Close Window

The Getty Research Institute presents
Harry Smith's Film #18, Mahagonny

Symposium Statement

Experimental filmmaker, anthropologist, painter, and musicologist Harry Smith's final film was an epic four-screen projection titled Mahagonny. Smith worked on this cinematic transformation of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht's opera Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny for over ten years and considered it his magnum opus. His friends have said that Smith was obsessed with the opera, playing it over and over in his room at the Chelsea Hotel. The film was shot from 1970 to 1972 and edited for the next eight years. The "program" of the film is meticulous, with a complex structure and order. The Weill opera is transformed into a numerological and symbolic system. Images in the film are divided into the categories portraits, animation, symbols and nature to form the palindrome P.A.S.A.N.A.S.A.P.

Mahagonny is an allegory of contemporary life, it explores the needs and desires of man amid the rituals of daily life in New York City. Smith's New York is a place where everything is permitted and the only sin is not having enough money. Much of the action takes place within the Chelsea Hotel. The film contains invaluable portraits of important avantgarde figures such as Allen Ginsberg, Patti Smith, and Jonas Mekas, intercut with installation pieces from Robert Mapplethorpe's studio, New York City landmarks of the era, and Smith's visionary animation. Smith's portrait of life in New York has strong affinities with the Brecht/Weill opera. Both are set in a somewhat mythical America, meant to exemplify life in capitalist society more generally. The opera caused a riot when it premiered in Leipzig, Germany, in 1930. Smith's selection of the opera was prompted by his desire to create a similarly radical effect, although his Mahagonny provoked no mass demonstrations when it was screened on the Lower East Side.

Smith identified with Weill's transformation of popular music into an avantgarde presentation, and an analogy can be made between Weill's work and Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music (1952). For the Anthology, Smith took existing commercial recordings of traditional American folk music and reshaped them into a complex aural collage. Like Weill's opera and the Anthology, Mahagonny blurs the line between "high" and "low," traditional form and radical production, taking vernacular elements out of their original context to create a work of true originality, addressing many areas of culture that Smith had been investigating for over thirty years.

The editing of Mahagonny was a byzantine process. Smith created index cards for each scene and organized them according to various mathematical permutations in relation to the opera. Twenty-four scenes appear on each reel, following the order of the palindrome. Smith determined the length of each scene by taking into account certain constants in the viewer such as respiration and heartbeat. To synchronize the four reels with the operatic score, he made scrolls representing each edited reel plus a fifth scroll with the time code and list of scenes from the opera. The completed film consists of four 16 mm images tiled together on the screen to form one four-part image synched to the opera.

The film has had limited exposure, showing only six times in 1980 at Anthology Film Archives in New York with Smith present at each screening. His desire was to have it presented on four pool tables within a boxing ring but that was never realized. Smith designed frame filters within which the film would be projected accompanied by scrolling subtitles of the opera, but that project also never came to fruition.

This screening represents the completion of an ambitious preservation project by the Harry Smith Archives with the assistance of Anthology Film Archives. The original 16mm elements have been duplicated and transferred to an optically printed 35mm film. We present the newly preserved film with a one-day symposium that will investigate the various paths of Smith's creative universe. This symposium is part of the Getty Research Institute's 2001-2002 theme, "Frames of Viewing: Experience, Perception, Judgment."

Rani Singh, Getty Research Institute

Film Stills from Mahagonny