What's Underground About Marshmallows?

What's Underground About Marshmallows?

What's Underground About Marshmallows? was the second part of Ron Vawter's highly acclaimed theater piece Roy Cohn/Jack Smith, first staged in 1989 in New York City and then performed nationally until Vawter's death from AIDS in 1994.

Jack Smith was a vanguard underground filmmaker, who was sometimes hailed as the father of performance art. In his later films and performances, such as the one re-imagined here, Smith explored a deceptively frivolous camp aesthetic that transformed bits of Hollywood "B" movies into socio-political critique and high art.

This complete, uninterrupted performance of Jack Smith's Marshmallows was recorded at New York's legendary performance venue, The Kitchen -- it was Vawter's last performance.

The Films of Jack Smith     Senses of Cinema: Flaming Creatures    

Who Is Jack Smith?

Flaming Creatures poster

Born in 1932 in Columbus, Ohio, Jack Smith, a pioneer of underground cinema, is generally acclaimed as a founding father of performance art.

He began making short films during the early 1960s as part of New York City's art scene, most notably his notorious Flaming Creatures, which featured an all-transvestite cast. Using old black-and-white film stock, the film was at once a campy homage to B-movie actress Maria Montez and a gritty version of Arabian Nights exotica. The film was overexposed (perhaps intentionally) and highly stylized, but its world of uncontrolled sexual appetites and energy featured primping transvestites posing, dancing, romancing, and even assaulting each other. And, all this on a $300 budget! Flaming Creatures spurred censorship controversies during the 1960s and was even denounced in the U.S. Senate. It was confiscated by the New York police and not publicly released until the 1970s, when the film's most ardent admirer, Jonas Mekas, took it upon himself to do so.

In later years, Smith began holding one-man performances in his apartment that were avant garde in tone and personal in nature. These performances are often heralded as the beginnings of performance art. Smith died of AIDS in 1989.

About the Filmmaker: Jill Godmilow

Jill Godmilow
Jill Godmilow

Considered one of the primary theorists and practitioners in documentary filmmaking, producer-director Jill Godmilow continually explores and pushes the boundaries of both nonfictional and fictional modes.

Her career can be characterized as a well-traveled road, from fiction filmmaking to documentary, back to fiction, then back to documentary--reaching a point where it became clear to her that both of these seemingly opposed genres produced texts that were constructed by the filmmaker. Thus, there was no essential difference, ideologically, in how they were read, or interpreted. Since that point, she has worked in dramatic fictional forms using nonfictional material, as well as in nonfictional forms based on fiction. Operating with directness of means and without any claims to be revealing the truth, she is interested in expanding genres and in fashioning new "functionalities" for the cinema.

Godmilow's substantial reputation rests on almost four decades of filmmaking. Her first major film, Antonia: A Portrait of the Woman (1973), became the first independently produced documentary to enjoy extensive theatrical exhibition in the United States. In 2003 Antonia: A Portrait Of The Woman was added to the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress.

In 1984, her nonfiction feature Far from Poland, about the rise of the Polish Solidarity movement, was heralded for breaking important new ground in the documentary genre. The film employed a radical deconstructive approach and replaced the conventional reality footage with direct address, soap-opera-like dilemmas between the filmmaker and her boyfriend, newsreels, flash cards, Polish jokes, imaginary conversations with Fidel Castro, and letters from friends in Poland, which collectively served to rework documentary representational practices, especially in the presentation of other peoples' struggles for democracy and freedom by first-world filmmakers. These techniques, in reverse, led to the genesis of her 1987 dramatic feature Waiting for the Moon, a feminist "fiction" about the lives of the famous literary couple Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. Produced for PBS's American Playhouse, Waiting for the Moon was honored at numerous national and international film festivals, including the Sundance Film Festival Festival, where it won the Best Feature Film award.

In 1995 she completed Roy Cohn/Jack Smith -- a cinematic representation and interrogation of Ron Vawter's extraordinary theater piece from which What's Underground About Marshmallows? was derived. Three years later, Godmilow produced and directed a short film titled What Farocki Taught, which contained a perfect replica -- in color and in English -- of a 1969 German film, Inextinguishable Fire, by Harun Farocki. Farocki's black-and-white original concerned the production of napalm by the Dow Chemical Company. Because Inextinguishable Fire had never been available in the U.S., Godmilow's project was conceived as a gesture of pedagogy, film history, and film distribution.

Commenting on the film's strengths, Michael Renov, from the USC School of Cinema and Television Studies, stated that it was "...a bracing exercise in political filmmaking and pedagogy for the late nineties -- resurrecting the Brechtian frontal attack, both on an economic system intent on the manufacture of death and on the complacency of documentary realism." (See Facets' Limited Edition release of Farocki's How to Live in the German Federal Republic.)

Currently a professor in the Department of Film, Television, and Theater Studies at the University of Notre Dame, Godmilow continues to work as an independent film-and-videomaker while teaching courses in film production and film criticism.

What's Underground About Marshmallows What's Underground About Marshmallows
Directed by Jill Godmilow
USA, 1996, 60 mins.
DV99762, $19.95

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