Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis

07/18/2010

U.S.A. / 2006 / English

Directed by Mary Jordan

Still from 'Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis'Filmmaker Jack Smith’s art and attitudes ran contrary to much of the dominant avant garde of his time, exulting in artifice, exoticism and dopey, nervous fun, all of it suffused with a kind of idiot splendor. He was fixated on the grand artificiality of 1940’s Hollwyood, reconstructing it himself from the detritus of department stores and costume shops. His world of transvestite vampires, camp arabesques, and trashiness bordering on the grotesque was realized with the total and visionary seriousness of a consummate aesthete. So deep was his affection for the “baroque art,” of which he considered himself to be the main surviving proprietor, that his living space itself was a constant film set decorated with curtains and plush cushions, a veritable museum of his dreams. And in it he did not create fictions so much as he did document his own feverish mind as its imagery was played out across every aspect of his life. Mary Jordan’s richly buoyant documentary about Smith culls the extant snippets of his work, artifacts of destitution and overstimulation that coalesce to form a compelling portrait of an artist little-understood when he was alive, let alone now, when his bright but furtive expressions are consigned to faded celluloid.

Smith first appeared on the countercultural radar when he ran a photography studio on the west side of Manhattan in the late 1950’s, and became well-known for dressing his subjects in lavish attire and placing them in elaborate sets that looked like the harem scenes from Hollywood oriental epics. In the milieu of photography of the time there existed a great deal of antipathy toward what was looked upon as an oversaturation of colors, often linked with unapproachable kitsch. But Smith’s pictures are arrestingly beautiful, blanketed in thoughtful ambiguity, their mysteriousness showing how distant the realm of the imagination truly is from the sober realities of our lives. His films tended towards similar indulgence, but always done on grainy film stock, with handheld cinematography and very, very homespun production values. One wonders what the result would have been like had it been Smith, and Marie Menken and Ken Jacobs, who had attained the sort of budgets to realize their creative dreams. Perhaps in Smith’s case it would be like a humorous Fellini Satyricon. No doubt the films would be marvelous, but not in the same way that they are now, and anyway, that really wasn’t what Smith was about. There is too much restlessness in his method, an untamable pretension of grandeur, not to mention layers of style, that would not translate through slickness or clarity. Kenneth Anger’s projects perhaps comes the closest to true epics, and he is, like Smith was, wildly prolific, while having all but ceased, quite early on, to produce works that could come close to his own juvenilia in terms of coherence or formidable elegance.

It is revelatory to hear about the connections and influence of such a notorious but resolutely underground filmmaker – you can see Jack Smith not only in John Waters and Kenneth Anger, but also in Andy Warhol and Fellini. Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis characterizes his creative vision as a utopian one as well. Reminiscent of another homosexual outsider (a somewhat redundant tag when referring to the 20th Century), Quentin Crisp, Smith was both a product of his world and a self-styled creation. And, like Crisp, he seemed as devoted to poverty as he was to fabulousness. Smith comprehensively fashioned himself and his life as a single artistic entity, living out his fantasy world in front of the camera and drawing in a colorful line of art world characters as participants to help enact it. His “Atlantis” was a pure and puerile Brigadoon of props, an escape from the conservative and repressive razzle-dazzle of straightlaced society, the only true obscenity surrounding his screenings and exhibits.

Still from 'Normal Love'

Normal Love (1964)

Not only are there a bewildering number of interviewees recalling Smith’s exuberance (none of them seems to have yet fully recovered from having witnessed it) but they all do so with such detailed familiarity with his methods and ideas. It is a testament to the candor and exhibitionism that he valued, and how consummately his work related to who he was as a person, that a thorough reconstruction of him could be made simply on the reminiscences of people who met him. Happily though there is also a wealth of archival footage, none of it ready for screening but all of it meant to be seen nonetheless. And Smith’s cartoonish voice, recorded for films and performances, appears throughout, his inimitable phrases flowing together like one long, discombobulated soliloquy.

It is difficult to encapsulate Smith’s Flaming Creatures (1963), and saying that it is merely a bunch of drag queens cavorting does not do it justice. It is a jumpy, energetic explosion of camp sensibility, violent, absurdist and tumescent. Breasts are fondled and penises waved. The film was banned in twenty-two states and Smith fell into unwelcome controversy. He was in the right position to stand up for his work, significant and worthy of attention as it happened to be. It was Jonas Mekas who took up the cause of Flaming Creatures – screening it all over and getting arrested for it – a cause that Smith wanted nothing to do with. It became a free speech issue and a civil liberties issue, pushing the buttons of a nation still recovering from the 1950’s with regards to obscenity, homosexuality, and freedom. It is still what he is best known for, and equally for the uproar that the film caused as for its unhinged deflation of cinematic form.

Still from 'Normal Love'

Normal Love (1964)

But listening to Smith talk about the film, his resulting hatred for Mekas and of fame-seekers in general, one realizes that his rage is directed more at systems of normalcy and elitism that oppressed him; his fight was with the debasing, price-tagging, and ultimate inhibiting of art. Intolerance he could handle, and indeed, had always thrived on it. But the reaction to his most famous film revealed that he could never put anything out into the mainstream, make his work so vulnerable again without having it taken away from him. His struggle seems to have perpetually been to make something that is uniquely his but that he could share with everyone else. His notions of art were largely anarchic, and his most powerful statement was that he lived that aesthetic and refused to compromise it, or was simply incapable of doing so. Ultimately the situation was so distasteful for him that he finished no more films after Flaming Creatures, his art becoming ever more exclusive, personal, and obscure. He took to performing in his New York loft, creating happenings where the guests seemed to have very little clue as to what was going on.

A friendship that mostly took on the character of two sets of sparring eccentricities was with Warhol, who saw in Smith a kind of purity that he wanted to capture, to isolate. In scenes from Warhol’s Batman Dracula (1964), Smith looks bored and uncooperative, at least until he lets loose and his unique histrionics completely steal the show. Smith despised the factory mentality and the notion of selling art. The sets from the films that he directed were constructed from items pulled out of the dumpster, glitteringly ambitious but reveling in obvious artifice. He never uses the sort of ironic distance with which Warhol cloaked himself, preferring instead to be forever in the midst of everything, going headlong, drawing attention to himself.

From very early on in his life Smith harbored a fascination for the Hollywood glamor girl Maria Montez, celebrating her even after he contracted AIDS and was near death in the hospital in 1989. This woman was an exemplar of the sentimental and vulgar exaggeration to which he aspired. She became a binding thread throughout his work, a glimmering icon on the path to the mythic perfection of his Kodachrome fantasy. To him the world needed to be a constant tea party, replete with cupcakes with suspicious green frosting.

Still from 'Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis'

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One Response to “Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis”

  1. Mary Ann said

    What a fascinating film-maker and review of his work. Sounds amazing!

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