Avant-garde cinema would be nothing without its visionary eccentrics, and Harry Smith (1923–1991) ranks high on both counts. Doubly famous for his Anthology of Folk Music and masterworks of abstract animation, Smith’s singular achievement is frequently celebrated at Anthology, where he served as the official artist in residence and lingers on as a kind of guiding spirit. The latest survey, “Magic in Music and Motion: The Sights and Sounds of Harry Smith,” is noteworthy for a return of
Mahagonny, his magnificent quad-screen fantasia on life in New York City vis-à-vis Brechtian opera and Duchampian pseudo science; the local premiere of
The Old, Weird America, a documentary by Rani Singh about the making of the folk-music compilation; and the restoration of Smith’s finest animation,
No 12: Heaven and Earth Magic. A cut-and-paste collage of dazzling intricacy and wit, this feature-length fever dream enchants an entire catalogue of surrealist whimsies: discombobulated Victorian damsels, trickster watermelons, magic faucets, weird cats. It’s indescribably marvelous, though Smith offered this: “The first part depicts the heroine’s toothache consequent to the loss of a very valuable watermelon, her dentistry and transportation to heaven. Next follows an elaborate exposition of the heavenly land, in terms of Israel and Montreal. The second part depicts the return to Earth from being eaten by Max Müller on the day Edward VII dedicated the Great Sewer of London.” Totally.