Sunday 28 December 2008

Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis (2006)

Jack Smith is precisely the sort of person I want to see a documentary about. He's an underground filmmaker, apparently a pivotal figure, massively influential and cited by people I know about, but he's so underground that I haven't even heard of him. Usually such people are so far underground because they did precisely what they wanted to do, without any nods to compromise or commercial success. Nowadays the internet is a gift for people like this, but if they worked their particular brand of magic before the internet came along, they're usually forgotten names except to small groups of the faithful.

All this makes Jack Smith a complete discovery to me and Mary Jordan's documentary makes him one fascinating enough to follow up on. Of course because I know nothing whatsoever about him I have no way of knowing whether it's accurate or not, but it was fascinating enough that I want to find that out for myself. I discovered something else too. The imagery in Smith's early photos and film clips reminded me very much of the exotica of the twenties and thirties, all eastern mystics and Rudolph Valentino and Universal horror, with a healthy dose of Robert E Howard pulp fantasy. However there's another important name who comprises the link in the chain between them and Smith and that's Maria Montez.

Montez was an exotic actress from the Dominican Republic who starred in a batch of eastern adventure movies in the forties, generally B movies for Universal like White Savage, Cobra Woman or Gypsy Wildcat. What else she became was a catalyst as she's really the icon from which all high camp culture spun. She's the missing link that when merged with performance art and gay culture, transvestite culture and fetish culture gives us everything from Pink Flamingos to the Rio de Janeiro carnival to Andy Warhol's Factory (Warhol was a collaborator and follower of Jack Smith and seems to have stolen his entire repertoire from him). And the point at which all this began seems to be when Jack Smith did what he did in the sixties, with photography and performance and film, and with the furore that sparked over his 1963 film Flaming Creatures, banned in 22 states and 4 countries.

The deliberate avoidance of commerciality, which became something of a manifesto for Smith, is one reason why his work is so obscure today, but it's only one. As this documentary progressed, the more I saw similarities with Derailroaded, Josh Rubin's documentary on Wild Man Fischer, in that like Fischer, Smith was really his own worst enemy. In his aim of attaining complete purity as an artist, in his obvious hatred of capitalism and in some sort of rebellion against the easy way ever being a good one, he seems to have deliberately sabotaged his own career. What's more he seems to have known he was doing it and chosen the reasons why. Flaming Creatures was his last completed film, because he deliberately chose to leave everything that followed unfinished, because 'they' can't ban something that isn't finished.

I don't know whether it was mental illness, personality quirks or just the logical extension of certain personal beliefs that led Smith down the roads that he took, but he certainly appeared aware and unapologetic of what he was doing. Though he died in 1989 he lives on today through whole genres that emerged through his challenging of cultural barriers and especially in a number of other people.

There's certainly a huge amount of Jack Smith in Crispin Glover, down to his vocal style and handwriting, let alone whole swathes of What Is It? He's obviously a major influence on the cinematic philosophies of Alejandro Jodorowsky, John Waters and David Lynch, thus making him in one sense the grandfather of the midnight movie. Had it been made a decade later, something like Flaming Creatures would have fallen into that category too. I can see his influence in Fellini's Satyricon and apparently it's even more apparent in Juliet of the Spirits. And that's just the film influences. I'm far less able to speak to his influences in music, photography and performing arts, but they're apparently as widespread and pervasive. Fascinating.

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