Harry Smith is among the secret architects of 20th-century American culture. Few know him by name, but Smith's most influential project, The Anthology of American Folk Music, helped inspire the mid-century folk revival that would transform the face of popular song.
That painstakingly assembled collection of early commercial recordings by a few artists soon-to-be-legendary, but mostly resoundingly obscure, was released in 1952. But while the Anthology alone secured his status, Smith -- an intimate of the beat and jazz scenes from the late 1940s on -- had plenty more to say. He was, for instance, an abstract painter and field-recordist of Native American music. He was also a filmmaker whose bizarre, enthralling and mind-blowingly choreographed animations, reflecting such interests as numerology, still command a cult following.
Smith's final film was his longest, most ambitious and least-seen: a lyric interpretation of Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, the 1930 Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht opera. The opera, set in a mythical (and ostensibly American) frontier town founded on bad faith and instant gratification, is a satire on capitalism and the Weimar republic. While it features one well-known tune -- "The Alabama Song" -- it's not staged nearly as often as that other Weill/Brecht classic, The Threepenny Opera. (Carnegie Mellon University, however, did a great production a couple years back.)
Smith was obsessed with it. He shot his film in the early 1970s, while living in New York's Chelsea Hotel, and spent the rest of the decade editing. Mahagonny premiered in 1980, at New York's Anthology Film Archives, with four different reels unspooling simultaneously on four 16 mm projectors. Smith, who died in 1991, at age 68, considered it his magnum opus.
The seldom-screened two-and-a-half-hour film was recently restored, with its four 16 mm frames tiled into one 35 mm image for ease of exhibition. Mahagonny features footage of artists including Allen Ginsberg, Patti Smith and Jonas Mekas, and installation pieces by Robert Mapplethorpe.
But while it's unavailable for preview before its showing at The Andy Warhol Museum, based on written descriptions the real star appears to be Smith's fecund imagination. He wished to translate the story's action, expressed via a 1957 German-language cast recording, into a series of images and symbols that would universalize the message. About half the film is animation, much of it featuring Smith's favored motifs of dots and circles in motion. The rest is a collage of portraits and other photographed reality, from fire to plants growing to scenes of the city. Mahagonny promises, if nothing else, to be a visual adventure.