Revisiting Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures: The First Encapsulation of Pride
Jack Smith’s ‘Flaming Creatures’ is the forgotten film that moulded the foundation for the Underground and Experimental film canvas that captured the artistic alienation of the Gen-X years and beyond. Smith has left his footsteps in the films of Gregg Araki, Sarah Jacobson and prominently through the transgressive cinema of John Waters.
Smith’s provocative, experimental, manic opera managed to relay a hypnotic resonance through transitional cinematography. For Smith the lens becomes a vessel that transports us to the flamboyance of the flapper era to an ominous orgy at the earth’s core. There is no end to the controversial imagery in Smith’s early directorial, from flaccid genitalia to breasts being exposed and fondled, which seems to have instilled a determination to find a political context to appropriate it. Smith leaves a lot of room to infer in the charcoal mist of his deviant parade, but perhaps through our relentless vigour to decode the products of Smith’s fusion of shock and liberation; we have missed the point entirely.
From Underground, to New Wave’s journey through queer cinema institutions we are programmed to infer a deep-rooted socio-political message, there needs to be a force of rebellion, a sense of us vs society meandering through the tone. ‘Flaming Creatures’ revels in its hallucinatory format, and with little script - except an advertisement for lipstick - the interpretative discourse lends itself to innate conclusions that we have drawn entirely from the sexually charged nature of its composition. The versatility of Smith’s creation makes it ever changing, it functions entirely from the perspective of the spectator, and it also adopts a different aesthetic after each viewing, but perhaps its every-changing essence is exactly what makes it timeless.
There is a stark celebratory aspect to Smith’s heavily performative piece, with roots that seem to trace back to theatre, and the chaotic rhythm of someone’s private home movie that has been dug up from a hidden drawer. One of the most mesmerising aspects of ‘Flaming Creatures’ is that within the centre of the radiant disorder, there is a sense of invitation throughout, like Smith is looking deep within the spectator and pulling them into the party of misfits and deviants. While Smith certainly channels the exploration of sexuality in the centre, he manages to incorporate an unseen earthy sensation in a black and white composition - a feeling of nature that is evoked from the presence of an earthquake as well as the dusty imagery and partly obscured figures that dominate the lens. Perhaps Smith’s intention was simply to document life as he experienced it, rather than challenge the opposing forces of an oppressive society that concealed it.
Smith’s legacy as an experimental filmmaker who explored queer cinema, will be remembered in a secondary manner to the directors he influenced in his style and boldness. But perhaps we need to look more into Jack Smith as a director who managed to incorporate the ritualism of theatre, the artistry of queer culture and the world of the LGBTQ+ community and through the lives of the people, rather than solely through the fight they faced. Maybe pride can never not be political, but perhaps the real message Smith wanted to relay was that in its root it never was; it is simply another corner of life, and one which should be celebrated.
‘Steph’s Words on Cinema’ is a newsletter which focuses on reviewing independent, experimental and art-house films. It is free so please do subscribe and share. I also write for Take One Cinema, Eye For Film and my twitter handle is @stephpbrown_