Magazine article Artforum International

Talent, without Question

Magazine article Artforum International

Talent, without Question

Article excerpt

It was the end of a long summer afternoon in the early '60s and I was sitting with Jack Smith in his loft on Grand Street. That is, I was sitting, he was lying on the floor, limp as an abandoned marionette, looking as mournful as only Jack could when he was completely out of dope, having exhausted even such tried-and-true bummers as catnip and oregano.

"Do you think I should go to an anal-yst?" asked Jack, pronouncing it as "anal."

I was much taken aback, the idea was so alien to Jack's secretive and paranoid nature, but I was warmly enthusiastic. Jack was tormented by so many things, by his loneliness, what he called his "sorry relations with women," his "sick relations with men." His life had been so relentlessly awful. A "Hungarian Hill-billy," he called himself. His father was cut in half by a shrimp boat when Jack was a child. His mother, "an ogress," was a trained nurse who specialized in isolating her dying patients and extracting large bequests from them.

I thought of some of Jack's fantasies: "I have this obsession with cunts and the insides of things. When I was alone in New York, I used to walk down the dark streets and stare at the buildings. I wanted to ravish them. Feel and explore every nook and cranny."

"Yes, Jack, please. Please, let me help you out with this." I said.

"It shouldn't be very expensive," said Jack, "because there is only one question I need to ask. But I need to ask it to an anal-yst so I can straighten out my life."

One question?

The next day I arrived with the name of a therapist. Jack was playing the sound track of the Entrance into Baghdad. "I've been thinking," he said. "If I'm going to go to a doctor, it would be more important for me to go to a plastic surgeon."

"Why on earth?"

"How can you ask?"Jack shrieked in his Renata Scotto timbre that contrasted so alarmingly with his usual moon-creature whisper. "My nose!"

Jack did have a very big nose, but it gave his face tremendous style and, I thought, beauty.

"Jack, you have a wonderful nose."

"You were never called Banana Nose by every kid on the block. Besides I want to play Hamlet, and how can I play Hamlet with this nose?"

Among all his other talents, Jack happened to be a marvelous actor, but my sympathy faded over the course of the afternoon and our visit ended rather crossly.

I had been close friends with Jack for two years at that time, and our relationship had gone through many stages, all intense. When I first saw Flaming Creatures, I felt I had found the person I had been looking for all my life. I had always been drawn to people who were intelligent misfits, breakers of rules, and disrupters of what I felt was a depressingly conventional social order. Most of these people I loved were very unhappy, despite their bravado, My deepest desire was to help them express their most outrageous fantasies and understand that they could be admired and loved just as they were. When I saw Jack's bunch of grotesques and how he made them shine, I thought he could change the world.

The sight of Jack's leading "Cinemaroc Superstar," Mario Montez, decked out in his blond wig and ghastly finery with a two day's growth of beard under pounds of pancake was touching. I assumed that Jack loved Mario protectively, that what he was working so painstakingly to present was the Inner Mario, Mario In Excelsis.

It did not take me long to realize that Jack and I had decidedly different attitudes. Jack actually found his transvestites, pansexuals, and mentally retarded bag ladies hilarious. Sometimes he would have to stop shooting, he was so doubled up with silent laughter, and the more seriously his stars took themselves, the more he became convulsed. …

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