Friday, September 5, 2008

Amateur Night or Artistic Purity?

Over the decades, I'd heard the name Jack Smith (1932-1989), usually followed by the title of his most famous film, "Flaming Creatures," a number of times, without knowing much more than these two tidbits. So it's good to have Mary Jordan's interesting documentary about this underground artist from the 60s (he pre-dated Warhol in fame, perhaps talent, but certainly not marketing ability). JACK SMITH AND THE DESTRUCTION OF ATLANTIS fills us in, via interviews with a wealth of folk from that time period and now -- theatre and film people, artists, friends and Smith's sister -- whose remembrances go a long way towards filling in the blanks of the man's life and work.

Along the way, we also find much to mull over. Was Jonas Mekas really the greedy sleaze described here by some of the interviewees? Did John Waters get the inspiration for his pencil mustache from Jack Smith's early years? (Certainly Smith's visual sense appears to have inspired this unruly filmmaker.) Was Fellini, too, stirred by Smith's images (it sure looks that way)? Did Warhol literally steal much of Smith's sensibility and then graft it -- in black-and-white, rather than color -- onto his own film work? In addition to raising these questions and more, the film introduces viewers to ex-indie queen Mary Woronow and shows her as young as I can remember, attending one of Smith's famous midnight East Village events. We listen as playwright Ronald Tavel talks sweetly about his friend, and we even see Ken Jacobs looking much more relaxed and happy here than he does in his son Azazel's current indie hit Momma's Man.

What to make of Smith's actual oeuvre? Does he represent amateur night or artistic purity? Both, it would seem -- at least from what we gather here. Waters notes that Smith "bit every hand that could ever, ever feed him," the consequence of which is that very few people know his art. Because Flaming Creatures became a cause célèbre for censorship and was banned in various states, fellow artist Uzi Parnes says Smith determined that if he never again created a finished object, his work would be less likely to banned or captured. The artist even went so far as to literally edit his film Normal Love during its own screening! (This can't have been much fun for the audience to sit through, though it probably was something of a "first.")

In all, the movie offers a generous testament to a man who found it difficult to compromise with anything: life, art, society, his friends, and especially his own mother. Bizarre, fascinating, sad -- and yes, quite, quite gay -- Smith's story deserves telling, and if Ms Jordan hasn't given us all, she's given us more than we've had before. For anyone interested in underground American art, the movie's a must, and the DVD features 13 additional bonus bits, comprising information that was probably too much to add to the film's already 90-minute running time.

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