By José Sarmiento Hinojosa
If today had one single protagonist it was John Zorn. The avant-garde composer was the main instigator of two precious, unforgettable and unrepeatable events: the restoration of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari by Robert Wiene, fully scored (in an improvisational matter) by Mr. Zorn himself (in the company of a magnificent antique organ, all in the surroundings of the wonderful Berliner Philharmonie, and the premiere of never seen footage films from Jack Smith, presented by Ken and Flo Jacobs, and musicalized by the master composer.
If the act of presence and memory is the only weapon we have against oblivion, let me expand for a while on these two wonderful events.
This brand new copy of Dr. Caligari, wonderfully restored for the Berlinale screening, couldn’t have a better venue for its release. Its grandeur and magnificent film architecture, properly fitted the film’s own structural set innovations. You could actually feel inside the never ending wonderfully crafted set that Robert Wiene built, and lose yourself in the corridors of the building and the concert room.
But it was John Zorn who made things happen. His improvisational style (which helped redefine the avant-garde in the late seventies) fitted perfectly with the tone of the film. The power, presence and vintage sound of the antique organ he played (a talented multi-intrumentalist indeed) gave the film a new power, and even if the story is a known one (for a classic of early cinema), one couldn’t help but get the chills, drama, suspense and comic relief of the film. Zorn improvised completely, which helped the overall feel of the film to be very free, and even remaining in the spirit of the classic film (he could’ve scored it with electronic instruments or whatever), he managed to give this film a new life as an avant-garde experiment. A truly unforgettable time.
The Jack Smith retrospective dedicated to drag artist Mario Montez (recently deceased), at the HAU 1, premiered probably every single known material (in its first part) of Jack Smith work known to date. Properly restored by Jerry Tartaglia and salvaged from some obscure Berliner archives, this set of short unfinished films (or at least the versions we got to see before he died) were a truly cinephile delight. Five films were shown: Milk Bath Scene from Normal Love, Boiled Lobster of Landlady Lagoon, In the Grip of The Lobster (probably the masterpiece of the series), Exotic Landlordlism, and Overstilmulated, two of which were scored by Mr. Zorn himself.
For someone that has only seen Flaming Creatures (and I mean, most of the cinephile universe), this was a complete delight, and a unique revelation. The copies, very much alive in wonderful color, immersed the audience in the bizarre and unique universe of Jack Smith.
As Susan Sontag once said (and she would’ve absolutely loved this retrospective), Smith’s work’s sexuality it’s properly framed in a discourse of high art and censorship, a bizzare and unique universe of sexual liberty and artistic freedom. And Mario Montez, to whom this retrospective was dedicated, shined with grace as Smith’s queer film diva. Zorn, using Smith’s own collection of vintage records, made the score of the delirious, sexually charged, almost psychedelic films. And I think the words of curator Jerry Tartaglia say it all: “Watching a Jack Smith film is like being at the end of a party in the presence of the last guest who refuses to go home.” A proper film hangover, which I will personally never forget.