When Jill Godmilow’s documentary Roy Cohn/Jack Smith premiered at the 1994 Toronto International Film Festival, the number of AIDS-related deaths was reaching an all-time high in the United States (over 270,000). In New York City, the epicenter of the AIDS epidemic, many artists and filmmakers were grappling with the disease. While Broadway was hosting the second part of Tony Kushner’s award-winning play Angels in America, downtown New Yorkers were fondly recalling another recent production, Ron Vawter’s one-man show Roy Cohn/Jack Smith, in which the actor, who died of AIDS in April 1994, performed two monologues, first as Cohn, the conservative lawyer, and secondly, as Smith, the flamboyant experimental filmmaker—both of whom died of AIDS-related causes in the late 1980s.
Twenty-years later, Godmilow’s movie version of Roy Cohn/Jack Smith provides a vivid time capsule of the era and an uncanny resurrection of all three men’s personas: Vawter, the brilliant actor and chameleon; Cohn, the right-wing firebrand; and Smith, the flamboyant and confrontational performance artist. Keyframe spoke with Godmilow about the genesis of the project, how J. Hoberman hated the film, and what’s wrong with today’s documentary filmmaking.
Keyframe: So how did the project begin?
Jill Godmilow: I had known Ron for years. I am on the board of Mabou Mines, where his partners was. I saw everything at The Wooster Group, and I was enamored of him and also a friend of his. I was invited to the last technical rehearsal before it went up at the Performing Garage in 1992. I saw the piece, and it stunned me. I knew about Roy Cohn, he was the first political moment of my life: I remember watching him on TV during the McCarthy hearings. I knew he had single-handedly held up gay rights for years in New York as a cover for his own gayness. But I had never seen Jack Smith perform. So Ron’s re-performance of Jack Smith leveled me in the theater. It’s what Jack Smith did: that push/pull with the audience, being attracted to the performance and then being shoved away. It’s a very complicated space. I had always hated gay flamboyance; I never knew how to handle it. And I was disturbed by it. And I sat there in the theater that night, and felt like I had to give that up. The Jack Smith performance was an education for me. It was about breaking out of the closet: It was about: Let me tell you by the way I act who I am. So personally, it was very strong, and I told Ron that night, ‘Somebody should record this.’ And he said, ‘Yes, why don’t you do it?’ So I tried to find some money, but there was no money around.
Then not long after, he called me to say that Jonathan Demme wanted to do it. Ron was acting in Philadelphia at the time. And he asked me, ‘Would I give up the rights to do it?’ And I said, yes, immediately. Because by now Ron was suffering from AIDS-related diseases and Jonathan could pay him and I couldn’t. Then Jonathan couldn’t shoot it. So Ron called me and asked if I could do it. Fortunately, I had taken Ted Hope [editor’s note: Ted Hope is CEO of Fandor, the publisher of Keyframe] to see this tech rehearsal, and I called Ted, and asked him if we could do it. Ted called in a lot of favors, and put together the crew, who agreed to work for nothing and then he raised just enough money to buy film stock and pay for processing and an AVID. And that’s how the film got made.
Keyframe: How many nights, how many cameras?
Godmilow: Two nights, three cameras each night. Partly because Ron was no longer able to barrel through the Roy Cohn monologue at the high speed that he once did during the first run. So I felt I needed footage to cut around it. And I didn’t really know this until we got into the problems of editing it, but I wanted one of those cameras on the audience. It was an invited audience [with recognizable indie celebrities, including Steven Soderbergh, Jem Cohen, and entertainment attorney John Sloss). The point was to make a film of the performance, but to refuse the film’s audience the ability to be in that theater with these knowing people who get Roy Cohn and get his name and get Jack Smith and be confrontational. And I thought I could do that was to show the audience that was there, and to force a different kind of time and space for the audience of the film. Initially, I did plan to run straight through Roy Cohn, then Ron would leave and come back and do the Jack Smith part. But when I cut together this perfect forty-minute Roy Cohn performance from the two nights, it was a horrible thing to watch, because there was no second track. And Ron, who was still alive, agreed to the idea that I’d intercut both performances, and that seemed to make both performances more interesting and destroy this theater space for the audience.
Keyframe: It was interesting to me that you chose to announce Ron’s death an hour into the film, not as an end-credit or in the beginning, which might have been the cliché. What was your thinking?
Godmilow: I wanted that performance, and wanted it to play on its own terms, and not under this spell of death and loss and mourning. It’s interesting, because the film was not received well, at all. Jim Hoberman trashed it. He’s a wonderful writer on Jack Smith, but he knew Jack Smith’s attitude about copying: He would never let Jonas Mekas send Flaming Creatures out the same way. He had to recut it every time, because he had a political consciousness about commodification. So Hoberman took the film to task, and said Jack Smith would never have allowed this.
Somebody had put me in touch with Peggy Phelan, who was the head of performance studies at NYU and loved Ron’s piece and loved the film, and I asked her at one point why the reaction to the film was so negligible. And she said: everybody who knew Ron loved him and he made everyone feel that he was important to him, and all the people who went to the theater wanted to go see a film where they could mourn him. And my film was exactly the wrong film for that: It was Ron Vawter blowing everyone away with an extraordinary performance and no chance to mourn. It was the wrong film at that moment.
Keyframe: So now twenty years on, maybe this is the better moment to watch this film. What do you think about people coming across this movie now?
Godmilow: I think they should be grateful. Jack Smith never allowed anyone to film a performance: this guy was the father of gay cinema and performance art, and ripped off by everyone from Warhol to me, but you can’t see it. There’s no archival record. And I think that’s another reason why Ron wanted to perform him and agreed to have the film made. Ron knew he was going to die of AIDS when he was putting this piece together, and who doesn’t want to leave some kind of record behind.
Keyframe: Do you think the film still has resonance with the AIDS crisis today?
Godmilow Everybody thinks the AIDS crisis is solved. I was so grateful to see How to Survive a Plague and that this film existed as a way to remember what kind of resistance and what kind of genius was in that movement. Now, people think you just take those pills. So I’m not aware of any presence of the AIDS crisis. I was hoping that film would raise it again. I don’t know if it will play into that, in a way, nowadays. I don’t really know.
Keyframe: You have written a lot and thought a lot about documentary filmmaking. Recently, you got a lot of flak when you wrote that piece for Indiewire about Act of Killing. Where do you think we are with documentary now? Your 1999 piece ‘What’s Wrong with the Liberal Documentary‘ still feels important today.
Godmilow: I think the biggest problem is about authorship. When you make a film that hides behind the fact that this happened and I happened to shoot it and therefore it’s real and therefore what you learn about it is real, and the filmmakers don’t announce that they have a relationship to it, and they organized this material in some way, that’s the biggest problem. For all the playing around with the form and everybody thinking it’s wide-open turf again, filmmakers need to be speaking with these films and they should have an idea that’s bigger than what I call just description. Nobody is thinking about what the cinema can be. I always go back to Buñuel. We should have learned more from him. With Las Hurdes, he found a way, and it’s not the only way, to teach us how we should be making documentaries.