Uncovering The Underground World of Jack Smith (1932 – 1989)

First published in  AnOther Man magazine, London, 2017

               Is there anyone who has not yet seen the 1963 underground film classic Flaming Creatures by Jack Smith? Or who does not yet know that Jack is now heralded as the gay granddaddy of Performance Art?  Or anyone who is unfamiliar with his hundreds of collages and photographs that cross gender and sexual boundaries?

               I can answer these questions with a resounding “yes,” and that is why, after spending about two decades restoring 24 screening hours of Jack Smith’s 16mm film legacy, I’ve created a feature film of my own about his work and aesthetics set to premiere in NY this Spring.

               Escape From Rented Island: The Lost Paradise of Jack Smith will take the viewer on a visual and audio journey through his sometimes peculiar world of Glamour, Glitter, and Gender-Bending. But there’s one big quirk in my film.  It will only contain images and sounds that Jack himself created.  There won’t be any talking heads, film experts, or chatty authority figures to explain things to the audience. I’m presenting only images and audio recordings culled from the Jack Smith Archive which is now owned by the Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels. The artist will get to speak posthumously for himself; while the audience gets to think for itself.

               Jack is best known for his film Flaming Creatures, whose transgendered fantasy of flopping penises and bouncing breasts created such a stir in its day, that the film was banned in many places in the United States.  However, it went underground and thanks to a cadre of friends and supporters, including the filmmaker and poet Jonas Mekas, its audience and reputation grew around the world.  Smith, however, felt that the film was largely misunderstood, since he thought he was making a comedy. He became somewhat embittered as writers and critics took up the censorship battle surrounding the film.

               Fortunately, however, his cynicism drove him outside the box of conventional filmmaking. By the 1970s he had dislodged his aesthetic from the limitation of the movie screen and began to create the forerunner of what came to be known as “Performance Art.” With a nod to the Theatre of the Ridiculous, Smith began to produce what he called “LIVE FILM” performances. These were a living assemblage of projected film, slides, and live action with costumes, props and fantastical storylines, sometimes with an assistant or two who DJ-ed the music of Martin Denny, Korla Pandit and other campy luminaries from his massive Vinyl LP record collection (also housed in the Archive at the Gladstone Gallery).

               These LIVE FILM events were spun from his imagination and memory of the faded tinsel, tarnished glamour, and decrepit sets of 1930s and 40s Hollywood movies.  Smith developed an elaborate fantasy universe in which Manhattan became “Rented Island,” museums were mausoleums, and Maria Montez of Technicolor fame, was glorified as the penultimate Cinema star.  His performances bore the titles of such exoticism as Secret of Rented Island, I Danced With A Penguin, and Hamlet In The Rented World.  They transverse the boundaries between Smith’s impoverished life in the Lower East Side of New York, and the imaginative world of his own creation.

               My “film essay,” Escape From Rented Island: The Lost Paradise of Jack Smith, consists of a sequence of about thirty short episodes taken from his works, which, together present a picture of this artist’s life work.  I’ve edited the individual segments to run between three and seven minutes each. Smith played with the idea of extending time in his work and that created a real challenge for me.  I try to let my audience experience his aesthetic rather than just listen to a theory.  In one segment, for example, he explains the irony that making art of any kind can be very boring. In fact, he says, it’s the person who can endure that boredom who is most capable of making and appreciating art.  So I’ve given the audience a three-minute taste of that boredom – just enough to let them get his message.

               By the way, if Jack Smith’s ideas sound a bit like those of Andy Warhol, it’s because Warhol lifted a lot from Smith and never really acknowledged it.  In fact, the term “Superstar” was coined by Jack Smith for his own “creatures.”  Needless to say this did not endear Warhol to Smith, even though Jack does star in a couple of Warhol’s works, and Warhol does appear very briefly in Smith’s 1968 color extravaganza, Normal Love.

               In my film I try to let the audience directly experience some of Jack’s ideas about cinema, stagecraft, and performance art but I also include some unedited segments from his large body of film work. His oeuvre is a visual feast of color, exotic costumes, characters born from Hollywood’s “B” movies, and a joyful vision of ambisexual freedom that is difficult to not enjoy.  That Jack Smith was able to produce his work with virtually no financial support and even less notoriety before his life was cut short by HIV related disease in 1989 remains a testament to his perseverance, vison and genius.

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