There will always be marginalized artists. Just by nature of the world population, and how many truly talented people are interested in art, there will never be room for all of them. During any given defined artistic period, you can always assume at least three contemporaries of your favorite artist existed who had as much, if not more, talent. But for any miniscule reason – connections, motivations, accidents – were unable to achieve the levels of greatness of say, Pollack or Matisse or Van Gogh.
Perhaps Jack Smith doesn’t fit the definition of “marginalized”, as his name is consistently evoked, whether it be in reference to rock videos, gay and lesbian cinema, or just paired with the word “flaming”. But if you ran with the bastion of the post-modern New York scene, Andy Warhol (who was greatly influenced by Smith), you’d seem doomed to be forgotten, too – remembered only by the New York theater buffs, avant-garde extraordinaires, and John Waters.
Though Smith’s revolutionary films are occasionally screened at the Anthology Film Archives (which surely causes Smith to roll in his grave), this does little to promote his important existence outside of the New York City. And although Smith would surely protest it, Mary Jordan has done him a great service, making his definitive documentary with Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis.
Crafted largely of archived footage of Smith’s and various others’ films, played endlessly over interviews with actors, directors, transvestites, film critics, John Zorns, and artists influenced by Smith, Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis is such a fitting tribute to the exotic-obsessed filmmaker, I had to immediately watch it again. The images of pasty white urbanites dressed in cheap costumes with their hands up each others’ skirts, and penises in each others’ martini glasses, and Smith’s innate concepts of color and mis-en-scene are too mesmerizing to put down. And each interviewee brings a different important aspect of Smith to the foreground.
While Sylvere Lotringer is erudite about Smith’s thoughts on art, Ronald Tavel waxes adroitly about Smith’s motivations, and Smith’s sister, Sue Slater, provides the outsider’s context, free from the insular art community. However, the best audio track belongs to that of Smith himself. Jordan has gone through hours of archived footage throughout his career and places clips seamlessly across the film.
As far as the film’s biographical content, though the controversy and banning of Smith’s 1963 film Flaming Creatures and his feud with then-Village-Voice critic, Jonas Mekas (referred to multiple times as “Uncle Fishhook”), takes up a bulk of the film, Jordan devotes plenty of time to Smith’s angst-filled, overly dramatized life – from his humble beginnings, through his raging middles, to his humble ends.
Particularly interesting is seeing Smith after Flaming Creatures. Because of how re-contextualized this work became, he refused to call any of his films after it “finished products”, re-cutting them live for each showing. Later, he put on long (sometimes seven-hour) performances in his apartment, all the while denouncing museums’, collectors’, critics’, and audiences’ ideas of art.
Whereas Warhol took the production and superstardom of capitalism to its highest limbs while simultaneously chopping down its roots, Smith was too disgusted with the entire tree and instead chose to reside in a nearby bush.
Though it’s hard not to understand Smith’s plight, it’s equally challenging not to disagree with Smith’s staunch views on “landlordism” and his general elitism towards his own art. The documentary’s best virtue is its ability to subtly critique those views of Smith, while still elegiacally rooting for him. The interviewers sing his praise in the first hour, but as the film progresses they slowly reveal how Smith alienated them and when they fell out of his favor. John Waters, who at times bears an uncanny resemblance to Smith, remarks that Jack simply, “bit every hand that fed him.”
At the film’s end, Jordan leaves us with not only the legacy of one of the 20th century’s most influential avant-garde filmmakers and artists, but also the sad, thin-skinned ego of a societal outcast, forever trying to escape into a Maria Montez movie – full of Arab stereotypes and concrete-looking palm trees. We learn the full extent of Smith’s degradation into his own ego when he discusses his wish to die of AIDS because of how glamorous it appears. Of course, his attempts to bait the disease were successful, and in 1989 he succumbed to the “glamorous” virus.
Smith helped foster a critical progression of late-20th century American pop culture. You can see his influence all around, whether it be in the grotesque imagery of John Waters or the surrealistic baroque films of ’60s Fellini (Giulietta delgi spiriti and Satyricon, specifically) or just in Warhol’s factory and its countless imitators.
Ronald Tavel says in the film, “You knew while it was happening that this was a remarkable period of world history. What you didn’t know was how quickly it would disappear, and thoroughly.” And though it was fleeting, Smith’s “uncommercial filmmaking personified” will have his place in the art canon as long as artists can agree such a canon should exist at all. In Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis, Jordan has created a flowing, moving documentary that comes together in a way that would make Jack proud, if that were at all possible.