It was the first showing of this film “outside the laboratory” according to the presenter, which makes me pretty lucky, I guess, since it was also my first Harry Smith film—though to gather from the conversation of the over-the-top-serious film buffs who attended Thursday’s press screening, versions of most of the images had appeared in other Smith films as well.
#23, which consists of two rolls of film, one with a soundtrack, superimposed on each other, was discovered recently among Harry’s films in storage at the Anthology Film Archives, where he was artist-in-residence for many years. The presenter thought it might consist of footage that didn’t end up in Harry’s famous Mahagonny; in any event it is related to that film, though one of the film buffs said that some of the footage (such as shots of a carpet and various patterns formed out of powered pigment used as background) probably dated to the forties.
The film itself is a beautiful piece of work, and seems to tell the tale of all humanity, from birth (a young couple superimposed over a matronly woman with her crotch nearly exposed) to death (the black waters of the pond in central park, a supine figure on the Chelsea Hotel roof) as Fate, in the form of a girl demonstrating string figures, weaves her web. There are several striking images in the film, especially toward the end, including the string-figure girl, attired in black, super-imposed on the waters of the pond, so that only the string, forever reforming itself, is clearly visible; finally, red roses are superimposed on the image of the girl.
So, in other words, it’s worth seeing. I don’t know how it stands up to Harry’s other work (obviously), but since this is the only thing showing at the present, go see it. The soundtrack, one of the film buffs claimed (gee, I’m relying on these guys a lot, aren’t I), was by Johnny Johnson from the 30s with Burgess Meredith reading various WWII-related statements over the music. (UPDATE - A reader writes: Johnny Johnson is not a composer, but the name of a musical work by Kurt Weill, who composed Mahagonny as well.)
Of interest to Chelsea Hotel aficionados: the film has some footage of Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe, and also of Naomi Levine, a Chelsea character whom old residents may remember. Rosebud Petit, Harry’s “spiritual wife” also may have appeared, though no one was quite sure if it was her or not. There’s also a scene at the end of the film that’s shot on the Chelsea Hotel roof (now sadly under assault by minority shareholders who want to put a club up there), apparently shot some time in the late sixties or early seventies to judge by the appearance of the actors.
[Harry Smith’s #23 is being shown as part of the Anthology Film Archives screening of Chelsea Hotel related films. #23 will be shown Friday, April 10 at 7:00, Saturday, April 11 at 5:30 and Sunday, April 12 at 9:00]