Harry Smith Centennial

Presented on 35mm

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Film nos. 1–5, 7, 10 (Early Abstractions)

Early Abstractions comprises six films that vary in length from 2 to 5 1/2 minutes. The works were produced over a seven-year period from 1946 to 1952. As Jonas Mekas has said, “You can watch them for pure color enjoyment; you can watch them for motion—Harry Smith’s films never stop moving; or you can watch them for hidden symbolic meanings, alchemic signs. There are more levels in Harry Smith’s work than in any other film animator I know.” Inspired by Native American cultures, jazz, the Kabbalah, and surrealism, Smith assembled his own cinematic universe of shape, color, light, and time. Early Abstractions reveals the whimsical, mystical side of experimental animation.

To create No: 2 Message From the Sun, a film that Smith said “takes places either inside the sun or in Zurich, Switzerland,” the artist applied round, removable stickers to the filmstock, painted the film, and then coated the surface with Vaseline. When the stickers were removed, the circles remained in outline and another layer of paint was applied. As the film is projected, the circle’s rhythmic patterns seem to travel and grow in intensity through the layering and merging of colors. (Harry Smith, USA, 1946-52, 23 min.) Restored by Anthology Film Archives and The Film Foundation with funding provided by the Hobson/Lucas Family Foundation.

Followed by:

Film no. 14 (Late Superimpositions)

“Superimposed photographs of Mr. Fleischman’s butcher shop in New York and the Kiowa around Anadarko, Oklahoma–with cognate material. The trip is dark at the beginning and end, light in the middle, and is structured 122333221. I honor it the most of my films, otherwise a not very popular one before 1972. If the exciter lamp blows, play Bert Brecht’s Mahogany.” – HS (Harry Smith, USA, 1964, 31 min.) Restored by Anthology Film Archives and The Film Foundation with funding provided by the Hobson/Lucas Family Foundation.

Introduced by John Szwed, author of the new book Cosmic Scholar: The Life and Times of Harry Smith

John Szwed is an anthropologist, musician, and writer who has taught African American studies, film studies, music, anthropology, folklore, and performance studies at New York University, the University of Pennsylvania, Yale University, and Columbia University, where he was director of the Center for Jazz Studies from 2009 to 2014. His books include Space Is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra (1997), So What: The Life of Miles Davis (2002), Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World (2010), Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth (2015) and Cosmic Scholar: The Life and Times of Harry Smith (2023). Szwed is an adjunct senior research scholar at Columbia University.