Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis



Tongue Press

NEW YORK -- An important and unjustly neglected figure of avant-garde cinema gets chronicled in Mary Jordan's absorbing documentary, which recently received its U.S. theatrical premiere at New York's Film Forum. Via revelatory film clips, snippets of his live performances, samples of his photography and interviews with many of his contemporaries, "Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis" makes a strong case for the influence of its subject on such figures as Andy Warhol, Federico Fellini and John Waters, among many others.

Smith is best known for his landmark if little-seen underground film "Flaming Creatures," the only feature he ever completed. Made in 1963 and exhibited widely around the country, its blatant sexuality and copious doses of nudity made it a fixture in obscenity cases.

Smith, who died in 1989 of AIDS, was a fascinating flaming creature, living an ultra-bohemian and poverty-stricken lifestyle, at one point surviving on a daily diet of cheese and crackers. He cultivated a stable of performers who would work for him steadily, the most notable being the drag queen Mario Montez. (Not surprising, since a major objection of obsession for Smith when he was a young man was the Hollywood vamp Maria Montez.)

He was also a perversely eccentric figure who, after his notoriety with "Creatures," essentially refused to finish another work. He would literally edit his films in the projection room while they were being shown, and his live performance pieces, often staged in his dilapidated Lower East Side apartment, were often held to little or no audiences.

The film includes interviews with such figures as Jonas Mekas, who Smith gave the derogatory nickname of "Uncle Fishhooks" after he became resentful of what he saw as the critic's exploitation of Smith's work for his own gain.

Filmmaker Jordan is frequently hamstrung by the lack of clarity in both Smith's life and work, with the result that her portrait occasionally displays a somewhat sketchy quality. But it ultimately provides a fascinating glimpse of an artistic pioneer whose influence still resonates today.