Aug 24, 2012

Flaming Creatures



You would be hard-pressed to find a film ‘gayer’ than Flaming Creatures (1963), at least when looked at within its historical context, but don’t tell that to the thoroughly emaciated, AIDS-stricken ghost of director Jack Smith (Buzzards over Baghdad, Normal Love); an overtly outrageous outsider artist that denied his, indeed, blatantly flaming homophile persuasion had any influence on his fiercely flamboyant celluloid brainchild. Although virtually unknown nowadays, even among camp keen cinephiles, Flaming Creatures – a 43-minute satire of Hollywood B-movies and tangling tribute to once-popular 1940s Dominican-born actress Maria "The Queen of Technicolor" Montez – would inevitably be a crucial influence on works of ‘high’ and ‘low’ camp, including Federico Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits (1965) and Satyricon (1969), the patently perverse micro-budget works of Mike Kuchar (The Pervert, Sins of the Fleshapoids), the celluloid claptrap of Matthew Barney (The Cremaster Cycle), the early Dreamland movies of John Waters (Mondo Trasho, Pink Flamingos), and especially the primitive factory films of Andy Warhol. In fact, Warhol – who co-directed the assumed-lost film Batman Dracula (1964) with Smith – superficially aped and bastardized the 'cardboard camp' aesthetic essence invented by the now virtually unknown artist, so it should be no surprise that prolific jazz/noise musician John Zorn (Naked City, Masada) once stated, "Jack Smith was the real Warhol." Always more proficient at appropriating, selling and promoting art assembled by greater artists than actually forging it himself, Warhol also stole Smith’s invention of the B-movie ‘Superstar,' as the Flaming Creatures director was befriending and casting gutter-level, cum-guzzling drag queens, fickle fag hags, and heftily hung hunks long before the pompous pop-artist utilized them in an imperative, career jump-starting manner that would further contribute to the much undeserved quasi-mystical legacy of his hand-me-down fantasy factory. Described by Jack Smith himself as, "a comedy set in a haunted music studio," Flaming Creatures is an intrinsically incoherent avant-garde trash piece full of images of pesky flaccid peckers (appearing everywhere from inside wine glasses to firmly relaxing on the shoulders of drag queens) and massive mammary glands (the are constantly manhandled by anonymous hands), therefore one could argue it is a forerunner to ‘body horror,' as it is certainly a film that reminds one how truly malodorous and consternating the human body can be, particularly when genders are brazenly blurred. Considered pornographic by certain authorities (a NYC criminal court) and later mentioned by name in contra-porn speeches by racist race-mixing senator Strom Thurmond, copies of Flaming Creatures were confiscated up its debut screening and the work was subsequently banned (and still is to this day), hence the extremely poor quality of most transfers of the film available today. John Waters may tend to exaggerate during his countless appearances on various TV shows and documentaries, but he wasn’t puffing his perverted mentor when he stated that Jack Smith was, "The only true underground filmmaker” as it is a toilsome task to think of another filmmaker whose aesthetic influence was so pivotal and pioneering, yet only the most rabid and resolute of cinephiles have seen Flaming Creatures



 Unfortunately, Flaming Creatures – with its blatantly amateurish direction and nonexistent production values; and relatively tame homo-centricity (at least by today’s standards) – is, lamentably, not as interesting as the story behind the film, thus the documentary Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis (2006) makes for an essential companion piece to the infamous featurette. Although generally used as a slur against homos nowadays, Jack Smith used the word “flaming” as a positive adjective for his favorite things, hence the title Flaming Creatures; a very personal (and undoubtedly masturbatory) auteur project featuring some of the late director's favorite self-invented drag queens, including Mario Montez (a Puerto Rican Maria Montez-clone who later became one of Warhol’s Superstars) and bountiful, boffo costume designs. Flaunting a number of unspeakable scenarios from mundanely masturbating trannys/hermaphrodites to a brutish and criminally aggressive “cunning linguist," Flaming Creatures is an ostentatious orgy of loopy aberrosexuality that demands the viewer to leave their moral compass elsewhere for 43-minutes or so. As a master photographer and subversive saint of scopophilia, Smith’s greatest accomplishment with Flaming Creatures was dreaming up a variety of meticulously constructed mise-en-scènes (mainly composed of lavishly dressed/undressed bodies) as the autocratic auteur certainly had nil interest in developing any sort of cohesive narrative for the film. As a lifelong committed anarchist, Flaming Creatures is the artistic expression of a man who disdained gender roles, heterosexuality, cinematic convention, Judeo-Christian mores, and, probably most of all, mainstream America as depicted by pre-1968 Hays Code Hollywood. In our post-post-modern era where a considerable portion of the American populous shares Smith’s sentiments, especially in regard to Hollywood and the 'artistic' world, it is easy to forget why Jack Smith and his celluloid chef d'œuvre Flaming Creatures – a decidedly undaunted work of Dionysian derangement – is such an important contribution to the progression of campy cinematic libertinage. 


-Ty E

3 comments:

jervaise brooke hamster said...

I want to bugger Maria Montez (as the bird was in 1930 when the bird was 18, not as the bird is now obviously, which is long since dead, unfortunately).

eddie lydecker said...

I`m totally contemptuous of the Hays office (so-called) code of conduct as well, for 34 years (between 1934 and 1968) it made a total nonsense of ALL film-making.

anarky said...

the film was banned and still is...i watched it on ubu and was impressed by its blasphemy and also its stand against hollywood films.. a priceless treasure...america..a culture? of puritanical yankees will never appreciate art..of any stripe...