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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
The Flaming Creature's Unfinished Product
by Donald Levit

Andy Warhol worked shakily with him, filmed him and his actors, found the Superstar and Factory ideas in him, went commercial to wild success, and earned the scorn of this “only person I would ever try to copy.” Jonas Mekas championed his one “finished” film and in exhibiting it earned his condemnation as “Uncle Fishhook.” Arguably the founder of “underground,” he is the virtually ignored Jack Smith, maybe to enter wider consciousness in Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis, released a year after 2006 screening at Tribeca, and in a current Mario Montez revival at Columbia University, the Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of the Moving Image.

Following off-the-beaten-track non-fiction shorts, Mary Jordan was director/writer/producer/co-executive producer/-cinematographer/-music supervisor/voiceover reader for JSDA, a first feature-length brewing for six years after she saw her subject’s photographs at a Bay Area commune. Analogous to that chameleon subject’s life, the ninety-three minutes jump- and inter-cut interviews both pro -- “I genuflect”: John Waters -- and con, pieces from Smith’s previously unpublished stills and of him on live stage or directing films or acting in his own and others’, audio clips of him, and b&w of his New York scene of twenty-to-forty years before.

Gravitating to Gotham from the provinces like them but unlike public-persona artists Warhol and Dalí, Smith willfully eluded fame and financial reward. Indeed, entirely the contrary of the Pittsburgh painter’s “Art Businessman or a Business Artist, [so] making money is art and good business is the best art,” Smith waged and raged a one-man commitment against “landlordism,” capitalism, commercialization, film archives, creativity charged for and frozen in museums.

He paid for his stance with growing obscurity, alienation and a poverty diet of crackers and cheese although later accepting sole “responsibility [that] I haven’t been organized properly” and claiming that, at last eating three squares in an AIDS ward, he had contracted the disease because “why should Puerto Ricans get the fabulous way to die, and not me?”

Thumbing his nose at the propriety of poverty in childhood Ohio and Texas and a mother he disliked, at twenty Jack fled to New York City, garbage-strewn and still proper, too, but nurturing the seeds of cultural revolution. Reflecting on her brother’s trajectory, somber mainstream (and ironically his legal heir) Mary Sue Slater “learned to be more forgiving, I don’t blame him. He was just trying to be happy.”

A paranoid loner who offended most everyone but wanted to be happy, a flamboyant gay man when hardly anyone came out; Errol Flynn-handsome in a suit during a Warhol shoot, he directed his multi-faceted art towards freeing people to happiness. In the supersaturated color utopia he termed Atlantis, genitalia, orgies, androgynes and hermaphrodites and vampirish drag queens in veils and tights are not so much threateningly sexual as childlike. Consciously modeling it after the profitably cheap 1940s adventures of “B-Queen of Technicolor” Maria Montez even to rechristening his transvestite Puerto Rican star Rene Rivera as Mario Montez, Smith superimposed a loose Baroque over Pre-Raphaelite sensibility.

Comprising film, video masters and original DV-PAL transferred to hi-def video, the story moves from its hero’s early Hyperbole Photography Studio, where he honed color skills at a time they were considered outré and where Bohemia’s aesthetes gathered, to his acting, collaborating, early filmmaking. And to his one relatively complete, forty-three-minute work, the maudit 1962 polysexual Flaming Creatures, the only film ever banned in New York (twenty-three other states and four countries followed suit).

Camp less naughty than its reputation, that film is of historical-cultural interest, occasioning Mekas’ arrest for obscenity when it came out seven years prior to Stonewall. Disgusted by the furor and what he saw as commercialization, Smith never turned out another finished cinema product, at times actually going by projection rooms to edit his films as they were spooling. Drifting into combinations of performance arts, where he antagonized audiences, friends and foes, he continued his solitary, outraged and outrageous path to the end.

Jack Smith would have scoffed at the idea of writing about a film about him -- “film critics are writers and they are hostile and uneasy in the presence of a visual phenomenon.” But without him, more famous names would have been delayed or never arrived at all. Eccentric and pure like its hero, JSDA will appall or bore the many but should delight devotees of the real reel underground.

(Released by Film Forum; not rated by MPAA.)

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