Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Flaming Creatures (Smith. 1963)

"Today Ali Baba comes. Ali Baba comes today."

Sometimes I feel like the 1077 Films to See Before You Die is a list that likes to torture its followers. Though every film on this list is supposed to have some kind of importance in the history of movie making, I have struggled to find merit in a number of the pictures I have watched. Some films, like Dog Star Man, were made from interesting ideas. While others, like Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures, do not seem to have any redeeming qualities at all. Flaming Creatures is a film like none that I have ever seen. It is perverted, trashy and important only because it helped define cinematic vulgarity.

Flaming Creatures was directed and written by the provocative filmmaker, Jack Smith. Here is a man that had no interest in entertaining the masses. I am not sure that his films could even entertain himself. He was a major proponent in simple aesthetics. He was the godfather of the underground film world, and he is credited with creating the drag-queen culture as we now know it. Smith was also a major influence on the films of Andy Warhol and the movies of John Waters. All of his films, with Flaming Creatures being the most incendiary, were shot under incredibly small budgets. But Smith was never worried about how much money it cost to make a movie.

According to underground legend, Smith filmed Flaming Creatures on stock film that he had actually shoplifted. It has also been said that he paid his actors in either gay sex or drugs. True or not, this still remains one of the most bizarre films I have ever seen. It is a parade of camp-queens, transvestites, hermaphrodites and prostitutes mixed in with the occasional flaccid penis or saggy breast. There is no noticeable story being told, but Smith had said that his work was showing you "a comedy set in a haunted music studio.” I must have missed this, because all I saw was the showing of some very questionable acts amongst one of the cheapest looking sets I have ever seen.

If I have to give this film any credit, I will say that the images were exhaustively challenging for my poor Midwestern eyes. I was made uncomfortable almost immediately, and I would go as far as to say I was disgusted at times. Flaming Creatures is one of the most emotionally disturbing works in film that I have seen. But it does not frighten you. It uses music and absurd imagery to make you uncomfortable. You would have to be a pretty weird person to not be challenged by Jack Smith.

In one of the only secular moments of Flaming Creatures, we see an actress getting raped by way of cunnilingus. We are treated to the intense visual of a woman being held down and violated by more than one male figure. Of course, these men are naked and performing all sorts of “hand acts” on each others limp penises. This type of perverted sexuality becomes normality throughout the 45 minute running time. It is not an easy film to sit through.

Obviously, any film that features this type of rough imagery comes with loads of controversy. In fact, Flaming Creatures was seized by New York police directly following its debut screening. Along with Jack Smith, the film became a target of the infamous idiot, Strom Thurmond, during his crusade to end all pornography. Do not get confused – this is not a pornographic film. It is a classic work in performance art. And though we would all love to pretend that this genre does not exist…we still know that it does. And in terms of successful endeavors in the genre – Flaming Creatures isn’t really all THAT bad. I will never watch it again, but some esteemed opinions, like Frederico Fellini, hail this picture as a masterpiece in trash cinema.

Yes, Jack Smith may be an under credited influence on the Waters’ and Warhol’s of the world, but this does not make his films entertaining in any conventional sort of the word. This is the type of film that a pedophile would enjoy. And though I defend Smith’s right to make trash, I also understand why the backlash forced him to withdraw from making films. Smith would go on to become a major pioneer in surrealist theatre. He worked in this field until his death of AIDS related complications in 1989. He was 56 years old.

Flaming Creatures: F

My Next Film....Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (Charles. 2006)

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