How does one begin to ponder the unanswered question that was underground artist extraordinaire Jack Smith? Fleeing the dreary Midwest of his childhood for New York's Greenwich Village in the 1950's, Smith would influence and inspire a generation of filmmakers and artists while steadfastly maintaining an oath of poverty and self-imposed obscurity. Tall and gangly, Smith was an openly gay artist who drew upon the gaudy Technicolor fantasies of Maria Montez for his own personal mythology. Furthermore, Smith embraced these visions of exotic lands replicated on Burbank soundstages at face value, without camp, without irony. To Smith, these films were a portal to another world free of ugliness and injustice. Pulling bits of scenery and costumes from dustbins and recruiting actors off the street, Smith would explore his hothouse vision with fevered abandon.
Flaming Creatures (1963), Smith's only completed film would create a sensation, with audiences lining up around the block at the fiercely independent theaters who risked police raids by screening it. Using over-exposed black and white film, Creatures follows the rooftop orgy of a group of men, woman and transvestites as they roll in and out of extravagant costumes. The soundtrack consists of classical music from scratchy records, with Smith whispering "Psst! Did you hear? Ali Baba is coming!" at one point. Seen today, Creatures seems tame and antiquated and is best appreciated in a historical context.
Smith would never experience the critical, let alone the financial success of Creatures in his lifetime. Staging plays throughout the Seventies in his loft apartment, hipsters would gather at midnight only to be shooed away by an indignant Smith, incensed that they dare come see his work on their schedule. As one participant in the documentary Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis recollects, the only night Smith staged his seven-hour-plus production in its entirety was on the night no one showed up.
Filmmaker Mary Jordan declares that Smith, who died penniless after contracting AIDS in 1989, was ruthlessly pillaged and then discarded by the art intelligentsia. Using her camera in the manner of a high-powered rifle, Jordan goes on a safari hunt to shoot the purported "villains" in Smith's life, frequently with their tacit permission. Underground film maven Jonas Mekas is front row and center in Jordan's sights. Mekas allegedly took Flaming Creatures away from Smith, roadshowing it in the manner of exploitation hucksters of yore, later turning it into the cause célèbre that it would become for defenders of free expression. Mekas happily admits to being partially responsible for this claim.
Next on the hit list are Andy Warhol and Federico Fellini, both no longer around to defend themselves. Warhol was probably inspired by Smith to pick up a movie camera to begin making his own films, but their approaches were as different as you could possibly get. Smith would flood his viewfinder with filigree and exotica, using fluid camera movements, whereas Warhol would nail his camera to the ground and focus his camera on ugly and banal subjects. Jordan then argues that Fellini copied some of the visuals he used in Juliet of the Spirits and Satyricon from Smith. Fellini, in the company of such extravagant film stylists in his native Italy, may have heard of Smith, but had far better sources of inspiration nearby. Smith may have readily influenced schlockmeister Andy Milligan, who was active in New York City at around the same time. Milligan's no-budget costume dramas and handheld camera owe a certain debt to Smith, but curiously is left out of this retrospective.
Smith was staunchly anti-capitalist, an example of art for art's sake taken to an illogical extreme. It's refreshing that Smith did not toil as a paste-up artist until that one "big break." At the same time, this writer is familiar with other artists who declare that those around them have "sold out" while hiding closeted bitterness and jealousy over their contemporaries' success.
Jordan is to be commended on assembling so many snippets of film, artwork, and interviews on an artist who appeared to prefer that his work be temporary if at all. There are extensive sound bites from Smith, who had a distinctive voice calling to mind Devo's Mark Mothersbaugh's Booji Boy. One other pundit describes Smith's voice as one "suppressing a burp." A list of high-profile celebrities is on hand to describe Smith's life and times, such as John Waters, Holly Woodlawn and George Kuchar. The disc also features interview segments not included in the feature film. In this section, performance artist Collette describes a frightening altercation with Smith that suggests that the artist may have actually benefitted from a trip to the Stony Lonesome.
Lovingly and artfully assembled with care, Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis joyously celebrates a man who truly may have been the earthly manifestation of Oscar Wilde's Sphinx Without a Secret.