Flaming Filmmaker

IT'S TEMPTING TO compare the late filmmaker Jack Smith to Vincent Van Gogh, for reasons that have nothing to do with artistic merit (which we'll get to later). Both artists died penniless, having been virtually ignored by the art establishments of their eras. (I believe Van Gogh sold two paintings in his lifetime, while Smith shoplifted film stock and stole food from the plates of strangers.) Both created work that influenced a broad range of artists--Andy Warhol and Robert Wilson, Nan Goldin and John Waters, Fauves and German expressionists--but collectors, curators, critics, and commoners only realized it after they were dead and buried. As of yet, Smith's work still doesn't draw big money--but then again, he's only been dead eight years.

And the paradigm is shifting. Jack Smith and His Secret Flix--a touring program co-curated by Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman, organized by the American Museum of the Moving Image in conjunction with P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, and presented locally as part of the Walker Art Center's and Southern Theater's Out There series--is the first-ever revival of Smith's films and screen appearances. The New Yorker, Time Out, Detour, and the New York Times (the latter of whose critics wouldn't have been caught dead at Smith's loft screenings in the '60s and '70s) have all devoted editorial space to this maverick underground filmmaker and visionary.

Granted, Smith has maintained cult status on the Lower East Side since shortly after 1953, when he arrived there from his hometown of Kenosha, Wisconsin. More than for his work in filmmaking, acting, and photography, he was known for his deep eccentricism and near-fanatical devotion to cultivating it. Gary Indiana writes that in rehearsals for his 1980 play, Curse of the Dog People, Smith often took a half hour to make his entrance and sometimes 10 minutes more to deliver his line. Smith idolized '40s B-movie queen Maria Montez, and wrote one of the most bizarre film manifestos in her honor: "The Perfect Filmic Appositeness of Maria Montez." The downtrodden apartments he inhabited, like the sets for his films and performance pieces, were strewn with various found objects, piles of kitschy baubles, lobster costumes made from beach towels, handwritten scripts, and other bric-a-brac. He called acting "hoodwinking" and didn't believe in memorizing lines. The name on his business cards read "Sinbad Glick." Being friends with him required a thick skin and a certain acceptance of--if not complicity in--his zaniness.

The popularity of Smith's film work outshone his eccentricity on only one occasion, but that occasion made history. His 1963 film Flaming Creatures, a sort of delirious bacchanal for transvestites and the occasional woman dressed as a vampire or an Arabian princess, was declared obscene by the New York Criminal Court. In 1964, New York police raided a screening of the film in the New Bowery Theatre and impounded the print, together with the screen and the projector. A U.S. senator, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Newsweek that the movie made him so sick he couldn't get aroused. Flaming Creatures was the new, ready-made symbol of the '60s revolution.

The obscenity of Flaming Creatures, if one can call it that, lies in its total and hysterical flaccidity. In a series of sequences set to pseudo-Arabian pageant music and dated pop songs, the members of what looks like a harem engage in what looks like an orgy. The camera pans over interlocked legs and arms, focuses briefly on a genderless thigh, and finally stops above an apparent rape scene. A horde of genderless princesses, screaming like banshees, are doing little more than shaking one breast on their horrified victim. There are plenty of penises around, but they're flaccid. As the camera continues to pan erratically, these limp dicks appear charmingly perched atop a stranger's shoulder or hanging loosely between the legs of their owners. The effect is hilarious, disturbing, and weird, but hardly sexual. No wonder the senator couldn't get it up.

Requisitely anti-careerist, Smith never followed up on his Flaming Creatures success. He worked on several other film projects (10 of which will be shown as part of the Out There retrospective), but none of them was ever completed or released. As Smith shifted his creative interests to performance work, he often resorted to what he called live cinema--incorporating segments from his films into his stage work and even re-editing them in situ. His shows were a study in pathetic disorganization: Performances scheduled for midnight wouldn't start until 2 a.m., equipment would break down, actors would forget their lines, and the course of the work itself would continue to evolve until the interruptions, preparations, and failures became the show. Clearly, Smith's method of turning failure into a credo takes talent--whether the New York Times thinks so or not.

Jack Smith and His Secret Flix screens at the Walker on consecutive Wednesdays at 7 p.m. through January 28; call 375-7622.

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