Like book critics vying to outscribble the tomes they’re reviewing, bio-docs of experimental filmmakers frequently tend toward an anxiety of influence: Often, the documentarians struggle too hard to be avant-garde themselves, dampening the informational value of their projects with artsy overkill. Not so for Mary Jordan’s long-awaited portrait of Jack Smith, the notorious ne plus ultra of underground filmmakers, which blips quickly through a surprisingly slick televisual format—think Behind the Music tweaked for a Logo audience. Such a treatment proves paradoxically welcome. Smith’s own work, here montaged for easy digestion, is already too rich and sumptuous to require any further frosting.
Smith was the cult filmmaker’s cult filmmaker: a reedy, gay boy with hawkish beak and matching eyes, who fled to Beat-era NYC to remake himself and the world around him according to his inner vision of cut-rate Orientalist fantasy. Inspired by childhood devotion to the B-movie actress and camp muse Maria Montez, Smith created lurid color photos crammed with lunatic clutter as if rummaged from the trash bins of Josef von Sternberg’s subconscious; he vamped through early flicks by Ken Jacobs and Andy Warhol; and he completed a single film, Flaming Creatures, a low-rent pansexual faux orgy whose controversies surrounding its purported pornotude grew into the definitive mid-’60s cinematic cause célébre. But as Jordan’s film explains, Smith resented Voice critic and avant-garde impresario Jonas Mekas for traveling with Creatures—and without Smith—during the height of the legal storm and grew paranoid that “Uncle Fish Hook” had thereby furthered his own career more than Smith’s. This pro-artist, anti- curator grudge grew into an extreme and elaborate counter-capitalist philosophy, here exhaustively expressed through a variety of recorded and restaged Smithisms. After Creatures, Smith’s later art became pure ephemera—unhinged performances without clear beginnings or ends.
Aside from noting Mekas’s involvement, Jordan makes little mention of the
Creatures controversy that drew in everyone from Susan Sontag to Strom Thurmond. Yet this event is the prime reason Smith has so far been remembered, and arguably began a legal discussion that eventually decriminalized porn. The omission seems strange, given Jordan’s argument that Smith is the secret font of all that is cool in late-20th-century culture. Usually such a thesis seems forced—as when mass-market nonfiction argues that world history hinged on such otherwise unassuming factors as the nutmeg trade. But Smith’s rep long precedes this doc. Jordan’s interviews, from John Zorn to John Waters, all attest to Smith’s reputation as a pivotal influence on film, performance art, gallery installation, and photography; as Richard Foreman once declared, everybody stole from Jack.