In his 24 years as a film critic for the New York weekly The Village Voice, J. Hoberman has been one of the most consistently adventurous American critics. In addition to his weekly columns, he’s used books to explore an eclectic range of interests, always encompassing a dimension of cultural criticism and historical perspective. Midnight Movies (Da Capo Press, 1983), co-written with Jonathan Rosenbaum, explored the ’70s phenomenon of cult films, while A Bridge Of Light (Temple University Press, 1991) examined the equally curious and evanescent sphere of Yiddish-language films. Vulgar Modernism (Temple, 1991) compiled his best pieces of the ’80s, and The Red Atlantis (Temple, 1998) reworked some of his writing from that period into a fragmentary, wide-ranging history of the culture produced by – and in reaction to – Communist Eastern Europe and Russia. His latest book, On Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures (Granary Books, 2001), is an ornate monograph centering on Smith’s 1963 avant-garde landmark, which analyzes its contents, describes the censorship battles it gave rise to and examines the oeuvre of unfinished work Smith left behind.
This interview, conducted in November at Hoberman’s Village Voice office, concentrates on that book.
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S: How long was your idea for a book on Jack Smith percolating?
H: This book comes directly out of the 1997 retrospective on Jack Smith at the American Museum of the Moving Image (AMMI). It’s based on notes I prepared for the retrospective. I had also written about some of the films previously. I was given a series of photos by stills photographer, Norman Solomon, which he had taken during the making of Flaming Creatures (1962). They’re the only production stills of the film that exist. I really wanted to get those out to the world. In a way, the book became a means to do so. By this time, I also had accumulated a lot of information on Flaming Creatures, since I had interviewed many of the surviving cast members.
S: Smith comes up a number of times in Midnight Movies and Vulgar Modernism, including a review of Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom (Steven Spielberg, 1984).
H: He used that review for publicity! I discovered that after he died. I was very influenced by Smith’s theater work and slide shows in the early ’70s. I used to do theater work at that time, although the theatre pieces I was involved in were not much like his. His were like watching him just live. You would show up in his loft, which was in Soho [now a neighborhood dominated by expensive boutiques and restaurants. -SE] when it was still an industrial neighborhood. The only notice would be a little one in the Village Voice in the Off-Off-Broadway theatre listings. They all had these crazy names like Gas Stations Of The Cross Spectacular. Sometimes there were no actors but him. Jonas Mekas has a great description of one of them in “Movie Journal”. I was actually there that night. Some nights he would do theater pieces, and sometimes he would just show slides and play records.
S: Were you already working on this book when you and Edward Leffingwell edited the collection of Smith’s writings, Wait For Me At The Bottom Of The Pool (Serpent’s Tail, 1997)?
H: No, I did that first. That’s also something I wanted to do for a long time. I interviewed Jack…we were never really friends, which was OK. I much preferred being a fan, rather than a friend. He was a difficult guy. I was asked to interview him by The Drama Review when they were planning an issue on “auto-performance.” It was before the term “performance art” became popular, but it meant work by a single artist. They wanted a piece on him. I was recruited by Richard Foreman’s wife, Kate Mannheim. There were several months where she was Jack’s best friend. We spoke on the phone for about an hour, which is the longest I ever did, and had this conversation about his writings. I thought the work he did for Film Culture was amazing, especially his essay on Maria Montez. It’s so full of ideas.
S: What’s interesting about his writing is that the ideas he expressed are the exact same ones expressed in his films. Did that attract you?
H: I guess. P. Adams Sitney made that point right away. I can’t put the chronology together. It’s possible that I had read these pieces before I saw Flaming Creatures. For a time, it was very hard to see. He withdrew the film from circulation in the late ’60s, then it didn’t turn up again until Anthology Film Archives opened and included it as part of the Essential Cinema program. The whole time when I was going to underground films in high school and college, you couldn’t see it. After it popped up at Anthology, Smith withdrew it again, but you could continue to see it for a few years in the early ’70s on a regular cycle.
S: You were a filmmaker yourself, but you stopped making films around the same time you began writing for the Village Voice. Did you have trouble reconciling theory and practice?
H: Well, I went the usual way in reverse. I was making films, then I started writing about them. I began writing as a way, partially, to make a living, and I got a lot of positive reinforcement as a writer. It took the edge off. Making avant-garde films is a completely thankless task. I was never someone who wanted to make Hollywood films. I’m probably the only film critic who’s never written a screenplay. I had some specific things that I wanted to do, some films I planned but never made. I’m sorry I wasn’t able to do them, but I lost the kind of fanatical drive that you need to make films in that world.
S: In some of your books, like A Bridge Of Light, you seem to be interested mostly in your subject as a means of cultural criticism, whereas your enthusiasm for Flaming Creatures really comes across in this book. In the books you’ve written, how do you see the balance between the two? In A Bridge Of Light, I didn’t get the impression you think all the films you covered are masterpieces.
H: There are some Yiddish films I like very much, but I was interested mostly in the whole phenomenon. The same thing is true of Midnight Movies, although there are some individual works that I really care about. But I also wanted to put them in a social context. I guess I go back and forth. There were certain movies I responded to early in my life that I can’t get a historical perspective on. I know that Godard’s films are artifacts of the ’60s, but I don’t really see them that way. The same is true of Flaming Creatures.
S: The response to Flaming Creatures at the time was very homophobic, but if you look at the film now, it seems very sexually inclusive: queer in the ’90s sense of the term. Do you think that actually pissed people off more in the ’60s than if it only included gay sex?
H: At the time it came out and in the milieu where it was shown, it would have appeared as polymorphously perverse. The audience would have been very mixed in terms of sexual preference. That was part of the Bohemian atmosphere, and partially because there was a general sexual revolution going on. There were a lot of sexual issues that the film seemed to address. Certainly, the examples I quote in the book are homophobic, but I think it was perceived as liberating in a variety of ways. There’s been very little of analysis of what’s actually going on. The fantasy is queerer than queer. You can’t call the men in dresses drag queens, except Mario Montez. None of the other ones are trying to really look like women. The actual women are sexualized too. All kinds of people could relate to and be shocked by it.
Also, it was a desecration of form too. People either loved the way it looked or hated it. There aren’t really any precedents for movies that are this raw. I remember when it was shown in the 1990 New York Film Festival after he died, some of his friends saw it. While he was dying, Richard Peña [director of the NYFF. –SE] asked to show it, but Smith wanted it colorized. They showed it on a triple bill with a Ken Jacobs film and John Greyson’s The Making Of Monsters (1990). A number of Jack’s friends came there, and I don’t think they had ever seen it. It was embarrassing for them to see it next to The Making Of Monsters, this slick National Film Board of Canada production. To them, Flaming Creatures looked so amateurish that they blamed Anthology for a terrible restoration. It was fortunate that Jacobs was on a panel then, because he was around when it was made and could testify that it always looked like that. It doesn’t look any worse now. That aspect of the film is tied in with the sexual provocation.
S: How was Smith able to keep on working when he didn’t complete any other films and kept turning on people who had supported him?
H: Evidently he had some small family income, which people only found out about after he died. He lived in … squalor might be too strong a word, but his last apartment was a 6th-floor walk-up. For a time, he had patrons. It’s hard to remember now what an amazing sensation Flaming Creatures was. If you asked Andy Warhol in 1964 or 1965 what his favorite movie was, he’d always say Flaming Creatures. A lot of people loved the film, which probably kept him going into the 70s. Jonas paid for the film stock for Normal Love (1964). After that, he occasionally got grants and gigs. He had an audience in Europe and went there several times. But he used to live on oatmeal. He was the total antithesis of a careerist. It’s so different from how any artist would operate now. He never went to college and didn’t really function in the art world. In that context, Flaming Creatures was almost a negative career move.
H: The designer [Chippy] pretty much did her own work. My personal taste would be for a less aggressive design. I was responsible for the selection of the images. There are certain ones that she then used as design elements. That was her decision, but I supplied all of them. I’m very happy with how Solomon’s photos came out. The vertical footnotes might have been my idea, but I certainly wanted something that wasn’t a linear book. It’s not really a systematic book. I included all the information I had on the other films as a long addendum to the essay on Flaming Creatures. I felt a responsibility to do that because I’m working on their preservation.
S: Did you approach the BFI about publishing it in their “Classics” series? Although they’re less graphically oriented, it reminds me of their monographs.
H: No, but I think it’s in the same vein, and I enjoyed doing a book for that series.
S: Do you have any other books in the works?
H: I have a collection that I’m putting together for Temple. It’s a sequel to Vulgar Modernism, containing another ten years’ worth of pieces from The Village Voice. I’m giving them all the material in January, so the earliest it’ll be out is next fall. I’ve been working on another book for a long time. It’s about Hollywood films of the ’60s, but it’s as much history or cultural criticism as film criticism. There are some movies I write about that I like a lot, but many others that I only appreciate as artifacts. That’s currently between publishers.
S: When you first started writing about film, your beat, so to speak, was the avant-garde. Do you still follow it as much as you did then?
H: No, and I’m sorry it’s not being covered as much. When Manohla Dargis started at the Voice, it was great to see her cover it. Now other people occasionally write about it. When I started working here, there were a lot of areas that weren’t being covered: the avant-garde, documentaries, museum retrospectives, huge amounts of foreign films. Andrew Sarris and Tom Allen, who was a former student of Andy’s, were the main critics. So I got to review amazing things, like Celine & Julie Go Boating (Jacques Rivette, 1974), although it didn’t even run for a week. Neither of them wanted to review it. I made up a beat out of all this stuff.
S: There are a lot of critics who do good work when they’re excited by a film, but the rest of the time, their boredom is visible in their writing. On a weekly basis, you’re bound to be bored a lot of the time. No matter what you’re writing about it, your prose always seems fairly enthusiastic. How do you sustain it?
H: I don’t know. I’m glad you said that, because some weeks, it’s an effort to have an opinion. I always look for some angle to cover a film. There are some people – and I’m not passing judgment on them – who like being adversaries and attacking something. Once in a while, I’ll get angry at something and want to attack it. It’s more fun for me to write about something I like, but you don’t get that every week.
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