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'Mahagonny' Tribute Features Songs, Talk From Patti Smith


In a 1977 interview, New York art maverick Harry Smith said that the best response to his final experimental film "Mahagonny," then a work in progress, was "if the audience goes to sleep." So you have to wonder what Smith, who died in 1991 at age 68, would have made of the events last week at the Getty Center's Harold M. Williams Auditorium.

A restored version of the film was shown Thursday for the first time since 1980, followed Friday by an all-day symposium aimed at unraveling the knotty and highly idiosyncratic work.

And capping it off was a charmingly ramshackle performance by Patti Smith, one of his most famous friends and proteges, who appears briefly in the film.

Accompanied by her son, Jackson, on acoustic guitar, the art-punk icon topped off a few readings and songs of her own with personalized versions of three songs by composer Kurt Weill, who with Bertolt Brecht wrote the savagely satirical 1930 opera "Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny," the inspiration (and score) for the movie.

The film is a complexly woven series of images arranged in four quadrants of the screen, somehow impressionistically linking '70s Manhattan to the lawless, doomed city of the Weill/Brecht opera. (The complete recording of the famed 1956 version starring Lotte Lenya serves as the soundtrack--all two hours and 22 minutes of it, in German). And its structure, Smith said, was derived from a mathematical analysis of Marcel Duchamp's conceptual art piece "Large Glass."

For the first part of the film, such images as New York street scenes, women doing stylized tai chi-type movements or making cat's cradles with string loops, and patterns made in colored sand are flopped in mirror images meeting in the middle. Later, each quarter of the screen holds independent shots. It's part kaleidoscope, part Rorschach, part cabalistic ritual, created with obsessive attention to detail over a 10-year period by a truly eccentric artist.

At Thursday's screening, some audience members did fall asleep. Others grew fidgety, and some simply gave up and left before it was done.

Even at Friday's symposium, experts as diverse as Stanford University music department chair Stephen Hinton, Duchamp authority David Joselit of UC Irvine and critic Gary Indiana seemed confounded in trying to find any direct parallels between the film and, respectively, the original opera, "Large Glass" and the social conditions of Weill's Weimar Republic and Smith's Manhattan.

In her symposium talk, Patti Smith presented loving, touching and humorous remembrances of the filmmaker and the Chelsea Hotel, the Manhattan artists' haven where they both lived.

"When I saw Harry's film last night, it just seemed to me like Harry--innocent," she said.

Smith echoed that sentiment in the evening with her song "Boy Cried Wolf," which features the line "innocence had its day." And there was an innocent quality to her tentative yet dramatic recitation of "Pirate Jenny" from the Brecht/Weill "The Threepenny Opera," and a fully sung version of "Alabama Song," which, she joked, is the hit single of "Mahagonny."

And her overall reaction to the film?

"It made me cry," she said in the symposium, sheepishly adding, "when I'd wake up."

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