Jack Smith Would Be 90 Today

I owe more than I can say than to the 1991 book Midnight Movies by J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum, which goes far beyond its title to contextualize the films at its center, painting a continuum that connected underground cinema, off-off Broadway theatre, the Beats, performance art, visual art, and the climate in which the closeted lifestyles of the 1950s finally exploded into the radiant burst of avant-garde creativity that characterized the ’60s and ’70s. It took me close to many artists and impresarios (for lack of a better term) whom I consider heroes and have written about, including Andy Warhol, Jonas Mekas, Taylor Mead, Charles Ludlam, John Vaccaro, John Waters, and many others. A key figure among them was Jack Smith (1932-1989).

Smith (no relation to that other major downtown figure Harry Smith, whom we’ll be writing about in a few months) only made about a half dozen films, of which the most famous was Flaming Creatures (1963), which caused a censorship storm in its day, contributing to the somewhat freer cultural climate of the last few decades. Flaming Creatures featured Judith Malina, Mario Montez and others in a shifting, plotless cascade of dance-like tableaux. I love that Smith shared a birthday with Louise Brooks, for the exoticism and androgyny of silent movies formed a major part of his aesthetic, as did B movies, camp, mythology, and pornography. ’63 was his annus mirabilis, for in addition to Flaming Creatures, he was at the center of Ken Jacobs‘ film Blonde Cobra, and appeared in Ron Rice’s The Queen of Sheba Meets the Atom Man with Taylor Mead, Judith Malina, Julian Beck, Rice himself, and Jonas Mekas (at whose Anthology Film Archives Flaming Creatures and Blonde Cobra had premiered).

Smith also appeared in Warhol’s Camp (1965) and Hedy (1966, with Mario Montez and Mary Woronov), several productions of John Vaccaro’s Playhouse of the Ridiculous, John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Up Your Legs Forever (1971), and even some relatively mainstream (ha!) things like the slasher classic Silent Night, Deadly Night (1974), with Patrick O’Neal, John Carradine, Mary Woronov, Candy Darling and Ondine).

I am amused to learn that Smith received an honorary doctorate in 1987 from Whittier College, Nixon’s alma mater. There is poetry in that.

Smith died in 1989 of AIDS related causes. For many years, Hoberman and the evergreen Penny Arcade were the caretakers of his estate. Some of his films (or clips therefrom) are up on Youtube. Open your clenched brain and take a look!