If It Doesn't Fit

From introductory remarks to the screening, Jack Smith: The Whole Fantasy
Los Angeles Filmforum at MOCA
July 9, 2015

I think it’s fair to say that Jack Smith made difficult films. They were difficult for him to make and for many years difficult to see. We all owe a great debt to Jerry Tartaglia for his painstaking restorations of Smith’s work—and for discovering Flaming Creatures in the discard pile at a lab.

Flaming Creatures is perhaps the most famous American experimental film ever made. It’s been written about and discussed as much or more than any other experimental film, and yet remains difficult to pin down—the result is that more often than not, people end up talking more about what happened to the film than about what’s happening in the film itself. Or else they just talk about the sexy parts, because that’s fun. Or it might be due to the fact that the film is resistant to language. It is truly visual thinking, but I’ll say more on this later.
Jack Smith, still from Flaming Creatures

There is something else that I find difficult to talk about, but feel a responsibility to address, especially as it is not often discussed. The famous orgy scene that occurs early on in Flaming Creatures is, among other things, a prolonged scene of sexual violence that is no less disturbing for being entirely unconvincing.

Perhaps Branden W. Joseph comes closest when he writes: "Smith’s vision of the erotic, …[like William] Burrough’s, is always tinged with violence" and goes on to link it with George Bataille’s darker form of Surrealism. 

But even that doesn’t quite sit right. Or at least it doesn’t really explain anything. The only thing I can add is that, unlike almost every other film I know that features a graphic scene of sexual violence, there is no attempt to make it attractive. It isn’t sexy. And that is saying something in a film that Susan Sontag describes as "strictly a treat for the senses."

But it is not only the subject matter that makes Smith films difficult to talk about. In an essay on Simone Forti, Liz Kotz writes something that may very well pertain to Jack Smith:
Her work is both immediately accessible and yet very hard to grasp. It almost defies discourse. And amidst histories of 1960s art constructed around punctual successions of movements and styles, Forti’s project remains curiously unhinged.
Smith similarly sits at the intersection of so many things, is important to so many artists and ideas, that he belongs to none of them and in many ways therefore remains obscure even for all that notoriety. It’s not that his work isn’t well know enough—he may very well be the most famous unheard of artist in America—but it challenges our very notions of not only what art can be, but how it comes to be.

Smith’s aesthetic—which was immensely influential on people like Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, Tony Conrad, as well as Richard Foreman and Robert Wilson just to name a few—breaks down any neat narratives we may have about the linear succession of Abstract Expressionism, Pop, and Minimalism by troubling the distinctions between all three and adding an uneasy ad hoc admixture of queer, socialist, beat, freak anti-culture into the mix.

When Sontag wrote her famous defense of Flaming Creatures in The Nation, she identified it with Pop—and when you see the film, I think you’ll see just how much our notions of Pop have altered, and in many ways narrowed, since then. But there is also an important distinction between Smith’s aesthetic and the glossier, more marketable, and ultimately more successful objects that we usually associate with Pop, like what we see in the galleries above. For all its beauty, the trash aesthetic of Smith and Ken Jacobs—with whom he had an early, important collaboration—was fundamentally a rejection of capitalism and its values.
Jack Smith in Ken Jacobs's Star Spangled to Death
Together, Smith and Jacobs developed an aggressively anarchic form of street theater in the mid-50s that from today’s perspective we might call Happenings, but at the time, and as they managed to capture on film more than once, was just called disturbing the peace. They learned early on that when Smith went out in public in non-gender-normative dress that cops would come and trouble the scene. It must have been an amazing thing for one’s existence to be against the law.

So it was overtly political, but not explicit in its message. It appealed to the intellect through the senses, and this makes it resistant to language and material success. In many ways, its failure was its success.

In an interview with Gerard Malanga, Smith was asked if he was worried about the subtleties in his work not being understood and he responded:
How can you not – you know – understand the movements and the gestures? The appeal is not to the understanding anyway.
It is truly sensual work, not only because it is erotic, but because it is for the senses. The images do not signify, they are.

Jack Smith filming Flaming Creatures, photo by Norman Solomon
The "film challenge," as he put it, is to use your eyes, that is, to apprehend through your eyes. This is how he watched films and what he appreciated about them. Over plot, quote-unquote good performances, over scripts, over anything really, Smith valued the richness of images—up to and including their incredulity or phoniness—"corniness is the other side of marvelousness," he said.

In support of this, he constructed an alternate film history that he referred to as "secret flix," including Vincent Minelli’s over-the-top musical The Pirate, horror films like White Zombie and Jaques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie, Busby Berkeley musicals, Josef von Sternberg films, and, most importantly, any film starring Maria Montez.

His two great essays on cinema—"The Perfect Filmic Appositeness of Maria Montez" and "Belated Appreciation of V.S."—suggest that what Smith values most in cinema—whether from an actor or a director—is an ability to project one’s interior vision onto the world.

Of Montez, he wrote:
Her eye saw not just beauty, but incredible, delirious, drug-like hallucinatory beauty.  
The vast machinery of a movie company worked overtime to make her vision into sets. But they achieved only inept approximations. But one of her atrocious acting sighs suffused a thousand tons of dead plaster with imaginative life and truth.
The Montez thing was big enough, by the way, that when Smith was briefly sent to prison and then a mental hospital after shoplifting, he sent instructions to Tony Conrad on the maintenance of the Montez shrine he had erected in their apartment.

Other than their elevation of the visual above the literary what these films have in common, if anything, is a certain quality of light and space.

Remarkably, there is actually quite an overlap between Smith’s list and the films that Deleuze writes about in the section of Cinema 1 devoted to what he terms the "affection image," meaning the image that imparts the affect on the film as a whole and on the viewer, otherwise known as the close-up. Deleuze writes of a type of film that is the opposite of Expressionism, in which "light no longer has to do with the darkness, but with the transparent, the translucent or the white." And he terms this lyrical abstraction.

The easiest way I know of to describe lyrical abstraction is if you think of Dreyer’s Joan of Arc, for instance, it is all affect, all close-ups in an abstract, fragmented white space. Or if you think of Sternberg, Shanghai Gesture or the Scarlet Empress, in which there are not only white spaces, but veils in front of them, white on white creating translucent layers.

Deleuze singles out Sternberg in particular for qualities that Smith seems to share. In Sternberg, he writes, "Everything happens between the light and the white." He continues, quoting Goethe:

Image result for jack smith flaming creatures
Still from Jack Smith's Flaming Creatures
'between transparency and white opacity there exists an infinite number of degrees of cloudiness… One could call white the fortuitously opaque flash of pure transparency.'

This could be a description of Flaming Creatures. It is white on white, full of white spaces, which Deleuze calls affection spaces. And in those spaces we get pure potentiality.

As one of the characters in Shanghai Gesture puts it, "Anything can happen here, any moment."

Richard Foreman, describing Smith as a performer, wrote:
To watch Jack Smith perform was to watch human behavior turn into granular stasis, in which every moment of being seemed, somehow, to contain the seed of unthinkable possibility…
That’s what I mean when I say potentiality—unthinkable possibility, limitlessness, a virtual out of which anything can be actualized, and that actualization doesn’t diminish the virtual, doesn’t lessen the possible.

And in the white spaces, full of affect, in which anything can happen at any moment, we get choice—a choice to be something beyond any fixed identity, to become something else, something other than normal.

This is the “Creatures” part of Flaming Creatures—fluid, unfixed, polymorphously perverse, and outside of or beyond or before identity. Joseph says it isn’t pre-Oedipal; it’s anti-Oedipal.

Mario Montez and Frankie Francine (Frank Di Giovanni), black-and-white shooting sessions, early 1960's, published in The Beautiful Book, by Jack Smith.

The vision that Smith proposes is more radical than just gay liberation, which Smith always saw as a ghetto. It’s much queerer than that. It is about freedom from the incarceration of identity. Better to project oneself outward, however corny or phony or freaky if for a moment truly. Because identity is just too constrictive a container for the human experience.

And this is Deleuze’s point: that in lyrical abstraction, there is not necessarily a conflict or a struggle, but there is a choice between modes of existence.

He writes, "Lyrical abstraction is defined by light’s adventure with the white." and "As soon as this light is reached it restores everything to us." "We have reached a spiritual space where what we choose is no longer distinguishable from the choice itself."

Creature with plastic flower from Ouled Naiel series, from apartment sessions, ca. 1958, by Jack Smith
Maybe that is why Flaming Creatures ends with so much dancing. Maybe there is redemption after all. Maybe it’s in choosing choice—the freedom of instability and possibility over fixity and identity.