Andy Warhol worked shakily with him, filmed him and his actors, found the Superstar and Factory ideas in him, went commercial to wild success, and earned the scorn of this “only person I would ever try to copy.” New American Cinema editor, critic and underground film spokesperson Jonas Mekas championed his one “finished” film and in exhibiting it earned his condemnation as “Uncle Fishhook.” Arguably the founder of “underground,” he is the virtually ignored Jack Smith, about to enter at least experimental arts buffs’ consciousness in “Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis.”
After a number of off-the-beaten-track, sometimes dangerous, shorter non-fiction works, Mary Jordan is director/writer/producer/co-executive producer/-cinematographer/-music supervisor/voiceover reader for her first feature, a project brewing for six years since she discovered her subject’s photographs at a Bay Area commune. Analogous to that chameleon subject’s life, the ninety-three minutes jump- and inter-cut all over the place with interviews both pro—“I genuflect”: John Waters—and con, rare pieces from Smith’s previously unpublished stills and of him on live stage or directing films or acting in his own and others’, audio clips of him, and b&w of his New York scene of twenty-to-forty years ago.
Gravitating to Gotham from the provinces like them but unlike public persona artists Warhol and Dalí, Smith willfully eluded fame and financial reward. Indeed, entirely the contrary of the Pittsburgh painter’s “Art Businessman or a Business Artist, [so] making money is art and good business is the best art,” Smith waged and raged a one-man commitment against “landlordism,” capitalism, commercialization, film archives, creativity charged for and frozen in museums.
He paid for his stance with growing obscurity, alienation and a poverty diet of crackers and cheese, although later accepting sole “responsibility [that] I haven’t been organized properly” and claiming that, at last eating three squares in an AIDS ward, he had contracted the disease because “why should Puerto Ricans get the fabulous way to die, and not me?”
Thumbing his nose at the propriety of poverty in childhood Ohio and Texas and a baffled mother he said he disliked, at twenty Jack fled to New York City, garbage-strewn and still proper, too, but nurturing the seeds of cultural revolution to come. Reflecting on her brother’s trajectory and mirroring Mainstream, somber sister (and ironically his legal heir) Mary Sue Slater announces that “I’ve learned to be more forgiving, I don’t blame him. He was just trying to be happy.”
A paranoid loner who progressively offended most everyone, he did want to be happy, a flamboyant gay man when hardly anyone came out, Errol Flynn-handsome in a suit during a Warhol shoot, he directed his multi-faceted art toward freeing people to happiness. In the supersaturated color utopia he termed Atlantis, genitalia, orgies, androgynes and hermaphrodites and vampirish drag queens in veils and tights are not so much threateningly sexual as childlike. Consciously modeling much of it after the profitably cheap 1940s adventures of “Queen of Technicolor” Maria Montez, even to rechristening his transvestite Hispanic star as Mario Montez, Smith in essence superimposed a loose Baroque over Pre-Raphaelite sensibility.
Comprising film, video masters and original DV-PAL transferred to hi-def video, the story moves from its hero’s early Hyperbole Photography Studio, where he honed color skills at a time they were thought of as outré and where Bohemia’s aesthetes gathered (as they would later in his digs, overcrowded with objets trouvés and junk). From there on to his acting, collaborating, early filmmaking. And to his one relatively complete, forty-three-minute work, the maudit, difficult to obtain 1962 “Flaming Creatures,” the only film ever banned in New York (twenty-three other states and four countries followed suit).
Mere camp today, and less naughty than its reputation, that film is of historical interest, coming out seven years prior to Stonewall and resulting in the busting of Mekas for obscenity. Disgusted by the furor and by what he saw as creeping commercialization, Smith never turned out another finished cinema product, at times actually coming by projection rooms to sort of edit his films as they were spooling. Drifting into combinations of performance arts, where he antagonized audiences, friends and foes, he continued his solitary, outraged and outrageous path to the end.
Jack Smith would have scoffed at the very idea of writing about a film about him—“film critics are writers and they are hostile and uneasy in the presence of a visual phenomenon.” But without him, more famous names would have been delayed or never arrived at all. Eccentric and pure like its hero, “Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis” will appall or bore many, but, a worthy piece of cultural history, it should delight devotees of the “real” reel underground.