American Magus

(Paola Igliori, USA, 2001)


Paola Igliori’s American Magus joins a group of contemporaneous documentaries about experimental filmmakers, such as Martina Kudlácek’s In the Mirror of Maya Deren (2002) and Sergio Machado’s At the Edge of the Earth (2001).

Each is a rich assortment of image and sound materials unearthed from extensive, in some cases almost miraculous research. And they mingle celebration with lament as they tote up the early deaths and curtailed projects that characterise marginal artistic careers.

American Magus details an especially chaotic and mind-boggling career, that of filmmaker, folklorist and obsessive collector Harry Smith – also a Ruizian theorist well before his time, judging by the account of his early ’60s lecture on Giordano Bruno and the cinema – whose magnificent achievements (his famous folk music recordings honoured, near the end of his life, by a Grammy award that prompts his on-stage reflection that "in my lifetime, I saw music change the world") jostle with a myriad of lost, incomplete and indecipherable works.

The strange tale of Smith’s secret performance-art "marriage" to a woman who he made dress as a bride and then kiss all the beggars on a street – a woman he then referred to until death as his wife, although they spent no more time together – haunts me still.

© Adrian Martin March 2002

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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