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.
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.
Another straightforward yet opaque and uncompromising piece of work, Quitting represents a great leap forward for Chinese director Zhang Yang—best known here for Shower, a sentimental tribute to humble pleasures and the healing power of aqua therapy.
Like the earlier film, Quitting is concerned both with generational conflict in the new China and questions of mental hygiene, but it’s far less of a crowd-pleaser and more audacious in its strategy. The actor Jia Hongsheng appears as himself, along with family members, friends, and hospital inmates who are all similarly re-creating their actual roles in Jia’s story. The star, who became famous playing tough guys in Chinese action movies of the early ’90s (as well as the “suicide artist” in Wang Xiaoshuai’s experimental Frozen), suffered a nervous breakdown brought on by his celebrity and the heroin habit he developed while playing a drag queen in Zhang’s avant-garde stage production of Kiss of the Spider Woman.
When Quitting begins, Jia has already withdrawn from society to live with his sister in a sparsely furnished apartment dominated by images of John Lennon and Taxi Driver. His parents, both provincial actors, arrive in Beijing to care for him, but Jia is scarcely pleased to see them. He immediately picks a fight over their use of peasant “lard soap,” although he does bond, after a fashion, with his father, who visits a music store to find records by “da bidus” and takes to drinking beer with his son under a highway cloverleaf. The hanging out that makes up much of Quitting is given weight by a combination of dramatizing music and frequent close-ups. The distanced quality is reinforced by the harmonious, symmetrical compositions. Alternately grueling and soporific, Quitting is a movie about addiction that demands the viewer also give something up.
Jia, a tall, bony presence—his hatchet face accentuated by his bizarre theatrical outfits—appears to be a self-medicating borderline case. (That the actor had his comeback as the tragic, love-addled motorcycle courier in Lou Ye’s Suzhou River gives that already highly sedimented movie another level of subtext.) Increasingly stressed, Jia kicks in a TV set that broadcasts his image, bangs his head against the wall, insults a producer who telephones with the offer of a job, and begins developing a series of delusions involving John Lennon. After the most shocking scene—in which Jia smacks his father—the lights go up to reveal the apartment as a stage set in an empty auditorium. Presently, Jia’s parents have him committed to a mental hospital with ultimately productive results. “The Soviets called it hysteria, the Chinese called it dementia,” one inmate opines. It’s not clear what Zhang would call Jia’s condition, but he succeeds in dramatizing it.
To complete the week’s trifecta of artistic integrity, the Walter Reade is opening a two-week Andrei Tarkovsky retrospective this Friday to mark the 70th anniversary of his birth. Trained, supported, and banned by the Soviet film apparatus, Tarkovsky was at once that industry’s greatest achievement and its most formidable reproach. His stature as an intractable visionary has only grown since his untimely death in 1986. The retro includes new 35mm prints of Tarkovsky’s first feature, Ivan’s Childhood (1962); his career-making historical epic, Andrei Rublev (1969); his sci-fi extravaganza, Solaris (1972); and his autobiographical masterpiece, The Mirror (1975). The latter three will be getting weeklong runs later this fall at Film Forum, but there is much to be said for savoring them in context—Tarkovsky has yet to become an adjective, but his worldview, already fully developed in Ivan’s Childhood, was unique. His movies gave atmosphere a substance. You don’t just watch them; they are places to inhabit.