New York’s pioneering campmeister’s flame still sears
Not long ago, Fran Lebowitz invoked the sad-comic image of a sailor disembarking in New York, heading to Times Square, and experiencing total psychic dislocation at the replacement of the hookers, porn shops, and bars of yore by the Virgin MegaStore and Mickey Mouse. True, New York’s place at the head of the table of culture is now debatable, but t’was not always so. In the early ‘60s, the Big Apple wasn’t the least bit wormy. The visual arts were particularly blessed, with off-off-Broadway thriving, performance art and happenings starting to spring up, and cinematic renegades gaining increasing notoriety as American culture, prodded by a few brave souls, finally began to question itself.
Perhaps the most prodding of the pack was queer film artiste Jack Smith (1932-1989). The emphasis on film is misleading and limiting, however. Smith, who was raised in trailers in Ohio and Texas before landing in New York in 1950, was also a brilliant writer, wit, a pioneer in what came to be called performance art and in being an early proponent of using color in fine art photography. But the writings are gulaged in obscure small-press publications, the photographs are hard to find, and the performance pieces – with a couple of exceptions – were not recorded. (A pity since some observers of the time say his best work could be found there.)
Happily, though, his films, while rare, are extant in various states and are slowly reentering the cultural discourse through the efforts of friends and advocates. These efforts are paying off. Smith’s oeuvre has played at a variety of respectable venues lately (most recently, San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts), and a reassessment of at least his major works – Flaming Creatures and Normal Love – is now possible.
Flaming Creatures (1963) was not his first film; that distinction belongs to The Buzzards of Baghdad (1951-56). But it is still his most notorious, not only because it convincingly broke a number of taboos but because it was banned practically everyplace it was shown. This included, of all places, the halls of Congress, where it was unleashed by the dessicated Strom Thurmond in an anti-porn tirade. (Technically, it’s still banned, but don’t expect the police, or Strom, to show up at screenings.)
By all accounts, Smith was difficult but charismatic, a magical trickster manically involved in all kinds of projects at all times. Never far from poverty in spite of a few grants here and there, he was gifted in seducing actors and friends to work for free and in “appropriating” materials he needed for his art. For Creatures and the films that followed, he used cheap, sometimes discarded, color reversal stock to immortalize the drag queens, mermaids, vampires, naked poets, and other “creatures” who populate his films. The effect is of a dream that stubbornly resists consciousness, the imagery sometimes subtle and painterly, sometimes stark and high-contrast in rendering the filmmaker’s ecstasy-drenched demimondes.
Smith was raised on Hollywood kitsch, and the imagery of 1940s movie monsters, and especially his patron saint Maria Montez – to whom he built an altar and prayed – inspired him. Always a good talker, he insisted on Montez’s importance as an actress to all who would listen (and there were many). He called her “the Holy One” and “the Miraculous One.” After a screening of one of her films, he told a friend, “The Miraculous One was raging and flaming. Those are the standards for art.”
Smith’s own standards for art let him refashion Montez and the whole ethos of tinny Orientalia, low-budget intrigues, and what he called Universal’s “cowhide thongs and cardboard sets” into Dionysian revels that were both wild camp and subtle polemic in upsetting an overflowing apple cart of norms: heterosexuality, narrative, social and sexual and aesthetic repressions. The world as seen in his films is a comic collage of fake history and fake culture, reduced to pathetic backdrops before which his “creatures” – vaguely gendered Frankenstein assemblages of makeup and rags – heroically writhe.
Much of his work is about the importance of style and, specifically, the pose; he practically rubs our noses in the idea that logic and progress and movement are always secondary to experience and stasis and the tableau, as long as it’s beautiful. His films are at once coy and brazen. Their much-vaunted orgies and nudity (which some courts called “hardcore” with nothing in the films to support that) appear sometimes in flashes, where you have to squint to see it; or there may be a dick or a breast wagging quietly in the corner of a frame chiefly occupied by a muscular drag queen dressed as an ungainly mermaid.
As serious as he was about his own work, Smith did not view it as inviolate. His view of an ideal world of constant change and pleasure no doubt accounted for his peculiar, perhaps unique, habit of re-editing some of his work while it was being projected.According to archivist/restorationist Jerry Tartaglia, Smith developed a lightning-fast technique of removing a take-up reel during projection and resplicing whole sections before they were sucked back onto the other reel and onto the theater screen.
Flaming Creatures was shot, appropriately enough, on top of a movie theater in the Lower East Side. Unable to corral the real Maria Montez, Smith settled for Francis Francine, the drag-queen sheriff of Warhol’s Lonesome Cowboys, as a stand-in. Miss Francine prances around in a brocaded turban, posing, applying lipstick, and eventually succumbing to the cruelties of a transvestite vampire who rises from an Ed Wood-style paper coffin. If this sounds like an afternoon at a particularly depraved carnival spook house, it definitely has that air. But Smith was more cunning than the cheesy dramatics, “Oriental” music, mock-orgies, and mindless make-up sessions would indicate. In reformulating his treasured favorites from the catacombs of Hollywood – in this case Maria Montez’s Ali Baba – he tosses out all manner of good sense and logic, paving the way for others to do likewise after him. As arbitrary and formless as the film appears, Smith is in firm control of the frame, creating ravishingly painterly images that lull the viewer into a near-hallucinatory state. He never uses per se the collage technique common to underground film of the time, but the effect is similar through his superimposition of portions of the Ali Baba soundtrack and cheaply alluring period music.
Flaming Creatures has elaborate, hilarious dance and orgy sequences and an unforgettable discussion of makeup and penises that ends with Francis Francine asking a question that so many have pondered: “Is there a lipstick that doesn’t come off when you suck cock?”
The influence of the Dietrich-Sternberg films on Smith is evident here in one major respect: nothing is quite what it seems. Even the sex of the players is indeterminate until the crucial evidence of an upraised skirt (or more likely, festooned gown) is given. The films are awash in androgyny. In Normal Love, Smith discovery and Warhol regular Mario Montez appears as a mermaid lying in repose like an odalisque, occasionally twitching, in a milk bath. She’s terrorized by a fake werewolf but remains typically unfazed, protected always by the pose.
The films also have elaborate cataclysms that mock those in films like Cobra Woman and Ali Baba. Flaming Creatures ends in an earthquake created in the simplest manner imaginable – by shaking the camera. In Smith’s world, even the apocalypse is just a tacky momentary diversion.
Smith’s unique conceits might have remained just another private mythology, relegated to occasional basement screenings for friends, but his theatrical personality assured a far wider reach. Warhol appropriated the concept of “superstar” and fake Hollywood studio from him, and Susan Sontag made a famous defense of Flaming Creatures. Nan Goldin, Laurie Anderson, Robert Wilson, and John Waters are among those who credit Smith’s singular vision with inspiring their own art.
Smith, who died in 1989 of pneumocystis, was a trickster second to none in whose remarks, even the impromptu ones – “O Maria Montez, give socialist answers to a rented world!” – lay treasures of wit and pleasure.