Monday, July 16, 2007

Flaming Creatures

Jack Smith's 1963 classic Flaming Creatures played last night at the Anthology Film Archives and forty-four years after its original controversial screening it registers only as a mildly diverting artifact. Smith's visually blurred, impressionistic orgy of a film may have become a cause celebre for its explicit sexual content (especially after Jonas Mekas' defiant insistence on screening the film, a defiance which led to his arrest) but, like that other classic work of "obscenity", Lady Chatterly's Lover, its artistry doesn't quite sustain what, without the external spice of the legal battles, is an ultimately unsatisfying, and surprisingly drab, work.

A favorite of the camp crowd as well as a bevy of critical champions from Susan Sontag to J. Hoberman, Flaming Creatures captures, on a variety of film stocks, all washed out to varying degrees, a mass of tangled bodies (usually of indeterminate sex) in diverse states of undress. Much of the film's humor (and initial screenings allegedly had the audience in an advanced state of hilarity) derives from lingering close-ups of breasts and penises being manipulated into states of constant motion and the camping of an assortment of transvestites. Apparently inspired by the kitschy acting of Maria Montez and the lavish 1930s films of Josef von Sternberg, Smith attempts to create a lush, sensual bit of entertainment built not only on imagistic voluptuousness (undercut though it is by the film's faded visual aesthetic, an aesthetic which at least has the advantage of imparting a dream-like quality to the proceedings), but on a diverse and ever-changing soundtrack combining such disparate sources as rumba, doo-wop, opera, pop and, in a sequence that surely represents the film's high point, a fake advertisement for lipstick. The advertisement, which includes the film's only spoken words, describes an "indelible" heart-shaped lipstick and unwinds to the visual accompaniment of the picture's various actors (of both sexes) applying the product and making deliberately exaggerated lip-smacking noises. The campy narration, the joyful application of the lipstick and the intercutting of a vulgar (if under the circumstances appropriate) question on the soundtrack ("does it come off when you're sucking cock?") combine for a successful level of invention that the rest of the film can't sustain.

The film's other highlight comes in the ravishing of a voluptuous actress, groped by three or four actors simultaneously, signaling the full swing of the picture's orgiastic program. Accompanied by screams on the soundtrack, the (somewhat) unwitting victim becomes just one more body in a joyful celebration of sexuality. Despite her earlier reservations, she is quickly won over as an enthusiastic participant in the proceedings. Still, her initial reluctance, as well as the screams which continue on the soundtrack throughout the primary orgy sequence, run against the grain of the film's ecstatic life-affirming approach. With the last note of tension resolved, however, the film is free to indulge in an increasingly banal second-act. Having spent its creative energy in the first half, the remainder seems like so much time-marking until the inevitable fade to black. Although the entire non-narrative picture is inevitably marked by a static quality, (suggesting for critic Jonathan Rosenbaum the attainment of - as opposed to the continual process of striving after - earthly paradise), without the accompaniment of continued invention, this static quality quickly results in a leaden dullness. We get the introduction of a new participant, a blond transvestite who emerges from a coffin, we get a new series of bodily contortions, we get a mise-en-scene centered around a potted plant, but it all feels like so much repetition. By the time we get to the film's final image, an extreme closeup of a slowly bouncing breast synched to the Everly Brothers' cover of "Be-Bop-a-Lula", the film has most certainly run its course.

When Jonas Mekas and other like-minded apologists came to the film's rescue after its initial obscenity charges, they attempted to intellectualize the film in order to give it a solid critical grounding, turning what was intended as comic entertainment into an over-analyzed work of art, a move that profoundly disillusioned Jack Smith who never again exhibited a completed film. Perhaps this over-intellectualized approach continues to work against the material (the film's audience at the recent screening indulged in little more than polite chuckles) since the picture clearly cannot measure up to the high intellectual expectations created by its unwieldy reputation. Still, on the level of a pure, campy entertainment, despite the film's occasional moments of amusement, its too-limited powers of invention have difficultly sustaining even the work's 45-minute running time. An interesting artifact from the 1960s underground, it represents one of Smith's only finished films (another is the mostly forgettable 3-minute Scotch Tape, which also screened last night), but his enormous importance as a cinematic pioneer cannot be detected in a single screening of Flaming Creatures, especially when compared to the much-richer output of contemporaries or near-contemporaries like Kenneth Anger, whose 1954 classic Inauguration of the Pleasure of the Dome, which takes in a similarly sensual, campy milieu, holds up much better than Smith's film. Smith's legendary performance parties which made use of the director's unedited footage no doubt played a large role in establishing his legendary influence on the American avant-garde. It is unfortunate that, in assessing Smith's work, we are left with little more (at least in terms of finished product) than his occasionally amusing, but ultimately unsatisfying 1963 film.

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