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‘The Dream of Color Music’: Abstract animator Oskar Fischinger, Harry Smith’s favorite director

Harry Smith, the eccentric experimental filmmaker, artist, anthropologist, bohemian mystic and record collector, first encountered Oskar Fischinger’s animated films in 1947, when he was helping organize the experimental film festival Art in Cinema for the San Francisco Museum of Art. Fischinger’s work had a profound effect on Smith. According to Rani Singh, executor of the Harry Smith Archives, Smith traveled to Los Angeles in July 1947 on the festival’s behalf to connect with SoCal filmmakers. “There he met James and John Whitney, Kenneth Anger, and, most important, Fischinger, who became a seminal influence. Fischinger was one of the few artists Smith ever credited as an inspiration for his work.” William Moritz goes a step further, claiming that Smith didn’t take up abstract filmmaking until he saw Fischinger’s and the Whitneys’ work in connection with Art in Cinema. (Smith himself claimed to have started making his movies in 1939.)

Here’s how Smith described Fischinger’s influence in a 1977 interview with Moritz, quoted in American Magus Harry Smith: A Modern Alchemist:

You can tell how much I admire Fischinger: the only film of mine that I ever gave a real title to was Homage to Oskar Fischinger (Film No. 5, in the current scheme of things). I learned concentration from him—visiting his home and seeing how he could sit serenely in that small house, crawling with what seemed like a dozen children, and still paint those stunning pictures. That great film Motion Painting makes the process seem deceptively simple—and it was simple for him: the images really did just flow from his brush, never a ruler or a compass, all-freehand—but you can’t see all the obstacles he had to overcome in order to even work at all. Something so wonderful happened in that film, and in those paintings, something so much better than all the Pollocks and other stuff that the museums fight to get hold of. Did anyone ever fight to save Fischinger’s things?

Among the “obstacles” Harry referred to might have been that one time the Nazis branded Fischinger’s work entartete Kunst (degenerate art). In 1936, Fischinger fled to Los Angeles, where he worked for Paramount, MGM, and Disney in rapid succession. Film historian William Moritz wrote “Fischinger found it extremely difficult to work in studio situations.” Fischinger designed the Bach sequence for Fantasia, but quit without credit because Disney altered his designs to be less abstract. Fischinger also contributed to the special effects of the Blue Fairy’s wand in Pinocchio according to Moritz.

The first time I saw Motion Painting No. 1, it was on a big screen with the volume cranked, and I nearly jumped out of my seat. It’s not going to have the same effect streaming from Russia or wherever on your laptop, but it’s still glorious.

Oskar Fischinger’s Motion Painting No. 1
More after the jump…

Posted by Oliver Hall | Leave a comment
Flying Lotus re-scores Harry Smith’s ‘Heaven and Earth Magic’
07:54 pm


Harry Smith
Flying Lotus

Flying Lotus and Harry Smith, two great tastes that taste great together!

Tomorrow night, our friends at Cinefamily present this inspired avant garde pairing:

Reprising an unforgettable show commissioned for the Ann Arbor Film Festival, L.A.’s own Flying Lotus joins Animation Breakdown for a unique screening of animator/folk music archivist/string figure enthusiast/culture hound extraordinaire Harry Smith’s 66-minute animated collage film Heaven and Earth Magic. The marriage of Smith’s ‘50s folk art mindset and Flying Lotus’ genre-defying 21st century sound may seem at odds, but they are both equally brilliant alchemical cut-and-paste samplers of world culture—and as kindred as spirits can get. Heaven and Earth Magic is a testament to the ability of animators to act as magicians, breathing life into even the most static, eyeworn 19th-century imagery—and as Flying Lotus contributes audio from disparate yet familiar sources (drum machine, turntable, laptop, synthesizer), two giants of sampling unite across time, and Smith’s playful experiments are imbued with a new, positively cosmic energy. This is one-of-a-kind live pairing you are not likely to see again!

Tickets $12, Tuesday, February 28th, 8:00pm at Cinefamily

Below, an excerpt from Harry Smith’s “Heaven and Earth Magic.” If you aren’t lucky enough to live in LA (I love saying that) as you’re watching it, maybe listen to Cosmogramma?

Posted by Richard Metzger | Leave a comment
Some Crazy Magic: Meeting Harry Smith

Photo by Allen Ginsberg

This wonderful short animated film by Drew Christie recounts musicologist John Cohen’s first meeting with Harry Everett Smith, polymath autodidact weirdo, experimental filmmaker and the Grammy-award-winning compiler of the classic Anthology of American Folk Music.

It’s an absolute delight! Guaranteed to make you smile or double your money back.

There are several similarly charming Harry Smith anecdotes like this one recounted in books such as Harry Smith: The Avant-Garde in the American Vernacular (Andrew Perchuck and Rani Singh); Think of the Self Speaking (edited by Rani Singh); American Magus: Harry Smith (edited by Paola Igliori) and the monograph Harry Smith: Fragments of a Northwest Life (Darrin Daniel).

My favorite Smith anecdote, and I think this one comes via Allen Ginsberg—pretty sure—is that Smith usually wore eyeglasses that he found in the trash. If he happened upon some discarded glasses, tried them on and they were better than the ones he was wearing, he’d toss the old ones and keep the new ones!

And speaking of Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, if the animation intrigues you, and his Anthology box set is something that you are unfamiliar with, you can listen to this special podcast about it on the American Standard Time blog’s Roadhouse Radio show.

Via John Coulthart

Posted by Richard Metzger | Leave a comment
Harry Smith: American Magus
12:26 pm


Aleister Crowley
Allen Ginsberg
Harry Smith

Artist, alchemical filmmaker, musical archeologist and avant garde shaman, Harry Smith’s obsessive interests made him an influential, yet not widely known, figure of 20th century Beat culture and beyond. If Smith was only responsible for preserving the folk and blues musical traditions of early America in his Anthology of American Folk Music set from 1952, we would have him to thank for providing a way forward for a young Bob Dylan and the whole of the 60s/70s folk scene.

But Smith was far more than that, he was a filmmaker of astonishing originality, making stop motion animations influenced by 19th advertising art and the elaborate Middle Ages alchemical paintings of Robert Fludd. When I first saw VHS dubs of Smith’s films in the 1980s, I was impressed of course, but as I later learned, in actual fact what I had seen was only a part of what Smith had intended. He made his films as magic lanterns, with several projectors running at once and spinning lamps complementing the central image. When I saw his restored masterpiece No. 18: Mahagonny at the Getty Center in Los Angeles a few years back, it struck me how difficult it must have been to sync up four projectors at once (and the musical accompaniment, a recording of Kurt Weil and Bertolt Brecht’s Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny opera).

The restored version of Smith’s celluloid tetraptych was a marvel to behold, with all of the four images now perfectly in time to one another, and looking like a great psychedelic kaleidoscope of imagery taken around New York City, in particular the Chelsea Hotel and its bohemian denizens. Patti Smith, Allen Ginsberg and the Jefferson Airplane’s Marty Balin all make cameo appearances. Seen, digitally restored and as Smith had intended, it was simply breath taking.

Apparently Smith never met a drug he didn’t like and would take any pill, drink any drink, smoke any joint, or snort any powder offered him and he was not at all averse to huffing gasoline, it’s been said, when that’s all that was around. For long periods of time he lived off the kindness of others and borrowed lots of money he had no intention of ever repaying. Yet Smith himself was said to be generous to a fault. Strange anecdotes about Harry Smith abound, many of them collected in two books about him American Magus: Harry Smith (edited by Paola Igliori) and Think of the Self Speaking (edited by Rani Singh, who is Smith’s archivist). My favorite story about Smith is how, if he’d find a pair of glasses, try them on and could see out of them better than the ones he was wearing, he’d toss the old pair in the garbage. Smith also claimed that Aleister Crowley was his father. All in all, you could say he was a colorful guy.



I am reminded of Harry Smith every day. I have one of the original Tree of Life prints that Smith made in the 1950s and gave as a gift to Allen Ginsberg. It’s still in the original brass frame that Ginsberg put it in. His handwriting is on the back in pencil along with a sticker from the Whitney. It’s in our dining room now.

In the last couple of years, New York-based artist M Henry Jones, who worked with Smith and continues to project Smith’s work as it was intended to be seen (click here for a short interview with Jones and some footage of one of his special Smith screenings. It’s really interesting to see, trust me) has put up a few fascinating videos of Smith being interviewed:

Posted by Richard Metzger | Leave a comment
Patti Smith tribute to Harry Smith
12:41 am


Patti Smith
Harry Smith
Hammer Museum

Harry Smith, the artist as a young man.
Last year Patti Smith paid tribute to “filmmaker, musicologist, ethnographer, bohemian, and occultist, Harry Smith” at The Hammer Museum in Los Angeles.

In this simple and sweet video, Patti reads from her memoir, tells stories and sings a Hank Williams tune as well as her own.

The audio makes it sound at times like Patti has a slight speech impediment. It’s kind of endearing.

Thanks to Punk Not Profit.

Posted by Marc Campbell | Leave a comment
Harry Smith smokes a joint and gets you high: A double dose of alchemy

A Harry Smith double bill.

The first video is Harry smoking a joint while talking with Patrick Hulsey in New York City in 1999.

In the second video, East Village raconteur, animator, videographer and pop culture archivist M. Henry Jones of Snakemonkey TV recalls and recreates the initial thrill of discovering Harry Smith’s work.



Posted by Marc Campbell | Leave a comment
Allen Ginsberg (and Harry Smith) slept here (and now you can, too)

I lived in Manhattan’s East Village from 1984 to 1991 and the sight of the great poet Allen Ginsberg around the neighborhood was a pretty common one, although it was still cool to see him each and every time, I must admit. Now the apartment where Ginsberg lived until the mid-90s has been renovated and come on the rental market. There is a link to the listing today—$1700 for the one-bedroom—on Gothamist:

Allen Ginsberg spent 21 years of his life (1975 to 1996) living in a fourth floor walk-up in the East Village, and now—following the death of his partner Peter Orlovsky, it’s on the rental market. Earlier this month, The Allen Ginsberg Project stopped by as it was undergoing renovations, and there’s little left of the poetic madman’s presence. For example, the bedroom that his pal Harry Everett Smith once resided in is now a bathroom (read an interview Ginsberg did with Paola Igliori in 1995, where the two discussed his one-time roommate)

Above: Harry Smith’s in the guest room, now a bathroom.
Above: Here’s how Wired’s Steve Silberman remembers the apartment:
Left to right: Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, Louis Cartwright, Herbert Huncke, William Burroughs, Allen & Peter’s new apartment, 437 East 12th Street, New York City, December 1975. Photographer unknown. (Via)

Above: Allen Ginsberg on William F. Buckley’s Firing Line TV program in 1968.

There’s also a link on Gothamist to some photos of the converted YMCA on the Bowery where William Burroughs used to live, famously dubbed “The Bunker.” John Giorno, who took over the place when Burroughs left, kept his bedroom exactly as it was.

Posted by Richard Metzger | Leave a comment
The Alchemy of Things Unknown: Occult Art at Khastoo Gallery in Los Angeles

Jason Gelt posts at Brand X:

“The Alchemy of Things Unknown” exhibit intends examines individual works of art in relation to theosophy, sacred traditions and devotional practice. From William Blake’s illuminated works of divine imagination to Carl Gustav Young’s drawings of collective symbolic unconscious, the artists in this exhibition sought after or seek spiritual truths through art making.

Artists include Paul Laffoley, Harry Smith, Marjorie Cameron, Willian Blake, Austin Ossman Spare, Scoli Acosta, Kenneth Anger, Aleister Crowley, Zach Harris, Susan Hiller, Alfred Jenson, Angus MacLise, JFC Fuller, and Marilyn Manson.

Khastoo Gallery, 7556 W. Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles; 323-472-6498

Image: “Kwaw”: an undated self-portrait by English occultist Aleister Crowley done in the 1920s, part of the exhibit at Khastoo Gallery through July 31. Courtesy William Breeze.

Posted by Richard Metzger | Leave a comment