Mar 31, 2010

Harry Smith and William S. Burroughs

William S. Burroughs has been a major inspiration for me for a long time, and I've read his works extensively, as well as books about him. Much like Burroughs, Harry Smith was a truly innovative artist whose talent and vision transcended the era of the 50's and 60's. In many senses, Burroughs' "cut-up" style of writing seems almost seamlessly matched to Smith's early abstract animations.

Honestly, I only just recently realized that Harry Smith the experimental filmmaker/animator is also the same Harry Smith who frequently shows up with people like Burroughs and Paul Bowles and Allen Ginsberg in countless drug-and-booze influenced stories from the Beat Era. To make it even more suspicious, he's also the same Harry Smith who compiled the Anthology of American Folk Music in the early '50's, which went on to inspire a new era of folk musicians, including Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. At various points and places in his life he was also known as a painter and a sort-of new age philosopher.

(Okay, wait a minute ... Doesn't it sound like one person couldn't really have done all this stuff in one life? Plus, isn't it kinda suspicious that his name is so ordinary that it doesn't even sound like a name? Harry Smith? That's like naming your dog "Fido", or your cat "Whiskers". "Harry Smith" might be an animator, but he might just as well be a group or a collective of "Harry Smiths". I think somebody should do a really thorough investigation into this.)

Anyway, "Harry Smith's" early abstract animations are still highly influential. Performers like Deerhoof and Philip Glass have used his films in their shows.

And like Burroughs, his intelligence and style were far ahead of his time; this sucked for him 'cuz he wound up being wicked poor and fucked-up for a while, but it's awesome for the later generations of artists that discovered his work and were profoundly inspired by it.

Also: despite his wide and varied body of work, Smith had a bizarrely self-destructive side. He was known, at times, to purposely destroy his own paintings and films. On top of that, he often continued to edit his films long after they had been "finished". Ultimately, this made compiling his films really difficult for archivists and fans.

Here is one of his early abstract animations:

Ummm ... I just thought of something as I was watching that. It's got nothing to do with Harry Smith, but it does have a lot to do with squares and shapes and stuff. It's a film by Co Hodemann called "Tchou-Tchou". It's great and fun and also scary:

Also, for a really deeply incisive first-hand account of what Harry Smith was like as a person, here's an interview with Allen Ginsberg about him:

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