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The turbulent life of Harry Smith


Hated by Harry Smith
Jonas Mekas Film-maker
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I had heard already of Harry Smith I think through Robert Frank who had seen him in San Francisco end of the '60s before he came to New York, but he was very had already made his films, his main films, that is Early Abstractions, Heaven and Earth Magic and he worked there with several other film-makers. And I heard that he's very good and he's very difficult and very eccentric and very... so he, Harry... he was very much interested in music, of course. Now by the time that I'm talking, Harry Smith's Anthology of the American Early Folk Music and.. is a classic and he's more known actually in here in America and Europe as by the wider... he's known more by more people for his work in music that is collecting those incredible anthologies, than film. But when I met him for the first time, I knew only about his work in cinema.

And think when he came, I met him first at the screening of Andy Warhol's film Sleep, and he came in, and he looked at me, he went direct to me and he said, 'I hate you'. I said, 'Harry, now, are you serious?' 'I don't think we are serious because if you would say this seriously I think you know what it means, what it does, not somebody, if you say that seriously and if you really hate somebody'. Now, of course, I said that because I knew he's interested in sort of the deeper effects of relationships, so he looked at me, turned around and walked out to whomever he was... and he came back only much later. I think he went out, had three or four beers, then he came back. And he will then... then like a week later he comes in to the Film-makers' Cooperative where I was and drops his films in front of me, says, 'Here is my work, do whatever you want with it'. And that's where our friendship began. He was a terrific... I mean, encyclopedic kind of person who... an incredible memory. Whatever he read, he remembered, he could go and locate exactly on what page where it is. He collected, he left when he died, about 10 years, about 5,000 books which are now at anthology on... on linguistics, anthropology, folk arts of various countries, nations, tribes, a lot of native, and wherever he went, he snooped, he always bought books. If you give him, you know, money, even if he has to eat, he will spend first on the books and then food.

Jonas Mekas (1922-2019), Lithuanian-born poet, philosopher and film-maker, set up film collectives, the Anthology Film Archive, published filmzines and made hundreds of films, all contributing to his title as 'the godfather of American avant-garde cinema'. He emigrated to America after escaping from a forced labour camp in Germany in 1945.

Listeners: Amy Taubin

Amy Taubin is a contributing editor for "Film Comment" magazine and "Sight and Sound" magazine. Her book, "Taxi Driver", was published in 2000 in the British Film Institute's Film Classics series. Her chapter on "America: The Modern Era" is part of "The Critics Choice" published by Billboard Press, 2001, and her critical essays are included in many anthologies, mostly recently in "Frank Films: The Film and Video Work of Robert Frank" published by Scalo.

She wrote for "The Village Voice" weekly from 1987 into 2001 both as a film and a television critic. She also wrote a column for the "Village Voice" titled "Art and Industry" which covered American independent filmmaking. Her first weekly film criticism job was at the "SoHo Weekly News". Her writing has also appeared in "Art Forum", the "New York Times", the "New York Daily News", the "LA Weekly", "Millennium Film Journal", "US Harpers Bazaar" and many other magazines. She is a member of the National Society of Film Critics and the New York Film Critics Online.

She started her professional life as an actress, appearing most notably on Broadway in "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie", and in avant-garde films, among them Michael Snow's "Wavelength", Andy Warhol's "Couch", and Jonas Mekas' "Diaries, Notebooks and Sketches".

Her own avant-garde film, "In the Bag" (1981) is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art and the Friends of Young Cinema Archives in Berlin.

She was the video and film curator of "The Kitchen" from 1983-1987.

She has a B.A. from Sarah Lawrence College and an M.A. from N.Y.U. in cinema studies. She teaches at the School of Visual Arts in both the undergraduate and the MFA graduate programs, and lectures frequently at museums, media centers, and academic institutions. In 2003, she received the School of Visual Arts' art historian teaching award.

Tags: Early Abstractions, Heaven and Earth Magic, Anthology of the American Early Folk Music, Sleep, Harry Smith, Andy Warhol

Duration: 3 minutes, 50 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2003

Date story went live: 29 September 2010