Sylvère Lotringer: How did you get the idea to make Flaming Creatures?
Jack Smith: I started making a comedy about everything that I thought was funny. And it was funny. The first audiences were laughing from the beginning all the way through. But then that writing started - and it became a sex thing. It turned the movie into a magazine sex issue. It was fed to the magazines. Lesbian writers were finding purple titillations. Then it fertilized Hollywood. Wonderful. When they got through licking their chops over the movie there was no more laughter. There was dead silence in the auditorium. The film was practically used to destroy me.
There wasn’t a trial?
There was a trial and I lost. Uncle Jonas’s [Jonas Mekas] lawyers were doing the trial, and at some point it was dropped. And if a case is dropped, it can’t be appealed. Now the movie is permanently illegal in New York.
Can’t it be shown in some places, under certain conditions?
Uncle Fishhook [Jonas Mekas] was showing it at his mausoleum [The Anthology Film Archives], but that’s because no one has complained…. It would be inconvenient to have anybody complain. But when he needed a complaint, there was a complaint. At one time it was fashionable to have a work of art in the courts. All the mileage gotten out of Henry Miller’s books…. And Uncle Fishhook wanted to have something in court at the time, it being so fashionable. The publicity. It was another way by which he could be made to look like a saint, to be in the position of defending something when he was really kicking it to death. So he would give screenings of Creatures and make speeches, defying the police to bust the film. Which they did. And then there was the trial…] I don’t know what the lawyers were doing. I wasn’t even permitted to be in the court. I walked into the courtroom and my lawyer said, “Go out of the courtroom,” and I said, “Why?” - “because the judge is upset by too many men with beards.” I was ordered to leave by the marsh-mallow lawyer that Uncle Mekas had. So I couldn’t even see the trial. You know: it goes on and on.
I must say that when I saw the film at the Cinematheque, people were laughing their heads off.
Mumble, mumble. It inflated Uncle Fishhook; it made his career; I ended up supporting him. He’s been doing my traveling for 15 years. He’s been conducting a campaign to dehumanize me in his column. There’s just a list of monstrosities. I don’t want to start that…. So from supporting Uncle
Fishhook, now we’re left years later with nothing. There’s nothing anybody can do with their films. He’s got the original.
You don’t have any copy?
I have a miserable beat up inter-negative that’s shot. He must have sucked 1,000 copies out of it.It needs to be restored or something.
Why don’t you make another film?
I don’t want to let somebody go running off with… I am. I’ve already made new films; I have a roomful of films that I’ve made since then.. J But there’s nothing in the world that I can do with them, because Uncle Fishhook has established this pattern of the way film is thought about, and seen, and everything else…
Did you actually mean anything through your film?
No, I didn’t then. But the meaning has to come out in what is done with the art - is what gives it meaning. The way my movie was used - that was the meaning of the movie.
You mean that meaning comes afterwards?
What you do with it economically is what the meaning is. If it goes to support Uncle Fishhook, that’s what it means. Movies are always made for an audience. But I didn’t make it that way. I was just making it completely for myself. At the time, that seemed like an intellectual experiment. But that point got lost.
But that happens every time someone wants to make art.
If they weren’t making this deliberately pointless art, then it wouldn’t happen…. And it wouldn’t have happened to me if I had been perfect. It wouldn’t have been taken up and used by somebody else.
I read recently what Susan Sontag wrote about Flaming Creatures…
It showed that she was just as hypnotized by him as I was… but by that time I was no longer hypnotized by him and she…
She said it didn’t mean anything, and that was the strength of the film. I liked that. It’s not just that it was comical, but that it makes fun of all sorts of ideas we have, and definitions…
Was it being exploited like Hollywood? Uncle Fishhook’s use of the word co-op just drifted past Miss Sontag…. And nobody seems to expect anything from that idea. They don’t seem to know what a co-op is.
What is it about?
It’s a thing that controls all the activities of a certain activity. And then everyone engaged in this is sharing the money.
Is that the way your film was done?
A film co-op sounded like something I wanted to do, to support. I turned over my film to this film co- op. And then it became a grotesque parody of Hollywood. Uncle Fishhook seemed heroic in her review. What was heroic? Taking someone’s film away from him…. Uncle Roachcrust perpetuated the monstrosity of discrediting co-ops. That’s why he is a symbol, an Uncle Pawnshop, a symbol of fishhook co-ops. The only reason for the pattern of the 2 night screenings he has established is so somebody’s film will spend one night in the safe - if you get my meaning.
Didn’t you want to destroy your work?
Uncle Fishhook says all kinds of fantastic things about me. If anybody that can only comprehend capitalism would look at my behavior and the only conclusion that they could come to was that was trying to destroy myself -
When capitalism is in fact trying to destroy you?
And he’s printed things like that in his column. Once he printed that Jack Smith’s art is so precious that it cannot be exported. You know: seeming to be saying something complimentary when actually killing the chance of the economic possibility of my going to Europe. Everything on earth like that he’s been doing. My life has been a nightmare because of that damn film. That sucked up ten years of my life. For a while I was being betrayed on an average of about twice a week to Uncle Fishhook, It was like being boiled alive. People would turn me in because Uncle Fishhook wanted to get me and everybody knew that… (Sounds of the radio)
Is that WBAI? Have you ever done anything for them?
I tried; I tried. I went there a number of times. There are some dummies there. And I just had the bad luck of running into all the dummies, I guess. I get these incredible over-reactions because I’m a very strange looking person.
What happened there?
Once I was thrown out by the receptionist. I was asked not to wait inside the building. I was listening to their begging for money and it really gripped my heart. I went there. Four or five times. Every time I ran into some dummy at the place, so I just gave up. I wanted so much to help. It is the only source of information in the city. I think you have to be Jewish, number one. And normal, number two. The very first sign of the trouble they had was when they attacked the homo who had a program called The Importance of Being Earnest, a gay program. And he was forbidden to put on one of his programs. People with their snot impacted voices that they paid for in college: their rumbling snot. They wanted normalcy. Later the whole station was turned off by the same management.
In Italy, little independent radios like Radio-Alice have a more direct political impact on the population. It’s starting in France too. They do it with very limited means.
There’s always been political art in Europe. There’s never been any political art in this country.
Do you consider your art political?
I wouldn’t put any program out now unless it had an overtly political title.
How about your slide-show, do you consider that political?
If you can put an explicit title on something implicit, that’s almost enough - because you’re giving the indication of how to see it. Not everything has to be cerebral at every moment…. But the title does have to be explicit. The title is 50 percent of the work. That’s why I shudder with the title of your magazine. You have that chance to say something.
A title is language, and I’m not sure language can be that effective.
But thought can. The world is starving for thoughts. I worry about the thoughts. A new thought must come out in new language.
So it didn’t really matter if you actually had a slide show or not because you’ve advertised the title: the title is sufficient.
Almost. You don’t have to see the slide show as far as I’m concerned. The slide is entertainment, the icing. I mean there’s a thought, there’s al socialist thought in it, but the information and all the intellectual content is being conveyed by the title. You can become so explicit that you can state something the world didn’t know and to know and this you can state very clearly in the title. The images could be made to mean anything, but the title’s got to be explicit because it’s your only chance You have to struggle to make more of it more and more explicit, but still glamorous. If it is not done glamorously, it’s no good because it wouldn’t have been dramatized.
What title would you choose now for Flaming Creatures if you had a choice?
Let me think, a new title… I have to think about it… What’s its content… there never was any content. “Connecting Sugar with Hollywood,” maybe…
You mean your film was some sort of parody of Hollywood?
Of course. My mind was filled with it… Everybody is filled with Hollywood.
Did you watch television?
Not until later. Then I became addicted to it… No longer though.
What sort of thing did you read?
My favorite book was The Count of Monte Cristo. Sinclair Lewis is my favorite writer. They think they’re through with Sinclair Lewis. I just finished a book of his called King’s Blood Royal, in which the most typical WASP in the world finds out that he has one percent Negro blood; and then the book ends with everybody in the neighborhood marching on his house with rifles. But it could be about any minority group.
What do you think of the gay movement?
They’ve become a ghetto, already: they just want to talk about gay things. They’re trying to cut it off from being in any context.
Don’t you think it’s becoming something of an industry too?
Oh sure, of course. It’s just one of the unexpected bad side developments of it that’s making it possible to be so happily ghetto-ized. But that’s where the people in the theater are supposed to be coming in and helping the atmosphere. And, you see, they’re not. I took my program to a gay theater, and he couldn’t understand how it was gay, because he was unable to see it in a context. If it wasn’t discussing exactly how many inches was my first lollipop, well then it wouldn’t be anything they’d be interested in. And so I couldn’t get this gay theater. It was one of the places I tried. Getting theaters is one of the 7 labors of Uranus.
What was that: “I Was a Mekas Collaborator!”
I put the ad in the paper and then I didn’t go to the theater. The ad was as far as I could get with a lobotomized, zombified…That if a program has any intellectual interest at all then it can only be given one or two nights - but you can be entertained to death in this country.
Is that the slide show you want to present?
That slide show is just the same mass of slides: I’ve been showing it for years. Every once in a while I have a new shooting session and add a new scene to it. Nobody has ever complained. It’s always, you know, completely interesting. The Penguin Epic is all new, though.
That’s why Burroughs uses cut-ups: to try to prevent the words from being twisted around.
Oh, that’s one way.
It’s an extreme way.
That’s the wrong extreme. What I mean is the extreme in the other direction - by being more and more specific about what you’re thinking. The title is supposed to serve the idea. If I am lucky enough to get a socialistic idea…
What do you mean by a socialistic idea?
To me, socialism is to try to find social ways of sharing. That’s all. And to replace the dependence upon authority with the principle of sharing. Because it’s very likely that there would be much more for everybody, thousands and more times for everybody if things were shared. We’re living like dogs from all the competing.
Were you ever competitive? Did you ever believe in that?
Yes, of course, when you’re young. It’s drilled into you, and you have to slowly find your way out of it, because you find it doesn’t work. Capitalism is terribly inefficient. The insane duplication, the insane waste, and the young only know what’s put in front of them… But then, by experience, things are happening to you and you find out that this doesn’t work. I mean this is not productive.
It produces waste.
I looked through your magazine and I was repelled by the title. It’s so dry, you just want to throw it in the wastebasket, which I did. Then I picked it out… Listen: Hatred of Capitalism is a good name for that magazine. It’s stunning. I’ll never admit that I thought of it.
I doubt that by saying that directly you’ll change anything. Language is corrupt.
Listen, you are a creature, artistic I can tell, that somehow got hung up on the issue of language. Forget it. It’s thinking. If you can think of a thought in a most pathetic language… Look at what I have to do in order to think of thoughts. I have to forget language. All I can do with no education, nothing, no advice, no common sense in my life, an insane mother I mean, no background, nothing, nothing, and I have to make art, but I know that under these conditions the one thing I had to find out was if I could think of a thought that has never been thought of before, then it could be in language that was never read before. If you can think of something, the language will fall into place in the most fantastic way, but the thought is what’s going to do it. The language is shit, I mean it’s only there to support a thought. Look at Susan Sontag, that’s a phenomenon that will never occur, only in every hundred years. Anybody like that. She says things that you would never have thought of. And the language is automatically unique. Whatever new thoughts you can think of that the world needs will be automatically clothed in the most radiant language imaginable.
Have you ever thought of another type of society…
I can think of billions of ways for the world to be completely different. I wish they would invent a scalpbrush. Do you realize that there is nothing on earth that you can brush your scalp with?… I can think of other types of societies… Like in the middle of the city should be a repository of objects that people don’t want anymore, which they would take to this giant junkyard. That would form an organization, a way that the city would be organized… the city organized around that. I think this center of unused objects and unwanted objects would become a center of intellectual activity. Things would grow up around it
You mean some sort of center of exchange?
Yes, there could be exchange, that would start to develop. You take anything that you don’t want and don’t want to throw out and just take it to this giant place, and just leaving it and looking for something that you need…
And there wouldn’t be any money?
Then things would form the way they always do around that.
Will people still own anything?
Yeah, I don’t mind… Buying and selling is the most natural human institution: there’s nothing wrong with that… Buying and selling is the most interesting thing in the world. It should be aesthetic and everything else. But capitalism is a perversion of this. Nothing is more wonderful than a marketplace. It gives people something to do… and it can be creative. Wonderful things come from commerce… but not from capitalism…
What do you mean exactly by landlordism?
Fear ritual of lucky landlord paradise. That’s what supports the government.
You mean property?
The whole fantasy of how money is squeezed out of real estate. It supports the government; it supports everything. And it isn’t even rational. When is a building ever paid for? The person that built the building is dead long since, and yet it can never be paid for, it has to be paid for all over again, every month. That’s as irrational as buying a pair of shoes and paying for them again. It supports the whole system that we have to struggle against. We have to spend the rest of our time struggling against the uses they make of our money against us.
They call it “rent control” That’s exactly what it is about: control through rent.
But if the whole population has no conception of how irrational that is, that’s how far they are from doing anything about it, or any of the other things that oppress them. All the money that runs the government comes from the fantasy of paying rent.
As if we owned something.
Alright. So we don’t own it. But do they own it? People that live in a place and maintain it and build it, why do they own it less than the government? Then you’re saying that the government owns it more than you do. And that’s also silly.
The difference is that in a capitalist country you owe money to an individual and in a communist country you owe money to the state. It still holds…
Well, you don’t own your own property… but even if you could understand that, why would you understand that, why would you understand that somebody else has some claim, or owns, your property.
You mean then that everyone should own what they use?
You want to start making more laws and more rules. But that’s how a lot of strange things began… from the expectation that you need all the laws and rules…
But if no one had to own anything… if you use something, you don’t have to pay for it, but it doesn’t belong to you.
What’s so incredible about that? There is a new movement called Housing in the Public Domain - maybe the first idea on the subject since feudal times. I never had sunlight. I was always so naive I just kept taking places that had no sunlight. But the next time I move there will be some sunlight involved, somehow, coming through a window, or anything. But I can’t build it; I can’t be permitted to build my own house. You can build exotic architecture or strange houses if it’s outside the city if there are not other people around that would complain. All the complaining!
You want to build an exotic house?
I’d like to invent a building that wouldn’t be a rectangle, that would utilize the pouring qualities of cement.
It would be closed?
I don’t know what in the world it would be. It would be open in the middle: sunlight could come in the middle. They cling to rectangles because it’s the preferred shape of capitalism; it’s easy to manufacture a rectangle, to manufacture the components of a rectangle. But why should I live in a house for the convenience of the manufacturers? I think the normal idea of the house is more circular, whatever it is, and it would have an opening for sunlight to come in. The house would be arranged in that way. It would also have all the ugly non-design of manufacturers banished from it. Everything to do with water would be in one place and it would be in the form of a waterfall; and it would be enclosed, and plants would be happy there; washing the dishes would become a Polynesian thing, it would not be an ugly thing washing the dishes; and washing clothes, taking a bath would also be done in this place; the dishes would wash themselves. It would use much less water; all the water would be utilized; there wouldn’t be any wasted water; the waterfall would be turned on and off, of course. It would be in the central part where the sunlight is… the water would be mixed with the sunlight, a steamroom would then be created, steam is very healthful, it cleans your lungs. And I can imagine anything on earth like this. But if I try to build it there would be a million laws saying that I can’t build it
It sounds like a building you could build in Miami.
I heard of someone building their own building in Miami, and the city officials made him tear it apart ten times until he got every little thing just to comply with the city regulations. So you wouldn’t do it in the city. You might do it outside the city. As long as there aren’t people complaining. And then this would dispense with the ugly rectangular monstrosity of the kitchen sink; bathtubs wouldn’t exist. All this duplication wouldn’t exist; it would save space. It’s got to be built to be a model to do away with the ugly designs that now surround us completely.
I think it is like art; as soon as there is a model it’s going to be duplicated and then it becomes an industry. It’s very difficult to avoid that.
That’s what I want: I would want them to duplicate my ideas. But all that’s happened to me so far is that my idea that I never had doesn’t register - and they duplicate my icing. I know how just a thing like the ugly design of kitchen sinks destroyed my childhood… ‘cause I had to fight with my sister all the time over who had to do the dishes. It was the ugliness, the ugliness of capitalism, making it impossible for anybody to live a life that isn’t made ugly.
Where did you grow up?
In the Midwest. My father’s family were hillbillies in West Virginia. They went to the hills because they wanted to be more independent in the first place, and then they became more independent because they were living in the hills. Hillbillies, nomads, gypsies are natural anarchists.
Do you like that?
Yes, basically I’m an anarchist, that’s not to say that I think there will ever be any state of anarchy, but I don’t think that you should stamp out anarchy… You need it to flavor other ideas, because anarchy is the giving part of politics. In this country they have stamped it out, and made it a dirty word, made it synonymous with chaos… They want to tell you that it’s the same as chaos. It isn’t. All it means is without a ruler. And if people don’t try to make a start of getting along without authorities, they will never be in a position where they are not being worked over by these authorities. And so naturally they don’t like anarchy. We have never had anarchy, but we do have chaos. There’s always going to be government agents that are going to be throwing bombs, saying that the anarchists did it, to set up a reaction.
There are so many rulers now. Authority is everywhere.
They’re dreaming of more authority.
I could do with a little more chaos myself.
All it i is an idea of gradually working toward doing things without authorities. Under an anarchist system you would phase authorities out slowly, as much as could be. That seems a fantasy, just because it’s been so stamped out and ridiculed. Until the twenties you could go anywhere in the world without a passport. But they want to put you in the frame of mind where you accept more and more authority. You just are required to go through this ritual in which you give them the right to tell you where I can go. And if you don’t, you’ll be clapped in prison.
It is not easy to live in the way you want and not suffer from it.
I don’t mind a certain amount of trouble. I can’t take these exaggerated doses of pasty cheerfulness of capitalism in which you have to be happy all the time. That can only produce a crust like Warhol. I don’t want to be too happy. I don’t want extremes, I mean getting pinnacles of happiness. I can’t live with it. What goes up must come down. I tried it. I was a pasty celebrity, I was very fashionable ten years ago… is this being recorded?
(laughing) Wonderful. I was hoping it was. I was very fashionable but I couldn’t live with it. I will never, never go near anything like that again. This was the golden gift of Uncle Fishhook to me. Please let him keep the blessings of publicity. You see, attention is a very basic human need. It’s terribly important. If the baby doesn’t get attention, it won’t be fed.
If society makes you unhappy, then it has won no matter what.
I don’t think so. I can be happy from being unhappy, if I know what I’m doing. I mean I have to struggle against Uncle Fishhook, that’s my job, and I’m not running away from it. Everybody else that has been worked over by Uncle Fishhook has just faded out, folded up and creeped out of the city. But I won’t do that. Usually in life nothing is ever clear cut. How many people are lucky enough to have an archetypal villain for an adversary.
Do you know Nietzsche at all?
It’s probably trash because he was jealous of Wagner. I don’t like his attitude towards Wagner. It was just the typical, very mediocre attitude expressed in very fancy language, but it was the very typical Village Voice attitude toward anybody that is making a success, but a success based upon their need to transform somebody into an object, and then sacrificing him.
Nietzsche defines a nihilist phase which corresponds to what you call “anarchist”: to question everything. There is a second phase which is more interesting: once you’ve realized what everything is and how it works, how it’s going to repeat itself, endlessly, you just step out of it, and affirm other, positive values. You don’t waste any more energy criticizing and destroying.
Tell me what I am to do with the energy. I’m supposed to rush into the turquoise paradise of the Bahamas? After two days, I would be bored. I’ve got to have something to hate.
Flaming Creatures was about fun, not denouncing.
I made a comedy. Now I want to make a drama. The movie I’m now preparing is going to be an Arabian Nights architecture film and it will be in Super-8. 35 millimeter is insanely wasteful. And it’s never cleaned. It gives me the horrors. Uncle Fishhook represents the idea of expectations from authority, which is also perfect for me since I could spend the rest of my life demolishing very happily. I can be happy in this way. You couldn’t, but it has just been my lot to have to clean out the toilets. I mean that’s the job that’s been inherited by me in life and I have run away from it. I spent the last fifteen years running away from it. Nobody wants to open a can of worms, but that’s the thing that has been handed for me to do. And maybe that’s a part of all bigtime manufacturers and capitalists, that they’re Uncle Fishhook. Maybe I’ve found a key to them in some way from having to deal with the evil that’s come into my life.
from THE HATRED OF CAPITALISM READER