Credited with essentially jump-starting American avant-garde cinema, Jack Smith is not nearly as well known as the filmmakers he allegedly inspired—Fellini, Warhol, and John Waters, among others. Nor is it easy nowadays to track down his opus, Flaming Creatures—42 minutes of painstakingly arranged black-and-white tableaux of orgies, earthquakes, vampires, and transvestite flappers, set to pop songs and cheesy Hollywood soundtracks—despite the fact that its 1964 release led to a censorship ruckus and a denunciation on the floor of the Senate by Strom Thurmond.
Perhaps Smith’s relative obscurity is not surprising. The nudity and orgies and pansexual queerness now inevitably seem tame. The creatures’ shenanigans are still funny, but the subversive implications are no longer immediately intelligible.
Yet there are signs of reviving interest in Smith’s work: A number of major Smith retrospectives have been held in the last five years, and one of them, a 1997 celebration at the American Museum of the Moving Image, has spawned On Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures (And Other Secret-Flix of Cinemaroc). Village Voice critic J. Hoberman curated the retrospective and turned his program notes into this slim, illustrated compendium of Smithiana. The book recounts the making of Flaming Creatures (on the roof of a Lower East Side theater, with outdated film stock that Smith shoplifted from the discount bins at Camera Barn) and its explosive screening (police raided theaters, made arrests, confiscated film). It also describes Smith’s other films and his collaborations with various avant-garde filmmakers, evoking an exuberant Lower East Side bohemia at its creative peak.
Hoberman previously coedited a collection of Smith’s writings, and Flaming Creatures is copiously annotated with background information about Smith’s artistic influences and quotes from his own essays. Indeed, with its footnotes, elaborate black-and-white design, reproductions of original documents, and general labor-of-love obsessiveness, Flaming Creatures looks and feels like that genre of underground art preferred by a later generation—the fanzine. What’s charming when mimeographed by teenagers, however, seems a little schlocky and overdesigned as an art book with a $29.95 price tag. Smith is well worth rediscovering, and there’s much interesting background and trivia here. But underground filmmakers and would-be bohemians after Smith’s own heart will probably do best to take it from the library, if not from unguarded bins of the bookstore.