The absurdity of fixation: Jack Smith and Flaming Creatures

By Shotgun CinemaPublished on 08/14/2016

More than most other underground films, Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures is valuable both as a film and as a document. It was a personal film made by an artist whose life and work connected the avant-garde art and underground film scenes in New York. It galvanized that city’s avant-garde film, theatre, and performance scenes, inspiring them to explore and display homosexuality, radical politics, and the constant questioning of rationality and social norms. But Smith didn’t specifically set out to make this happen. Rather, his extravagantly queer, original, and unapologetic style became an example, inspiring a litany of other artists to step through the doors he opened by living his life as performance.

Smith came to New York in the mid-1950s and opened the Hyperbole Photography Studio, creating stylized, glamorous portraits that are extremely striking and now recognized as highly accomplished. His aesthetic sensibility was extreme, transgressive, and absurd; it was also fairly deliberate, even for being so zany. Smith eventually began acting in live theater, inspiring the late John Vaccaro to found the Playhouse of the Ridiculous, whose gender-bending, provocative productions would become legendary and profoundly influential. He also acted in underground films like Ken Jacobs’ Blonde Cobra (1963), a fascinating document of Smith’s complexly manic and completely subversive persona.

Smith eventually made a film called Normal Love, employing a large confederation of associates at an estate outside of New York with apparent disregard for continuity or timing, and shooting a particularly memorable scene that required the construction of a room-sized birthday cake (POPism 32). That actors in the film, who would go on to become quite well known, maintained that they took the project seriously, could be taken as a testament to Smith’s status in the scene as a catalyst and weird leader. Andy Warhol was also there, and made his first film, a single silent roll shot newsreel style called Andy Warhol Films Jack Smith Filming Normal Love (which was confiscated and subsequently lost).

Flaming Creatures, Smith’s subsequent film, is one avant-garde piece that could fairly be called “experimental,” because as a filmmaker, Smith didn’t know in some ways what he was doing. He knew he liked the look of expired film stock, which yielded a high-contrast look (pleasing especially when procured for free, possibly by stealing it). But by all accounts, Smith didn’t know much else about the technical end of things. According to Warhol, Smith would cast “anyone who happened to be around that day,” and “just kept shooting until the actors got bored” (31). But he also possessed extreme attention to detail. In his excellent book Factory Made: Warhol and the Sixties, Steven Watson says of Smith that “reality could not get in his way – if the cows were the wrong color, he painted them; if the trees were too green, he sprayed them” (101). Getting into costume and preparing for a shoot could last for hours.

In the early 1960s New York art scene, these idiosyncracies didn’t disqualify Smith from working with an eager and widespread group of co-conspirators. Violinist (and Smith’s roommate) Tony Conrad compiled and recorded the film’s maniacal, multi-faceted score*. Filmmaker and programmer Jonas Mekas, Susan Sontag, and others repeatedly went to bat for the film when prints were seized and obscenity charges were filed. The film’s obscenity trial, which did result in convictions, was a highly publicized event that led to much splitting amongst varying factions of the budding avant-garde, and to the sorts of protests against police action and The Establishment that would become widespread by the end of the Sixties.

One of Smith’s tools was a strong sense of the power of image: the ability of the cinematic image to convey the beauty and glamour, or any desired effect. Watson details Smith’s obsession with Hollywood actress Maria Montez, which was based “solely [on] Montez’s fetishized celluloid presence” (FM 52), as opposed to conventional fandom. When Smith is filming something he really likes, you can tell, because he’ll fixate on it at the expense of pretty much everything else. This is fairly distinctive and produces results that are sometimes odd, absurd, and quite funny**.

We see this in Flaming Creatures, first as Smith lingers on images of glamour and intimacy: people of ambiguous gender dressed absolutely to the hilt in evening gowns, wigs and makeup, and jewelry, putting on lipstick, sprawling languidly, moving in stylized ways, casually fondling each other’s genitals and breasts. Some of this is baffling because it’s divorced from narrative, and lacks in filmmaking conventions like framing and coherent editing that would give some context to what exactly is going on. Instead, Smith’s images seem to float or hover, his camera constantly weaving and swaying, often shooting directly downward from a high angle that disorients and flattens the action into abstraction. He shoots through lace and gauze, giving extreme closeups to various body parts. His actors often seem to be part of tableaux vivants, captured in prolonged still photographs in which they communicate, if only for a few frames, their real essence.

Smith maintained that he intended Flaming Creatures to be a comedy, and in fact a sense of openness and play is evident from the beginning, in a credit sequence over satirically overwrought orchestral music, followed by an extended quasi-commercial with actors applying lipstick that “won’t come off when you suck cocks.” A rape attempt devolves into an orgy, which is followed by a long sequence in which everyone is killed by an earthquake, the camera shaking and actors falling all over each other. And then come the drag zombies, who revive everyone for a glorious dance party. Here, in its second half, is where the film (ahem) comes alive. Smith’s surreal sensibility meshes dreamily with the notion of decadently glamorous, ambiguous bodies slowly rising from the dead, and for a while the film exists in a sort of trance.

Aided by ample evidence from shocked and galvanized viewers, we can also still understand how intense it would have been to see Flaming Creatures in the early ‘60s. For some people in Smith’s circle, their interests and lives were being represented with new frankness. Regardless, in the matter-of-fact depictions of nudity and sexuality, violence, and glamour, one is struck by the notion that no matter how unfamiliar they may be, the images are real and genuine for someone; for someone, they represent that person’s identity and world. As an artist, Jack Smith was able to communicate this blend of authenticity and artifice by being both highly skilled in some ways and extremely unskilled in others.

Smith – and the avant-garde that supported him – amplified the notion that unconventional visions were just as valid as conventional ones; there was (and is) no inherent reason to demand conventions of expression, rationality, or skill in art. In New York in 1963, many artists were waking up to the idea that they could radically expand on both fronts, and because he was unabashedly queer, original, and prolific, Smith was one of the most influential figures in this scene.

One person who definitely thought so was Andy Warhol, who was so deeply inspired by Smith’s filmmaking that he began making his own. As this work and influence spread, ideas about taste, identity, and ability began to radically shift and change, and Flaming Creatures was one of the inciting events in what would eventually become a genuine revolution.

*Tony Conrad, who died this year, would go on to a hugely influential career as an avant-garde musician, filmmaker, and educator, also giving performances that, like the one I saw in 2009, were pretty much bonkers.

** Hilary Radner and Moya Luckett have made the suggestion that Blonde Cobra can be seen as a camp version of Joseph Cornell’s Rose Hobart, which I think is also a fair way to describe something about Flaming Creatures.

Sources and further reading

Factory Made: Warhol and the Sixties. Steven Watson; Pantheon, 2003.

The Gladstone Gallery, which houses Smith’s archive, contains some stunning thumbnail images of some of his work.

POPism: The Warhol Sixties. Andy Warhol & Pat Hackett; Harcourt, 1980.

Stargazer: The Life, World & Films of Andy Warhol (revised and updated ed). Stephen Koch; Marion Boyars, 1991. is a very detailed and well-researched website administered by one Gary Comenas, containing a massive body of info and news on the current and past lives of people in Warhol’s circle, including Jack Smith.

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