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Performing Identities

Artists ask, Who am I? Who are you? and demonstrate that the answers are not so simple.


Flaming Creatures

Jack Smith
(American, 1932–1989)

1963. 16mm film (black and white, sound), 43 min.

At midnight on April 29, 1963, the movie screen at New York’s Bleecker Street Cinema lit up with visions of men and women in makeup and dresses; draped white fabric and a tall vase filled with feathery blooms; and disjointed shots of lips, eyes, tangled limbs, and genitalia. These images were a part of Flaming Creatures, an experimental film by Jack Smith, which premiered that night. The police were called, and they seized the film. Soon after, it was banned in 22 U.S. states and four countries. Eventually, it came to the attention of Congress and the Supreme Court, as a part of a censorship battle then being fought in America. Detractors and champions took their sides. And Smith, the pioneering performance artist, actor, filmmaker, and photographer who was largely unknown outside of New York’s underground art scene, suddenly became famous.

Smith’s unconventional approach to his films was inspired by the melodrama and excessive glamour of Hollywood and B-movies, and by such flamboyant forms of performance as burlesque. In Flaming Creatures, as in all of his works, there is no fixed narrative, the sets and special effects are low-tech and homemade, and non-professional actors populate the cast. Shot from above or from odd angles at close range, Flaming Creatures is composed of loosely connected vignettes full of humor, eroticism, and violence. We see men applying lipstick to their puckering mouths, the set appear to crumble in an earthquake, and a vampire in a blond wig suck the blood of an unconscious victim. Shots of bared body parts and fluttering eyes punctuate these scenes, set to a soundtrack of vintage music. Because of such scenes, and Smith’s DIY, freeform approach to making Flaming Creatures, the film went against the norms of both society and filmmaking—ultimately setting a radical new example that inspired other artists and filmmakers. Adding to its significance is the fact that it foregrounded the fluidity of gender, sexuality, and identity and celebrated their free expression, at a time when they were seen in more rigid terms.

Irving Rosenthal, quoted in “Jack Smith,” warholstars.org, http://www.warholstars.org/jack_smith.html.
Jonas Mekas, quoted in “Jack Smith,” warholstars.org, http://www.warholstars.org/jack_smith.html.
Jack Smith, quoted in Annie Strother, “MOMA Pays Homage to Experimental Filmmaker Jack Smith,” pbs.org, http://www.pbs.org/newshour/art/jack-smith/.

An illusion created for movies and television by props, camerawork, computer graphics, etc.

1. A drama, such as a play, film, or television program, characterized by exaggerated emotions, stereotypical characters, and interpersonal conflicts; 2. Behavior or occurrences having melodramatic characteristics.

1. A series of moving images, especially those recorded on film and projected onto a screen or other surface (noun); 2. A sheet or roll of a flexible transparent material coated with an emulsion sensitive to light and used to capture an image for a photograph or film (noun); 3. To record on film or video using a movie camera (verb).

The act, process, or practice of examining books, films, or other material to remove or suppress what is considered morally, politically, or otherwise objectionable.

A member of the Beat Generation, a group of American writers and artists popular in the 1950s and early 1960s, influenced by Eastern philosophy and religion and known especially for their use of nontraditional forms and their rejection of conventional social values.

A low-budget movie, especially (formerly) one made for use as a companion to the main attraction in a double feature.

One who uses a camera or other means to produce photographs.

A brief, evocative description, account, or scene.

A representation of a person or thing in a work of art.

A setting for or a part of a story or narrative.

The context or environment in which a situation occurs.

A term that emerged in the 1960s to describe a diverse range of live presentations by artists.

A spoken, written, or visual account of an event or a series of connected events.

French for “advanced guard,” this term is used in English to describe a group that is innovative, experimental, and inventive in its technique or ideology, particularly in the realms of culture, politics, and the arts.

The “Transformative Power” of Jack Smith
Among the motley group of friends and strangers who appeared in Jack Smith’s films was activist, editor, and Beat writer Irving Rosenthal. He once described the artist’s filming sessions as “transformative,” continuing: “He was a transformer of people who got the artistic effects that he got because he had the power of transforming, like a guru. Yes, he was creating works of art…some of us at the shooting sessions understood that. But others came just because of his transformative power. The sessions were extremely arduous. Jack was always after the essence of his models. Kind of like a shrink. People would sometimes leave crying. You couldn’t trust him. He was very cruel.”1

Praise for Flaming Creatures Amidst the Criticism
Flaming Creatures had many supporters, including Jonas Mekas, a leader in New York’s avant-garde film scene. He loved it, and praised it in The Village Voice: “Jack Smith just finished a great movie, Flaming Creatures, which…is a most luxurious outpouring of imagination, of imagery, of poetry, of movie artistry….Flaming Creatures will not be shown theatrically because our social-moral-etc. guides are sick.…This movie will be called pornographic, degenerate, homosexual, trite, disgusting, etc., home movie. It is all that, and it is so much more than that.”2 However, Smith felt that even such positive critical reception stripped the film of its humor and colored audiences’ responses. As he later said: “The first audiences were laughing all the way through. But then that writing started—and it became a sex thing…[and] there was dead silence in the auditorium.”3