“Trash is the material of creators.” Over the past decade or so Jack Smith has become widely acknowledged as one of the most revolutionary and influential post-war US filmmakers and performance artists, a source of inspiration for everyone from Andy Warhol and Federico Fellini to John Waters and Ryan Trecartin.
The Jack Smith universe is confusing, mischievous and messy, with its own language, its own pantheon and its own code of values. Smith transformed boredom, failure and bad taste into aesthetic systems worthy of attention — with Maria Montez, queen of Technicolor movies as his deity above all others. Montez was a not-so-great actress who brought an intangible cocktail of glamour, self-obsession, bargain-basement exoticism and a total disregard for realism to her intoxicating performances.
Call this strange brew camp divinity; larger-than-life characters like Montez, Smith, the playwright Charles Ludlam and drag queens Mario Montez, Holly Woodlawn, Divine, Craig Russell, Kiki and Vaginal Davis all secrete it by the bucket full.
This aesthetic system reframes as beautiful all aspects of life — including the most traumatic, filthy, banal and seemingly unworthy. In the utopia of your imagination — the lost world of Atlantis, as it were — the real you is what you become under chiffon and pearls, not the dead-dull factory worker you are forced to be in the material world.
Jack Smith And The Destruction Of Atlantis is Mary Jordan’s compelling and moving documentary of Smith’s life, art and legacy currently making the festival circuit (it screens at Inside Out on Sun, May 27). The film makes brilliant use of reams of archival footage and enlightening interviews with many key figures from the 1960s New York underground who rarely appear nowadays.
Named by Smith in honour of his goddess, Mario Montez was perhaps the greatest drag queen on the scene and the star of several films by Andy Warhol and Smith. Here he looks a little worse for wear, but he shines on. Also present is the oft-overlooked genius Ronald Tavel, scenarist for Warhol’s best films such as Hedy and Screen Test #2 (both starring Mr Montez).
Rather than relying on narration, Jordan presents Smith’s miraculously deep, mannered voice throughout, back from the grave thanks to unearthed audio recordings. An incredible performer, his striking visage and the way he moves his body are equally hypnotizing. One of the most fascinating aspects of the avant-garde art scene resurrected here is that the glue that bonded these fags was not so much sex or drugs as their shared, transcendent obsession with the musty Hollywood glamour of old, and especially its female stars like Ms Montez.
Some of the anecdotes are to die for. Smith would apparently rearrange garbage on the street into more aesthetically pleasing compositions, and he enjoyed his deathbed for the crackerjack hospital food and the opportunity to recline and think of Maria (whose importance to him cannot be overstated).
Smith grew up poor in cultural backwaters with a brutish mother and he survived, like many other sad gay boys, by playing dress up. As was protocol at the time for aspiring aesthetes, he moved to New York where he became a portrait photographer and directed his aptly titled first film Overstimulated in 1959. His 1963 opus Flaming Creatures is perhaps his only finished film. As Tavel points out, the wild, baroque excesses in which Smith convinced his friends to indulge on a tenement rooftop are all the more awe-inspiring considering the conservative age they nominally inhabited.
At heart, Flaming Creatures is a series of performative tableaux populated by a queerly costumed assembly of bohemians and libertines, accompanied by outlandish dialogue and recycled pop and movie music. Playing dress up to the nth degree, the stars ecstatically writhe for the camera as if trapped in their own glorious cinematic fantasy worlds. Its casually explicit, comic nudity and perverse sexuality got it banned, a devastating encroachment of the state into Smith’s Atlantis.
While the film fully plumbs the depths of Smith’s impact on experimental film and performance art — the man was doing avant-garde dumpster drag on Gotham’s streets in the 1950s for goodness sake! — it is not a hagiography. Smith comes off as so radical and uncompromising that he not only accepted a life of abject poverty and starvation but his difficult character led to fallouts with most of his friends and colleagues by the time he died of AIDS in 1989. He was too abject and weird for fame compared even to Warhol — which is saying a lot — and was as much an anarchist as Warhol was a capitalist.
He refused to let any creation, whether films or performances, become a finished product, railing against museums as nothing but mausoleums (with curators their crypt-keepers), and he constantly blurred the line between life and stage. In an ostentatious feathered hat, we seem him proclaim, “Everything should be free — and it could begin with art.”
Perhaps ironically, after Smith languished in obscurity his estate became the subject of a vicious, ongoing legal battle that affects access to his art and films. It has only intensified as he becomes more respected and lauded. On one side are his longtime champions Penny Arcade and J Hoberman of the Plaster Foundation, who rescued, preserved, advocated for and disseminated Smith’s art after his death. Protesting their guardianship is a motley crew consisting of Jordan, Smith’s estranged sister — whom he had not seen since 1956, and who appears in the film — and others decrying the Plaster Foundation’s practices.
Jordan feels she is fighting the good fight against those vultures who would archive, sell and institutionalize Smith’s art. (He had apparently ordered that it all be burned.) This casts an unfortunate shadow over this fine documentary, making the decision whether to see Jordan’s film akin to taking an ethical position in the battle for poor, devilish Smith’s soul.