"Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis" dir. Mary Jordan (2006)

"Oh Maria Montez, give socialist answers to a rented world."
          - Jack Smith

Maria Montez in Robert Siodmak's Cobra Woman (1944) 
In 1963 performance artist, film maker, and povera artiste extraordinaire Jack Smith screened a film that would go down as his only completed work of cinema, Flaming Creatures.  Even though Smith would continue working creatively until his death in 1989, he has remained most associated with that film and its overblown and blown-out baroque style.  The history of Flaming Creatures as an icon of banned art has perhaps overshadowed the complex and varied influence of Smith's work and life, which is what makes Mary Jordan's documentary Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis so essential.

Flaming Creatures
For me, Smith's work was always lingering in the periphery of my research in Performance Art, particularly when it came to the New York scene of the 70's and 80's.  I had developed only a vague impression in my mind of this queer performer with the most mundane of monikers, somehow central to the whole scene, creating performances in his living room that were hugely influential and, like so much of the most seminal performance art work of the past, scantily documented.  So, the experience of Jordan's artfully constructed documentary is a welcome flood of color, detail, and collected narratives to fill in my mental sketch of this amazing artist, whose principled though difficult practices as an artist speak so directly to the ethics of artistic and political action today.  Jordan assembles a rather impressive line-up of underground film makers, writers, and performers to assemble Smith's complicated story, including Ken Jacobs, Gary Indiana, John Zorn, Nick Zedd, Mary Woronov, Richard Foreman, George Kuchar, Jonas Mekas, John Waters, Taylor Mead, Tony Conrad, Andrew Sarris, and Robert Wilson, to name but a few.  Most of the commentary by those who had experienced Smith is clearly marked by a desire to properly name him as the source of so much art that came after him, from trends in photography to the eventual aesthetic of the music video, and in particular the debt owed to him by Andy Warhol.  But, the film also portrays his unique nature as an artist who was always folding curious influences from the past into his work.  Richard Foreman (creator of the Ontological-Hysteric Theater) describes his first encounter with Flaming Creatures as a "Blake-ian vision...some kind of heaven," while Jordan is continually pulling in footage from the work of Smith's own film obsession, the Queen of Technicolor, Maria Montez;  the space between Blake and Montez is perhaps an appropriate place to begin constructing a frame of reference for the scope and feel of Smith's work for those who aren't familiar.  Smith eventually began to shape his own "Creatures," as he would call them, for the purpose of his low-budget, semi-pornographic film experiments.  Most of these "performers" were untrained, naturally reacting characters culled from the streets of New York that Smith integrated into his hand-made fantasy set designs, including the notable transvestite actor he discovered and dubbed "Mario Montez."  If it sounds a lot like Warhol's Factory, that's because it is, only without the money.  Robert Wilson puts it bluntly in the film:  "Warhol couldn't have made his films without Jack Smith."  Then again, Smith's work is certainly connected to a film maker I can recall little mention of in Jordan's film, Kenneth Anger.  But, to spend too much time with the questions of influence and appropriation within this particular vein of the Avant-Garde may lead to the more troubling questions of exploitation and profit, and perhaps the unfortunate traps of contempt that evidently fueled much of Smith's rage and resentment.  Jordan weaves this aspect of Smith's personality into the film progressively while never allowing it to simply become a scandal piece.  Although John Waters ultimately declares that Jack Smith "bit every hand that fed him," Jordan manages to keep the focus of the film on the unique strength of Smith's convictions, which are often questionable (particularly when it comes to his romanticization of contracting AIDS), but are served well by the film's honest approach.

Kenneth Anger's Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954)
Andy Warhol and Mario Montez 
One recurring image in Smith's work is that of the Lobster, usually used to represent an evil exploiter of art and humanity.  In Destruction of Atlantis, it is curiously one of Smith's central "Lobster" adversaries that points out this motif, Jonas Mekas.  As essential as Mekas is to the history and preservation of Avant-Garde film, as well as the dissemination and success of Flaming Creatures, Smith reviled Mekas, claiming that his public exhibitions and lectures and police-bating were not serving his work well, but rather "kicking it to death."  The history of Flaming Creatures itself is yet another tale of cinema censorship that doggedly persists today, as Kirby Dick addressed in (a documentary that would make a great "double feature" companion to Jordan's) This Film is Not Yet Rated (2006).  Taking into consideration the kind of aggression an eccentric like Smith must have encountered growing up in the 1940's and 50's, there seems to me a few telling parallels between the recent controversy between Harvey Weinstein and the MPAA over the rating of the documentary Bully.  Although I can't yet speak to the quality of Bully as a film, the controversy is a perfect reflection of the institutional ineffectiveness and cultural immaturity that persists fifty years later in the form of a rating system whose methods of out-and-out censorship have devolved into absurdity (I know...but where would we be without the invaluable PG-13 rated version of The King's Speech, or the People magazine equivalent of dystopian cinema that is The Hunger Games?!).

In Destruction of Atlantis, Jordan poses the question of what Flaming Creatures ultimately owes to the controversy surrounding it, as it was eventually banned in 22 states and 4 countries, with prints being impounded by the Attorney General as late as 1968, and protests in opposition to the censorship of the film arising on numerous college campuses (one of the primary sites being University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, the same city that spawned the initial petition against the MPAA ruling on Bully).  The initial police raids the film experienced in New York in 1963 were often attributed to an effort to "clean up" the city in the year leading up to the 1964 World's Fair, as Lenny Bruce continued to wonder aloud on stage, "Is it becoming chic to arrest me?"

Lenny Bruce
Like Bruce, Smith had a distinctive voice (literally and figuratively) that challenged the idea of where obscenity truly resides, and it's this use of Smith's voice in Jordan's film that transcends the controversy, revealing a creative and revolutionary mind that is as potent today as it ever was (even if Flaming Creatures itself might not be).  Jordan's "thesis statement" for the film, set to a glorious montage of Smith footage, comes in the form of Smith raging:  "In this country there's a profound hatred of art...but if it is real art, they cannot help it...it must get mutilated!"  This quote on its own may seem relevant enough to us today, but more specifically the threat of "mutilation" in the form of institutionalized homophobia and censorship continues to be enacted in 2012, as was the case recently with performance artist Tim Miller being banned from teaching a workshop at Villanova in Philadelphia.  As with the MPAA, and the invention of the Production Code for that matter, this particular instance of censorship has a strong tie to Catholicism, as Villanova's President, Rev. Peter M. Donohue, stated "concerns that his performances were not in keeping with our Catholic and Augustinian values and mission" (even though Miller was never slated to perform his own work, but rather teach a workshop that would enable students to craft performance work built around a particular theme:  "a day in your life when you told the truth").  Villanova's ban held, though not without protest, and the partially happy end to the story is that Miller performed last weekend in an alternate venue in Philly not far from the college, hopefully solidifying the message that banning an artist and educator like Miller in 2012 is an outrage, and the only thing that could possibly make Donohue seem more absurd would be running around Philly trying to put the kibosh on screenings of Fatty Arbuckle pictures.  

Tim Miller
One of the most frustrating aspects of these continuing cultural bouts with censorship is how surface oriented they are when you boil them down...a few "fucks" here, a few cocks there.  What is brought out so well in Destruction of Atlantis is the way Smith linked this to Capitalism, and the way in which the system so often encourages a surface level engagement with culture and art.  The same sentiment rings true in relation to the modern movie business, which was created in simultaneity with the particular offices of American film censorship, and continues today in its perpetuation of product that is increasingly created through the lens of the advertising industry.  Along those same lines, another curious parallel to the attention given to Smith in the early 60's was the emerging cultural influence of the Madison Avenue advertising agencies, which has recently enjoyed a rather artful depiction in AMC's popular series Mad Men.  As of this writing, Mad Men is beginning to air its 5th season, and has so far captured quite well, particularly in the character of Don Draper, a sentiment that could stand to be stated more often:  advertisers don't give a fuck about Art.  Smith was keen to this back then, often addressing the affect on artists working in a culture increasingly naturalized to marketing strategies as one that will inevitably throw away the "aesthetic aspect of anything" first, indicting American culture as one that will "take the publicity and throw everything else away." 

Mad Men
Jack Smith
For Smith, the necessity of art lied in its ability to provide respite from those inescapable systems that were coming into focus all around him in the 60's, and to combat them with strange gestures, alternate realities, and exuberant lust. Jordan's documentary reveals Smith as not just a simple provocateur or a minor footnote to the history of legal battles over obscenity, but as an artist whose work and voice resounds clearly in a time when, as he put it, "Capitalism has made it impossible to live a life that's not ugly."  A cut above the spate of recent documentaries attempting to reconstruct various art movements and personalities, Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis colors in a period that seems in need of being re-examined, and finds controversies there that are unexpectedly timely.  




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