© 2006 William Ahearn
There is a scene in Mary Jordan’s recent documentary “Jack Smith & the Destruction of Atlantis” where composer John Zorn describes Jack Smith performing to empty chairs in downtown New York City in the mid-1970s. Smith – who pretty much created what is now known as performance art – gave late night performances and Smith and Zorn had wondered what would happen if nobody showed up. That’s what happened one night and Jack Smith gave the performance anyway. Some might see that performance as a conceptual piece but I don’t. The play was called “The Secret of Rented Island” and it ran seven and a half hours.
If you watch the films of Jack Smith it becomes immediately clear that the last thing that drove Jack Smith was the audience and that is why his work is so intriguing. One of those films, “Flaming Creatures” (1963), defined underground cinema for a generation and ended up being banned almost everywhere it was shown. The film was even banned in Europe and Jonas Mekas ended up having a private screening in a hotel room for such luminaries as Jean-Luc Godard, Agnes Varda and Roman Polanski after a film festival in Belgium refused to show it.
Strom Thurman denounced it on the floor of the US senate. This is from the congressional record of September 4, 1968:
“[Jack Smith’s film “Flaming Creatures”] presents five unrelated badly filmed sequences ... a mass rape scene involving two females and many males which lasts for 7 minutes, showing the female pubic area, the male penis, male massaging the female vagina and breasts, cunnilingus, masturbation of the male organ ... lesbian activity between two women ... homosexual acts between a man dressed as a female, who emerges from a casket, and other males, including masturbation of the visible male organ ... homosexuals dancing together and other disconnected erotic activity, such as massaging the female breasts and group sexual activity.”
People were arrested for showing it. To this day, Smith’s work is still rarely shown. (AVI copies of “Flaming Creatures,” “Normal Love,” and “Scotch Tape” are available here.) These films aren’t available from Blockbuster or NetFlix. Wagging weenies, female crotches and bare breasts and all manner of simulated sexual activity is shown, as well as memorable lines such as a male voice asking: “Is there a lipstick that doesn’t come off when you suck cock?”
In the Newtonian vortex of spin, there is an equal and opposite accolade for every ridiculous accusation and Smith ended up being either a signpost for the decline of western civilization or a major influence on world cinema. Both assertions are clearly overstated but there is in the work of Smith something that I have never seen before and it has nothing to do with gay politics, underground cinema or the last gasps of a dying empire.
In the early ‘60s, Smith hooked up with Andy Warhol and they made several films together before Warhol appropriated Smith’s concept of “superstars” and underground films and positioned himself as the underground filmmaker. John Waters – who appears in Jordan’s documentary – avidly admits the influence of Jack Smith. Warhol’s and Waters’ work would be described as “camp” and “trash” (as a genre, not as a criticism) and both would succeed as artists way beyond Smith’s dreams for himself.
But neither ever got close to Jack Smith as a filmmaker. Somewhere between Smith and the underground wannabes, something got lost.
Something always bothered me about the work of John Waters (“Pink Flamingoes,” “Female Trouble,” “Hairspray”) and I could never really articulate it until I had seen “Flaming Creatures” and “Normal Love” again recently. As far as I’m concerned – with the possible exception of “Chelsea Girls” – Andy Warhol doesn’t belong in a conversation about film. His films are pretentious junk and I swear I’ll never mention them again. (But check out Lili Taylor’s work in Mary Harron’s “I Shot Andy Warhol.” Nice overlooked flick.) What bothers me about Waters’ films is that there is an inherent condescension in the eye of the director. The characters in the films are there for our amusement at their expense.
Whatever kind of pain in the ass Jack Smith may have been in his private life (and the stories are endless), he loved his characters and it shows in his films. No matter how many artists Smith may have inspired, few seem to have a clue as to what he was really up to.
There isn’t a narrative to “Flaming Creatures” or “Normal Love” because Smith wasn’t interested in telling a conventional story. He – or what he did – was the point. His films are his own mythic dreams played against a screen. Since film itself is part of that mythos, merely screening what he did reinforced his vision and his dream. Part of that automythos is Smith’s obsession with Maria Montez and the pseudo-exotic locales of her films. It’s unfortunate that Smith has been ghettoized or idolized as a queer filmmaker because the structure and intent of his work is far more important than his sexuality.
Jack Smith didn’t care about audiences, at least in his films, because essentially he was talking to himself. That is rare in a filmmaker and while others have been criticized for similar indulgences, it was never their intent to be the only person to understand the film. I don’t profess to understand Smith’s work. In fact, I don’t think anyone but Smith could understand his work and that’s part of the attraction. Smith’s paranoid detractors and glorifying defenders have turned “Flaming Creatures” into a chew toy of the kulcha wars when in fact it’s just a wonderfully silly flick created by a cinematic poet.
While watching “Flaming Creatures” it struck me that I was watching an autobiographical work that wasn’t based on a chronological, linear depiction of events but on the merging of visuals and sensation. Smith takes his then – the Hollywood films that were his only escape from the hostile environment of his youth – and his now – the art subculture of New York City and the pre-Stonewall gay underground – and just smashes them together in a series of vignettes that produce a sensation of self. Jack Smith seemed to be unloading what was in his memory and projecting it onto the screen where his heroes and his fascination lived and it played out on its own terms.
Not everyone can deal with those terms and that’s another strength of Smith’s filmmaking. As I mentioned, the audience isn’t the point. Either you can deal with “Flaming Creatures” or you can’t. For someone who had to make his films on his own terms, I don’t think Jack Smith would care one way or the other.
(In the spirit of full disclosure, I supplied legacy Macintosh computers, technical expertise and networking support for Tongue Press during the production of “Jack Smith & the Destruction of Atlantis.” They were the last of many clients to receive free computers and tech support. The computers were donated and I had absolutely nothing to do with the content of the documentary.)