ANIMATION WORLD MAGAZINE - ISSUE 3.9 - December 1998
American Magus - Harry Smith - A Modern Alchemist
book review by Giannalberto Bendazzi
It is a duty, as well as a pleasure, to report on this excellent book published by a small press penalized by a rather limited distribution. Harry Smith (1923-1991) is one of the most hidden, obscure and enigmatic figures in the entire history of animation and the avant-garde. He gave interviews extremely rarely, and his interior universe was so foreign to the world of rationality and the everyday as to render dialogue with those near him almost always impossible. Nonetheless, his genius is recognized among the oldest to have practiced in our field: it's enough to remember the abstract feature Heaven And Earth Magic (1950-1960), even in the non-definitive versions which are in circulation, to have a measure of his poetic power.
A Little About the Man
Smith had an extraordinarily intricate and contradictory personality, dedicated to diverse disciplines. He was a painter, filmmaker, anthropologist, ethnomusicologist, occultist, alchemist, and collector of unusual objects. For instance, he assembled about 30,000 Ukrainian painted Easter eggs, with written annotations about each; filled 12 large boxes with paper airplanes which he finally donated to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington; and studied the languages, customs and religious ceremonies of the American Indians, and donated his collection of Indian artifacts to an ethnography museum in Sweden. In 1952, he published on Folkways Records an Anthology Of American Folk Music, which was the result of years of research, and, influencing musicians like Bob Dylan, was the basis of the boom in popular music in 1960s America.
Contrary to these constructive aspects however, Smith also fostered destructive tendencies. He didn't take care of his personal grooming or health; he ceaselessly re-edited his films without ever trying to establish a best version (`My films must be seen all together or not at all,' he used to say); he deliberately destroyed a large number of paintings and films and let his artistic patrimony be dispersed and plundered. Today Rani Singh, who was his assistant from 1988 until his death, heads a Harry Smith Archives, which is devoted to preserving the salvageable and recuperating all that can be found from the works of this genuine, if probably unwitting, American Surrealist.
A Little About the Book
The book American Magus is a work in progress. The editor, Paola Igliori is an Italian from Rome who has become a New Yorker by adoption. A student of art and an artist herself, she knew Harry Smith during the late `80s and was at his side at the moment of his death. She managed to collect some information from him and tried to understand the man and his works. As she wrote in the preface, "This book is only a scratching of the surface. It hopes to be direct, simple traces of Harry, a live map of different points of entrance in the labyrinth. I hope it will be a pathfinder for other more in-depth works." [Think of the Self Speaking: Selected Interviews of Harry Smith, a new book, has just been released this month and is reviewed in this issue as well.]
The book opens with two essays, one by musician, computer designer and writer Bill Breeze, and another by the aforementioned Singh. They have the function of creating a minimum of order and information on the subject which the reader must then pursue through drawings, photographs, reproductions, manuscripts, interviews with curators and friends and colleagues of the artist, and documents of various kinds, ending with a list of the innumerable and chaotic objects left by the deceased. Among the interviews I would recommend that with Jordan Belson, another solitary and retiring genius of non-objective animation who evokes the period from 1946 to the early 1950s when he and Smith were coming of age in Berkeley and San Francisco; that of Jonas Mekas, New York guru of the avant-garde cinema, who was close to Harry during the early 1960s and beyond; that of Rosebud, who was the spiritual wife of a man who never showed much interest in sex; and that of the poet Allen Ginsberg.
One hopes that in the near future scholars will succeed, slowly and methodically, in putting in order, dating and numbering the rest of the works of Harry Smith, and will hopefully recover at least a portion of the lost materials. That would be good, but in any case this American Magus certainly preserves for us, at least in part, the anarchy, volcanic freedom, and lightning of this alien with the superior mind that never once considered the possibility of following some current trend.
American Magus - Harry Smith - A Modern Alchemist, edited by Paola Igliori. New York, New York: Inanout Press, 1996. 286 pages. ISBN: 0-9625119-9-4 (U.S. $27.95 paperback). This book is now available on-line in the Animation World Store.
Translated from Italian by William Moritz.
Giannalberto Bendazzi is a Milan-based film historian and critic whose history of animation, Cartoons: One Hundred Years of Cinema Animation, is published in the U.S. by Indiana University Press and in the U.K. by John Libbey. His other books on animation include Topoline e poi (1978), Due voite l'oceana (1983) and Il movimento creato (1993, with Guido Michelone).
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