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By Chuck Stephens
“When you have police everything looks queer.”—Jack Smith
Political filmmaker and pageant master Jack Smith’s final feature, No President—created and variously incarnated while Richard Nixon took office and the ’60s came to a close (and left, like all of his films after 1963’s Flaming Creatures, intentionally unfinished)—is a masque of race and death. White faces, black flesh, an enormous tusk, a bug-eyed succubus, holes in the plaster, acrid marihuana, vinyl exotica, a Christmas tree: these are the articles constituted. One nation, overexposed, with feather boas and liberation for all. Metamorphosis: tear gas wafts through the roses. And now here we are again, with the end of the Sixties just another Ludovico loop. But is the underground on top of things? At least, at last, No President (reconstituted by filmmaker Jerry Tartaglia) is on Vimeo. Hail to the grief.
Flashback to the fallen carcass of ’50s America, freshly graffitied in 1963 with the legends of Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra, Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Steve McQueen in The Great Escape, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Aldous Huxley’s deathbed dose of LSD, and Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures and Normal Love. Born in Ohio, raised in Texas, Smith moved to New York City in 1953; by the time he began the series of screenings and comminglings that became No President, he’d been making films, and unmaking cinema, for more than a decade. Smith scholar and keeper-of-the-flame J. Hoberman: “The last of Jack Smith’s 16mm features—austerely black-and-white, more an exercise in sensibility than craft—No President evolved out of his 1967 program, Horror and Fantasy at Midnight, first shown on November 9th and 14th at the New Cinema Playhouse on West 42nd Street (where Chelsea Girls had begun its epochal run the year before). Smith’s poster cites a number of individual titles—‘film clips from the subterranean chambers of Dr. Madman!’—including Reefers of Technicolor Island, Scrubwoman of Atlantis, Ratdroppings of Uranus, Marshgas of Flatulandia, The Flake of Soot, and Overstimulated […].”
Originally titled The Kidnapping of Wendell Willkie by the Love Bandit, No President as it exists today consists of bits of a travelogue concerning a Sumatran fishing village and newsreel footage of FDR political adversary Willkie on the campaign trail (both of those with soundtracks slowed and slurred); Black men in fun-fur loincloths, White women in cocktail dresses, and assorted creatures variously aflame in etiolated ambiguities; a languorous anti-orgy which leaves this multiracial phallocracy mostly floppy and waggling; the author Irving Rosenthal brandishing a corncob; a Baghdad slave auction out of Maria Montez’s 1942 Arabian Nights; pirates in heavy eyeliner; and an ominous odalisque bemasked in black veils who’s pushed about in a wheelchair. There’s also some belly dancing. And the advance of parading troops.
Experimental filmmakers have long worn their politics on their sleeves and elsewhere (Paul Sharits’ tongue threatened with scissors), and Smith may have been the most outspoken of them all, if through a cucoloris darkly. Like all his work, Smith’s vision of the corruptions of capitalism was as simple as it was baroque and, to borrow Hoberman’s terms, more the exercising of a sensibility than a craft: “I think there’s only one giant social problem,” the filmmaker and political theorist ventured, “which is irrational landlordism.” Smith objected wholesale to the absurdity of ownership; to the rectangular enslavements of the monthly rent check; to the disenfranchisement of humanity and the disembowelment of artistry in order to feed the landlords and lobsters and their film mausoleums and police forces and…“I cannot live in their ugliness,” concluded Smith. “I have to make my own.”
Fuck the police! Fuck rent! No President!