With people as their unique
selves: Jack Smith’s theory of
visual expression

by Adam Charles Hart

Why can’t we enjoy phoniness?

Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures boasts a curious status in film history. It’s been banned, prints have been seized and projectionists arrested. Its scandal reached the floors of the U.S. Senate, where it helped to derail a Supreme Court nomination. It is one of the most notorious and celebrated films of the avant-garde, a film about which countless pages have been written both about Smith’s artistry and about the film’s highly eventful legal history. Yet that analysis has largely ignored form except in the broadest terms. The film’s sloppiness, its seemingly haphazard construction (not to mention Smith’s penchant for re-editing his work, sometimes during projection), has seemed to discourage critics from taking the specifics of its form seriously.

Nearly every choice made by Smith resists traditional formal analysis. Randomness tends to be ascribed to the film’s structure and to Smith’s specific stylistic choices. This is, of course, important: the film rejects the often fine-tuned aesthetic control that had characterized much of the avant-garde movement up until then. Flaming Creatures is a celebration of disorder, a breakdown of system to the point that it reads as largely nonsensical but that, of course, forms its own system. In his rejection of making sense, Smith creates his own logic, one built around the engagement between the handheld camera and his performers. This essay aims to dissect that logic, respecting the willful disruption and chaos while offering an account of the system at work in the film.

A performer who revolutionized avant-garde theater and who invigorated New York’s avant-garde cinema in the early 1960s, Smith stays out of the frame in Flaming Creatures. It remains his most famous work as a director and the only film of his that has remained in circulation in a “finished” form, the one that would define the perception of him as a film artist. His explosively charismatic, manic inventiveness in front of the camera was replaced by a glut of less domineering performers so that Smith’s creative contributions come through the mise-en-scène and his cinematography. The film would premiere on a double bill with Ken Jacobs’ 1963 film Blonde Cobra, which Jacobs assembled from footage of Smith shot by Bob Fleischner, ensuring that in this film Smith’s stature as a performer would be at the front of audience’s minds, at least for its initial screening. The standard avant-garde auteurist/gestural expressionist reading of Flaming Creatures is that Smith’s personality most directly manifests through his camerawork. But few discussions of Smith analyze the cinematography beyond his audacious use of outdated film stocks. His camerawork is taken for granted—presumed by supporters to be simply shaky but functional, as if his camera style were subordinate to what he was filming, and declared by detractors to be incompetent. For example, Susan Sontag found Smith to be indicative of a new trend in avant-garde cinema that she dubbed “willful technical crudity” marked by “indifference to every element of technique, a studied primitiveness.”[1] [open endotes in new window]

Because of Flaming Creatures’ notoriety, this discourse extended to the floors of the US Congress. When the Congressional record refers to Flaming Creatures as “badly-filmed,” they might be referring to the camera’s shakiness, but they’re more likely responding to the blow-out and grainy images, which often resemble the results of what would be thought of as poor lighting (and perhaps poor handling of the film itself).[2] Congress held a discussion of Flaming Creatures’ obscenity during the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Abe Fortas. Witnesses detail the visible genitals and sexual acts depicted but also clearly seek to dismiss work artistically—a “home-made film” whose sequences are “unrelated.”[3] And in doing so, the legislators are citing professionalist standards to counter any claims that may be made about the film’s value as art, painting it with the same brush as the unnamed and anonymous stag film loops also under discussion.

Yet the film’s champions rarely counter such aesthetic assertions, or if they do, they do so in vague terms. In this way, playwright Ronald Tavel generalizes that it is “one of the best examples of cinematography on record,” and that, “one day, in the ideal society of the future, Creatures will be used in film courses to teach students the proper way to shoot a movie.”[4] But beyond noting “subtlety and cleverness” and “knowledge of what to do with a camera when it is turned on moving and standing objects,” he gives no indication of why that might be. Most critics ignore the camerawork entirely, largely because it doesn’t fit the rubric of gestural expressionism that was then beginning to be articulated by Stan Brakhage who asserted that the camera’s movements register and visualize the body and psyche of the filmmaker wielding the camera.[5] Smith’s collaborator Ken Jacobs is perhaps the most astute observer of Smith’s cinematography when he says:

“Jack’s slightly atremble hand-held camera lets us in on the secret drama within the apparent commotion, as we feel along with him ever so sensitively for optimum framing positions. The camera and the scene are making love.” [6]

Flaming Creatures is indeed an exceedingly difficult film to analyze in traditional cinematic terms, and most attempts to do so focus on either the hyperspecific (a single shot or sequence) or the general (broad characterizations of tendencies within the film).

Elegant compositions discovered amidst chaos in Flaming Creatures.

Beyond the difficulties of analyzing his technique, Smith’s work troubles notions of authorship in ways the avant-garde has never fully reckoned with. An artisanal mode of production in the avant-garde, of course, ensures a close identification of filmmaker and film. These are deeply personal handmade films that were often crafted with minimal or no crew so that each frame bears the mark of its maker in some clear way. Jonas Mekas, the most enthusiastic and most visible promoter of Flaming Creatures in the 1960s, certainly understood Smith in this way, equating Smith and Brakhage in gorgeously vivid prose. Their films create

“an impression of rough chunks of something huge that is looking in front of them which they keep breaking with their fingers and with their hearts, trying to move further; sharp and often painful chunks.”[7]

Mekas’s appreciation of Smith’s art comes from its ambitions and imperfections, which for Mekas was “part of [Smith’s] intense inner movements.”[8]

Similarly for Ken Kelman, Flaming Creatures was distinguished from the films in which Smith performed. Kelman argues,

“Smith imposed upon the whole a sense of purpose, an intensity of feeling. His movie beats with total life…. It is a realized vision. The other have the same style, but not the imagination, the articulateness, the poetic concentration.”[9]

Elaborate poses and arrangement of bodies in Flaming Creatures.

Mekas and Kelman align Smith’s filmmaking with the figure of the domineering director-cinematographer who imposes their will and personality on the film through style, perhaps the primary consideration for artistry in the early 1960s avant-garde. For Jacobs, whose own work explicitly redefined film authorship, Smith’s camerawork indicates the active intelligence behind the lens, searching for those “optimum framing positions”—finding elegant compositions within the chaos. Jacobs proposes bringing Smith’s camerawork in line with gestural expressionism, that sort of give-and-take language of how Mekas and Brakhage would describe their responsive camerawork.

Smith, for his part, spoke of this film almost as if it were documentary, saying little of the cinematography:

“Movies aren’t something like I came to; they are my life. After Flaming Creatures I realized that that wasn’t something I had photographed: Everything really happened. It really happened. I— that those were things I wanted to happen in my life and it wasn’t something that we did, we really lived through it; you know what I mean? And it was really real. It just was. It just was almost incidental that there was a camera around.”[10]

Minimal sets and front-facing performances in Flaming Creatures.

Considering the amount of attention paid to the camera by the actors, and the sometimes elaborate poses in which they are arranged, the latter sentiment might seem a bit disingenuous. Nonetheless, his comment indicates a blurring between his contributions and those of his performers. For Smith, the production was a realization of “things I wanted to happen in my life,” but it was also an event that went beyond his control. While the interlocutors of the 1960s avant-garde sought to subsume the film’s style within a rigidly auteurist reading, Smith complicates those terms by giving his actors so much freedom.[11] It’s not just that his work was collaborative, but that he allowed and often empowered performers to do whatever they wanted.

Flaming Creatures was, to co-opt André Bazin’s term, an “impure” mix of film, theater, and photography, with Smith’s staging tending towards presentational tableaux, actors posing for the camera against Flaming Creatures’ flatly artificial painted backdrops as if waiting for the photographer to say “cheese.” Jacobs insightfully sees the film coming directly out of the black-and-white photo sessions that Smith was shooting at the time, characterizing Flaming Creatures as “a kind of multi-session photo shoot on one set, and, as with many of the stills, with a harem houri centering the composition.”[12]

The acknowledgement of the camera by Flaming Creatures’ performers was hardly unique, but it carried a different valence for Smith than it did for other filmmakers in the avant-garde. While Taylor Mead and co. often acknowledge the camera in Ron Rice’s The Flower Thief (1960), winkingly goofing around in the manner of home movies, Flaming Creature’s actors address the camera even more insistently. That stare into the lens is not a disruption or an interruption but rather the foundation on which their performances are built. They are dancing, posing, performing for and to the camera in a manner more typical of still photography than of the cinema. Flaming Creatures begins with performers staring directly at the lens, the camera’s gaze instigating the film and the performances. The film is founded on that direct engagement. There is no pretense towards a discreet diegesis, no pretense towards a narrative or narrative space that exists independent of the camera. Despite Smith’s apparent insistence otherwise, the camera conjures the film’s events into being: the act of filming occasions and motivates everything that happens in front of it, and the performers fully acknowledge and address that fact.

Flaming Creatures’ address of the camera was part of a growing trend in the avant-garde that included not just Rice and Jacobs but also Mekas, Andy Warhol, Barbara Rubin, even Kenneth Anger. The early 1960s would see filmmakers blur the line between the performances of actors and documentary observation. Like Mead, or Smith himself, “actors” would perform for the camera without constructing a character in any traditional theatrical sense. The filming prompts their actions, prompts them to perform, but it refers to the actor as a real human being— Mead and Smith, Gerard Malanga, Mario Montez, Francis Francine, etc. They may be dressed in “exotic” costumes or covered in body paint, and they may be dancing or fucking or applying lipstick while their limbs are tangled up with those of several other actors, but they are still themselves. Once again, the closest analogue is to home movies. Or perhaps to porn.