- Category : Film - Maker
- Type : PE
- Profile : 4/6 - Opportunistic / Role Model
- Definition : Split - Small (12)
- Incarnation Cross : RAX Explanation 4
American underground filmmaker, actor, artist and writer. His notorious underground film, "Flaming Creatures," is still banned in New York. Besides his work as a film-maker, Smith was also a brilliant writer, wit, actor, visual artist, musical experimenter, pioneer in what has become known as "performance art," and an early proponent of using color in fine art photography.
Six-foot three tall and thin, sometimes stooped, Smith was a dark blond handsome man with "an intense, commanding gaze, serious cheekbones," and a dagger of a nose.
Sexually ambivalent, he loved women platonically, preferring and needing however to sleep with men (but not those of the "garden-variety" homosexual type). He pronounced himself "queer" way before it became fashionable. A difficult and charismatic character who lived his life on the borders of poverty, Smith has been called "a magical trickster manically involved in all kinds of projects at all times." Notorious for his harsh temper and demanding work ethic, he nevertheless readily used his gift for cajoling actors, friends and associates into gladly working for him as unpaid "slaves," whilst he simply "appropriated" the materials he required for his art from whatever source served his needs.
Born in Columbus, Ohio, the scion of a hillbilly and a practical nurse, Smith left that city at age seven, moving with his parents and sister across Ohio and Texas as the family pursued a living. After his father's accidental death on a fishing boat off the gulf of Texas, he lived with his remaining family in trailer parks until his mother's remarriage took the family to Wisconsin. Smith moved to New York around 1953 and worked part-time as an office errand boy, film actor, and attendant in a photo processing lab. Too poor to afford a movie camera he attended lectures on film composition and narration at the Metropolitan and Frick museums.
Turning to cheaper camera work, he became a pioneer in the use of color in art photography. His first one-person exhibition in 1960 at the prestigious Limelight Gallery consisted of 30 large-scale color photographs, but he turned to black-and-white photography after that, probably due to losing his lab job and other financial constraints. In 1962, "The Beautiful Book" was published in a limited edition. It contained 19 b&w photos including glam-fashion shots of some of his drag queen coterie (such as Mario Montez and Francis Francine).
Smith's signature artwork, the short film "Flaming Creatures," was shot during the Summer and fall of 1962 on the roof of a Manhattan theater. Known for its camp aesthetic, "Creatures" has been called "the most important queer film ever." A Dionysian piece, the film has no linear narrative, instead depicting a cast of mostly male transvestites (that would later reassemble as the wild drag queen glitter theater act, The Cockettes) in exotic thrift store and quasi-Arabic/Hollywood Sultan costumes. They play orgiastic games, put on make-up, grope each other, expose their (flaccid) genitals, pose, preen, roll their eyes and dance. A woman is chased and mock-raped by the Creatures, one of which emerges vampire-like out of a coffin.
This extravagant visual poem combines gender ambiguity, strange eroticism, Persian arabesque, and Smith's obsession with his "patron saint," Maria Montez: "It's good for the artist to fall in love with the mediocre, How I adore Maria Montez with her stunning 1935 padded shoulders, that marvelous creature, that sheer gossamer goddess, I have seen [her film] "Cobra Woman" twelve times in my life. All during my childhood she was my ideal of raging pasty glamour, and all I want my photographs to do is recapture what she exuded."
"Flaming Creatures" was released on 29 April 1963 at midnight in NYC and won the Fifth Independent Film Award. In March 1964 the film was confiscated by police as part of the clampdown on the city's gay life before the World's Fair. In April 1964, Susan Sontag's article about the film, "A Feast for Open Eyes," appeared in The Nation, explaining "Creatures" as "that rare modern work of art: it is about joy and innocence. To be sure, this joyousness, this innocence is composed out of themes which are - by ordinary standards - perverse, decadent, at the least highly theatrical and artificial."
In June 1964 the NY Criminal Court branded Smith's masterpiece "obscene" - and it remains officially banned in Manhattan and the Bronx. This afforded Smith a place in the city's cultural history and his film has been increasingly screened around the globe ever since Smith acted in various underground films from 1956, playing roles such as Dracula in Andy Warhol's "Dracula," 1964, Vincent Van Gogh in "EarGogh," 1964-5, Orpheus in "Illiac Passion," 1968, a magician called Sharkbait Starflesh in "Deafman Glance," 1971, and the Spirit of Death in "Shadows in the City," 1990 which was filmed in the year of his death.
In 1968, he christened his loft home, "The Plaster Foundation." In this "free" theater space he screened his film work as part of evolving live performances that were photographed and projected later as slides. In 1981, Smith visited Genoa for the Restless Language Film Festival, screening "Flaming Creatures" as part of a performance-cum-seminar. His Italian audience was left spellbound by his suggestion that men should wear brassieres as pockets rather than relying on those in trousers. Smith proffered, "would God put a pocket on a leg?" Throughout the early 1980s in NY, he continued to devise and appear in other underground cabaret performances with wacky names like "Brassieres of Uranus." These performances continued as vehicles for his carnivalesque humour.
Having raised himself on Hollywood kitsch, Orientialia and the imagery of 1940s monster movies, Smith lived out his life in NYC's East Village in an aestherized film noir style, furnishing his modest room (and later loft) with objects he had scavenged from the city's streets. Another motif appeared frequently in Smith's work: segmented, spineless and cannibalistic, the lobster became a central character in his pantheon of villains, embodying the evils of government and private property. On the other hand, he incorporated a toy penguin, "Yolanda la Pinguina" in his later performance art as a surrogate for his idol, Maria Montez.
During his amazing and lavish life, Jack Smith inspired a generation of performance artists and film-makers. Toward the end of the 1980s his health failed due to AIDS complications. After being visited in a New York hospital by Allen Ginsberg and other luminaries, Smith died at 6:35 AM on 16 September 1989, accompanied by Penny Arcade who responded matter-of-factly to a doctor's query about her friend, "He was Jack Smith, one of the greatest artists who ever lived."