadrants, but Smith only sometimes uses all four.

A machine for inducing coincidence: from Mahagonny
photo: Courtesy Harry Smith Archives
A machine for inducing coincidence: from Mahagonny


A film by Harry Smith
September 13 through 22, at Anthology Film Archives

Directed by Zhang Yang
Written by Zhang and Huo Xin
Sony Pictures Classics
Opens September 13

The presentation opens with a double view of the New York skyline at dusk. Thereafter, the ideograms mix all manner of midtown street scenes, witchy young women staring into the camera, animated Hindu deities, piles of sugar, and pixilated odds and ends that include marbles, Thai sticks, licorice candies, and broken bottles. For the first hour or so, the left and right projections are mirror images, producing a compelling kaleidoscope effect: Cars appear to collide and vanish, people split or merge, 42nd Street becomes a pyramid of light, a flock of birds explodes out of the frame line. Some mirror-produced Rorschach images promote hallucinations; others just attack the brain, like the recurring shot of the Times Square advertising sign that reads, "You've Got a Great Future Behind You."

Mahagonny works far more as a composition than a narrative. Smith varies the quadrants throughout, switching from two to four and back, allowing the mirrored images to go slightly—and disorientingly—out of phase and then return to perfect synchronization. As the movie builds to its climax, all four images are different, although they cycle around from position to position. Meanwhile, Lotte Lenya and company are vocalizing Brecht's sardonic libretto and Weill's harshly lyrical melodies—Smith maintained that he declined to premiere Mahagonny in Switzerland because he did not want a German-speaking audience. The soundtrack is no less material than the images.

Although the rhythmic interaction between the sound and image can seem extraordinarily complex, that wasn't necessarily the artist's plan—or, rather, it is a by-product of his method. The original opera was itself a sort of montage. The text is a collage of Brecht poems; Weill's music, as well as the set design, was conceived in accordance with Brecht's current doctrine, "separation of the elements," as an autonomous aspect of the production. Thus, Smith has contributed his own ideas to the mix. Working along the lines of the mysterious affinities that govern his Anthology of American Folk Music, Smith evidently categorized his images as portraits, animation, symbols, and nature—then organized them to form the palindrome "PASANASAP" in each reel. It's a machine for inducing coincidence. Still, the opera's climactic ballad of God's visit to Mahagonny does accompany a stunning interplay of images—pawnshops and country lakes, torn-up dollar bills and topless dancers—that recapitulate a number of Brecht's themes.

Despite its arcane structure and obsessive qualities, Mahagonny does have the surplus of virtuosity found in Smith's cut-and-paste extravaganza, Heaven and Earth Magic. The experience is druggy but austere. Mahagonny seems at times like a minimalist Metropolis or a fractured Ballet Mécanique. Even as it has elements of a 1920s city symphony, it also suggests a response to the "structuralist" epics of the late 1960s—movies like Warhol's double-screen Chelsea Girls or Ken Jacobs's refilmed Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son. Certainly, duration is an element. (As Jacobs once said of his monumental Star Spangled to Death, "I wanted there to be always a question as to whether the film would last, would it die, would it at any moment fall off the projector.")

Smith claimed to have no interest in translating Brecht. But he had been visualizing music since his days as a painter in the 1950s, and his images effectively transform Weill's harsh, lyrical score into some sort of abstract black mass. The movie is a magic assemblage—subject to its own recognizable but baffling laws. The uncanniest thing about this ceremonial projection is the sense that the screen is literally casting a spell, gesticulating back at you.

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