Given the number of books, films and exhibitions devoted to Andy Warhol, it's remarkable how little attention has been accorded filmmaker Jack Smith, a lynchpin of the American Underground and the only person Warhol claimed he would ever try to copy. Thank heavens, then, for Mary Jordan's vibrant, funny and tragic documentary, an entertaining hodgepodge of artifacts and impressions of a "creature" whose influence on photography, drama, film and art is still felt today.
Jordan traces Smith's story back to the unhappy, Depression-era childhood he spent in a series of Texas towns with his sister and thrice-married, often-neglectful mother. Smith moved to New York City in 1953, arriving with a head full of B-movie fantasies starring his idol, Dominican-born screen siren Maria Montez. The popular star of such unforgettable schlock as COBRA WOMAN (1944) and SIREN OF ATLANTIS (1949), Montez was a bad actress who epitomized Smith's championing of surface style, color and composition over narrative clarity, thematic richness and everything else the establishment considered "good" in cinema and fine art. Montez and this baroque aesthetic remained with Smith throughout his career, from the orgiastic, exotic, color tableaux he photographed in the back room of his own Hyperbole Studios during the '50s, to the 45-minute, overexposed black-and-white masterpiece FLAMING CREATURES (1962), an indescribable mix of Montez-style exoticism, transvestite bacchanal and full-frontal nudity that became an immediate cause scandal on the nascent underground-film circuit. But the film's notoriety angered Smith, who felt it had been press-ganged into an obscenity debate about which he cared little, and he deeply resented the way in which his champion, critic/curator/filmmaker Jonas Mekas, "used" FLAMING CREATURES to "further his own career." Mekas became Smith's lifelong bogey. (It's said that Smith never completed another film so that scavenging "lobsters" like Mekas couldn't exploit another piece of his work.) Other sworn enemies included Warhol who briefly appeared in NORMAL LOVE, Smith's unfinished sequel to CREATURES, and "directed" Smith in several of his own films and many others, as the increasingly difficult Smith withdrew from a disappointing world that paled beside the Atlantis of his mind.
Jordan includes copious footage from FLAMING CREATURES and NORMAL LOVE, as well as such rare productions as the film NO PRESIDENT (1970) and the notorious late-late-night pieces Smith performed in his apartment for anyone willing to endure an hours-long wait. Jordan also incorporates a number of recordings of the surprisingly political Smith, railing in his distinctive high-pitched wail against everything from landlords, America and the art establishment to, of course, Mekas. Smith's friends and collaborators many of whom appeared in his films offer their memories; Smith's sister's are the most poignant. What's missing is any consideration of the crucial role Smith played as a performer in other people's work, particularly fellow underground filmmaker Ken Jacobs' epic STAR SPANGLED TO DEATH (1959). Also absent is input from film critic J. Hoberman, though Andrew Sarris, Hoberman's former Village Voice colleague, contributes a few words. Hoberman coedited Wait for Me at the Bottom of the Pool, a volume of Smith's writings, and wrote an insightful and hugely entertaining monograph about FLAMING CREATURES: His perspective could only have added a few sharp brushstrokes to Jordan's portrait. leave a comment --Ken Fox