Jack Smith, (1932-1989), The “terminally underground, wildly uncommercial photographer, filmmaker, performance artist, and all-around difficult personality”, as one notable biographer, film critic, J. Hoberman, thus (accurately) describes him.
His career seems to have fallen into, distinctively, two parts – up to the scandal of Flaming Creatures” and, everything after the scandal of Flaming Creatures – and, wait a minute, a third, (as Hoberman elsewhere notes), a fractious and complicated posthumous career.
(tho’, taking to heart Michael Koresky’s astute observations – “Queer & Now & Then 1964”
“an online re-watch (gives) the already degraded image of a film shot on out-of-date 16mm Army surplus Kodak stock with a 300-dollar budget an even more ghastly, ghostly feel, which was both lulling as a late-night viewing party-of-one and also depressing beyond belief. Though grateful I could access this stone-cold classic for the couch, I realized I wanted nothing more than to experience its ravishing queer bacchanalia where it was meant to be seen – on the big screen.”)
Gary Morris – “Raging and Flaming – Jack Smith in Retrospect ” is also a useful survey
Bradford Nordeen’s – “What’s Underground? – The Films of Jack Smith” is also not to be missed. Nordeen – ““Jack was an underground visionary in every sense of the word. Jack poured glitter into everything he made – pasty creatures, plastic fantasias and moldy monsters. He was a performance artist, filmmaker, playwright, photographer, socialist, aesthete, installation artist, scene-stealer, writer, interventionist..”
Allen, in 1993, in conversation with Steven Taylor (on the gay/glam lineage):
“Flaming Creatures is ecstatic. Just people…it’s more a pose. An artist in his loft, making tableau, mis-en-scene. Then he’d photograph it almost like a still picture except move the camera around a little. So it would be Irving Rosenthal with a beard and a lot of lipstick and feathers in his hair. Sequined dress down to here with flabby dick and hair and playing with his dick and nothing happening. Flaming Creatures! That was the whole point (laughs). Incompetence! Total incompetence! (laughter). You know, Flaming Creatures, instead of being an orgy, you had this aesthetic of these people dressed up like David Bowie. And I think David Bowie comes out of the New York Dolls..”
“(The New York) Dolls were a spin-off of (San Francisco’s) Angels of Light. In other words,
I think the lineage for transvestite glitter rock is from the underground cinema challenge to Hollywood, the illegal movie, Flaming Creatures, which involved glitter and sequins and posing, to the Angels of Light, to the development on a grand scale in San Francisco and then a return to New York and to London with the New York Dolls – attempting to do things in private on a small scale, individually, which was the philosophy of the underground film. That you could bypass the entire Hollywood business which was public and vast but you could entertain yourself and your friends..”
Allen, writing, on Independence Day weekend, 1964, (on the state of the arts in America):
“..But what’s happening now in the U.S.? Amazingly enough, MOVIES. After having been absent from the land for three years, I found on my return an excitement, a group, an art-gang, a society of friends, individuals who were running all around the streets with home movie cameras, taking each others pictures, just as, a decade ago, poets were running around the streets of New York and San Francisco recording each others visions in spontaneous language. So now the present moment is being captured on film. This is nothing like the commercial films of banks, distributors, money-stars, etc. This is the film of cranks, eccentrics, sensitives, individuals, one man, one camera, one movie – that is to say the work of individual persons not corporations. As such naturally its interesting depending upon the individual behind the camera – Ron Rice, Harry Smith, Jack Smith,(sic) (Stan) Brakhage, (Jonas) Mekas, (Kenneth) Anger, (Bruce) Conner, others. Jonas Mekas is the genius organizer of encouragement and showings, and there is a Film Makers Cooperative, which naturally has been attacked by the police..”
On March 3 1964, the police closed down a screening of Flaming Creatures at the New Bowery Theater, in New York, seizing film rolls and projection equipment and arresting Mekas along with several others.
They were swiftly put on trial. The trial took place on June 12 – People of the State of New York v. Kenneth Jacobs, Florence Karpf and Jonas Mekas. Allen was one of the so-called “expert witnesses” called on to testify for the defense (filmmaker Shirley Clarke, writer Susan Sontag, and filmmaker Willard Van Dyke were among the others) The defendants were, despite that, convicted but given suspended sentences.
They subsequently appealed, on the grounds that the trial had excluded that expert testimony. The New York Supreme Court heard the appeal and summarily reversed the convictions.
Fifty years later, the prosecutor for the case even issued an apology (unsolicited) to Mekas, writing, “Although my appreciation of free expression and aversion to censorship developed more fully as I matured, I should have sooner acted more courageously.”
Mekas may have survived but Jack was permanently scarred. The disproportionate spotlight, the misunderstanding, the ignorance, the censorship, the disappointment, radically affected him and the rest of his creative life. He became bitter and paranoid (not that he hadn’t evinced those qualities before), scattershot (ditto), unable to finish and complete tasks (ditto). Also cruel, mean (“famously difficult”)
Gary Indiana observes, (attempting friendship with Jack) – “the world that he lived in had great appeal, and it also had a terrifying lack of boundaries. Within his hermetic realm, Jack was utterly logical and everything he did made perfect sense. Outside that magic kingdom he was quite mad, and though his madness was essentially benign, it could wear you out.”
“Jack”, Bradford Nordeen notes, “lost most of his friends, lovers and collaborators due to this insistence, his absolute impossibility. If you erred for a moment, Jack would lash back at you, by some accounts with an ax, and you were out for good. But the flipside to that manic intensity was an excruciating purity that few artists achieve.
“Jack just pitched his camp a little too close to the frontier of Life and Art,” wrote the poet René Ricard. “For Jack the supreme insult was “Careerist!”. For him the word contained a lifetime of contempt. I think it also implied success and, to me anyway, seemed to express a great artist’s jealousy of mediocrity – success made you mediocre. On his deathbed he called Allen Ginsberg ‘a walking career’ to his face. (How sad to have to clarify; it was Jack’s deathbed.) But Jack, I’m afraid to mention, was also obsessed with his career, except that his striving was inverted: his will was to fail. Andy Warhol once said, ‘We always think of people starting at the bottom and working their way up. What about someone who starts at the top and works their way down?’ He was talking about Edie Sedgwick at the time, but in a way it seems to apply just as well to Jack.”
Read select reviews – here’s Variety, the New York Times Marc Calderero for Pop Matters, Film Forward.com, and more
After decades living as an impoverished artist in New York, Jack Smith died of complications from AIDS on September 18 1989.
Ironically, his estate was contested in a legal battle between his estranged family and a group of artists seeking to preserve his work, the Plaster Foundation (principal among them Penny Arcade)
Penny Arcade – “I saved the artist Jack Smith’s entire work and formed The Jack Smith Archive in 1989 with J. Hoberman, film critic for the Village Voice. I gave his homophobic sister $50,000 in bearer bonds that Jack gave me so she would not destroy his work. After 20 years of working to insure Jack’s legacy, we were taken to court by a consortium of saboteurs that I do not have time to go into here although we were vindicated by All Things Considered (see radio link) and a huge article in the Village Voice (“The Last Days of Jack Smith”) by C. Carr
The dispute dragged on but was finally resolved in 2008 with the Barbara Gladstone Gallery purchasing the Smith Estate.
It had been over a decade since MOMA/P.S.1.had curated Jack Smith – Flaming Creature (which subsequently traveled to the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh), “a cross disciplinary retrospective”, so it was described, which had assembled, “hundreds of examples of Smith’s innovative work in photography, film, performance, drawing, collage, costume design, slide projection, sound and the written word”.
Concomitant with the show, Serpents Tail published Edward Leffingwell‘s – Flaming Creature – Jack Smith – His Amazing Life and Times (a collective memoir)
along with Wait For Me At The Bottom of the Pool, an invaluable collection of Smith’s own writings
More Jack Smith, you want more Jack Smith?
Jerry Tartaglia in 2017 constructed Escape From Rented Island- The Lost Paradise of Jack Smith.
Escape From Rented Island- The Lost Paradise of Jack Smith can be viewed here .
Here’s the review of the film in – The Hollywood Reporter.