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Landmark experimental film 'Mahagonny' making its theatrical debut in Charlotte

A still image from Harry Smith's newly-restored film, "Mahagonny."
Harry Smith Film #18: "Mahagonny."
Courtesy of Anthology Film Archives and Harry Smith Archives
A still image from Harry Smith's newly-restored film, "Mahagonny."

Harry Smith, who would have turned 100 this year, is probably most well-known as a musicologist who assembled the highly revered Anthology of American Folk Music. Released in the 1950s, it went on to be a seminal influence on the folk music revival a decade later. But Smith was also a poet, a painter and an experimental filmmaker.

He spent more than a decade working on one film, "Mahagonny," that he considered to be his magnum opus. The landmark of underground cinema is being screened in Charlotte this weekend at the Independent Picture House, the first time it’s being shown in a theater since undergoing a new restoration.

Rani Singh is head of the Harry Smith Archives in New York, and she joins me now.

Marshall Terry: So let me ask you why was Charlotte picked for the first theatrical showing of this new version of “Mahagonny”?

Rani Singh: Actually, Charlotte chose me and chose Harry Smith. So it was the other way around. Jeff Jackson, who was the artist in residence at Goodyear Arts and also connected with the Independent Picture House, he contacted me and was very interested in showing the film.

But not only showing the film, having some other programs throughout the week, which would give the museumgoers and the people who were interested, a very broad swath of Harry Smith's interest and his life’s work.

Terry: And I do just want to point out really quickly that Jeff Jackson you mentioned is not the congressman Jeff Jackson. It is a different Jeff Jackson. What can you tell us about the film? And let's start with the title of “Mahagonny.” What does that mean?

Singh: Harry Smith's “Mahagonny” was taken from the Kurt Weill-Bertolt Brecht Opera. He chose that for several different reasons, most of which I think, were the libretto and the opera, and the storyline of a fictional city that was undergoing a lot of upheaval and change. And really the rise and fall of man throughout the opera.

Terry: How would you describe this film? What is someone going to see when they watch it?

Singh: Well, I think people are really in for a treat. And the idea of not knowing what to expect is even more beguiling. It's really a non-narrative film. It's the opera that drives the imagery. He shot the film in and around the Chelsea Hotel and New York City. And in the early 1970s, New York City was really undergoing a economic recession. There was a garbage strike. I mean, things were in very bad shape in New York. And Harry Smith shot in the Chelsea Hotel. And there's images of Patti Smith and Allen Ginsberg and Robert Mapplethorpe, as well as street imagery and Central Park and 23rd Street. It's a conglomeration of different types of imagery.

A still image from Harry Smith's newly-restored film, "Mahagonny."
Harry Smith Film #18: "Mahagonny."
Courtesy of Anthology Film Archives and Harry Smith Archives.
A still image from Harry Smith's newly-restored film, "Mahagonny."

Terry: Now, why did he consider this to be his magnum opus exactly?

Singh: It was really a huge undertaking. And if I could explain a little bit about the composition, it's a four-screen film. And so it's created along the lines of a palindrome that Harry Smith created, which was a animation, nature, people. So it had a very specific shape and construction to it. And so the film, in order to get to the finished product, Smith spent several years to construct a synthesis of the connection of the image alongside the particular part in the opera — whether it was a song or a section of the opera. So it's a very complicated and complex rendering of the images, marrying them to the sound of the opera.

Currently at the Whitney Museum, there's an exhibition of Harry Smith's work — the first comprehensive survey of Harry Smith's work at a major museum. And “Mahagonny” plays a major role. The film is shown continuously in the exhibition space. We had to create a version for the Whitney that was easily projected. And currently, 4K resolution is pretty much the state-of-the-art technology. So that's why we decided to create a 4K version of the film.

Terry: And I imagine that it's a different experience seeing it maybe in an art gallery versus a theater, right?

Singh: Exactly right. The opportunity to see it in a theater is how the film was meant to be shown, and how the film was meant to be experienced from start to finish. So I'm really excited to be showing it in Charlotte this week for the first time in a theatrical setting.

The funny thing that I remember Harry Smith saying about the film was that at a certain point he really wanted the images to just wash over you, and really just put you in this very kind of hypnotic state. And he said if at one point you actually fell asleep, that wasn't such a bad thing. It's definitely an experience — an immersive experience. And the opera really lulls you through this vision.

Terry: Well, thank you very much for taking the time and talking more about the film and about Harry Smith.

Singh: Of course, Marshall. Thanks very much. I hope to see everybody in Charlotte there over the weekend.

Terry: That's Rani Singh, head of the Harry Smith archives in New York. “Mahagonny” will be screened at the Independent Picture House in Charlotte this Friday night and Saturday night. Admission is free.

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Marshall came to WFAE after graduating from Appalachian State University, where he worked at the campus radio station and earned a degree in communication. Outside of radio, he loves listening to music and going to see bands - preferably in small, dingy clubs.