Art Criticism / Film Criticism / Film History / Film Theory / Gay History / Gay Studies / Uncategorized

A Séance for Jack Smith

“Burn everything”, he said over and over. “I’ve lived my life in obscurity, now I’m dying in obscurity.” 

“But Jack”, I pleaded, “The world needs your work.” 

‘”The world never helped me!” He screamed. 

“But Jack! What about all the people who never hurt you? What about the future?” I countered. 

“The future? The future? It will only get worse!” 


-Penny Arcade, ‘The Last Days and Moments of Jack Smith Legendary FIlmmaker, Theatrical Genius and Exotic Art Consultant’


“He bit every hand that could ever, ever feed him, so the problem is, nobody knows his films because of that.”


-John Waters ‘Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis’


‘The only person I ever really copied was Jack Smith.’ 


-Andy Warhol 



Jack Smith is the  somnambulist of American Film, Dr. Caligari’s corpse doll that travels town to town in a wooden coffin. He lurks through the half torn prints that surface from time to time, that manage to screen in museum retrospectives every ten years or so, Buzzards Over Baghdad, Flaming Creatures, Normal Love.  His writings, so many years of articles published are nearly impossible to find unless there is access to be found from Private Universities. The few townspeople who find him lurking in the black tent hear his cryptic words from time to time, if we bother to look at all. We, the consumerist public, the outside world, are living Jack Smith’s nightmare once we bother to discover him.

The tragedy of Jack Smith is not only his death of AIDS in 1989, but his seemingly irrational, yet immortal relationship with time. Smith is one of the only artists who has managed to come at the right time, too soon, and too late. But in nearly every facet, he has been wildly misunderstood, or loved for various reasons, like a Wizard of Oz who may or may not  grant the wishes of all those who care to search for him. Queer Anarchist, Dreaming Idealist, Shunner of Capitalism, Landlordism, Lobsterism, Raging Queen, Priestess of the cult of Maria Montez, Underground Martyr, AIDS Phantom. Scholars such as Dominic Johnson have written ‘Smith’s practice encompassed both a camp affection for the refuse of contemporary culture, as well as the painful engagement with those experiences…’ (2). Smith wrote of Erich Von Stronheim in an article for Film Culture in 1963-1964, writing, ‘He was misunderstood and well understood. Well understood in that his covert world disturbed; Misunderstood in that no one knew whey or appreciated the wonders of being disturbed’ (43).  Smith may very well have been speaking of himself and his own dilemma.


Before Smith was to make Flaming Creatures, his The Perfect Film Appositeness of Maria Montez was published in Film Culture the winter of 1962-63 as what the editors must have perceived, as a practical joke. J. Hoberman writes, ‘those who first read…might well have imagined the author to be using a pseudonym – so outrageous was his premise’ (14).

Smith is admired and shunned from the public eye for his premises, ‘so outrageous’, but exactly what part of Jack Smith’s ideas are so outrageous in a burgeoning century? What on earth would he have thought 24 years ago as he lay there dying? Behind a veneer of plaster lagoons, plastic bubble cars, utopian visions and Blakean dreams of art for everyone, museums open all night, community film sets and beautiful benches for the old and poor to sit, are ideas of not only political, but artistic freedom.

What Jack Smith, what Warhol, and the others from a generation of artists that would die or vanish away into the 1980’s, couldn’t predict was  the pure annihilation of elitist culture, where all culture, would inherently become trash. Where every audience member was to a degree, a connoisseur of camp. Every joke, every reference, every twist and turn in the cultural psyche turns to the inevitable question once only shared by hissing queens in the balcony, ‘Who’s in on the joke, and who isn’t’? Everything is made to shock and disgust. Everything is made with the showman side-eye wink to the audience. All culture now wishes and wants to be trash, but seldom realizes it can’t willingly be so. All culture is garbage not because of its admittance, but its utter disposable nature. Everything is here today, and gone tomorrow, left only to the trash heaps of a culture that will either adopt it eventually or forget it altogether, where one weekend at the box office without 100 million within the first hour means the guillotine, everyone involved never working again. What will those who grow older idolize from the trash? CGI films of Alvin and the Chipmunks? Lindsay Lohan as a new tragic love goddess? You Got Served as Citizen Kane?

How far are we really, from Jack Smith’s beloved Maria Montez? That queen of the Universal Trash-heap, making money during the war, discovered by Smith in a run down movie theatre he was working in, the old prints coughed out in memoriam after Montez died in her bath tub, left to fester on late night moldy television. Smith explained its trash value as  ‘true of Maria Montez flix, but so are jewels, Cobra jewels, and so is wondrous refinement’ (27).

But the cult of culture is not singular. ‘Good’ and ‘Bad’ are slowly dying. ‘Can art be useful’ (11)? Asks Jack Smith. Art is useful once it can be of service to as many human beings as possible, regardless of socio-economical class. People in the United States have more access to technology than ever before. The ability to create ones own culture has become not a fantasy, but a reality. The trash heaps have been ransacked, everyone is the priestess to their own cult. Tumblrs stand as shrines to faded movie queens of the 1930’s and 40’s. Nazimova has 23,642 views on YouTube. Greta Garbo has 35,347 likes on Facebook. The kids could come home with a straight face for Thanksgiving back from college to tell his parents he’s majoring in Film Theory and is doing his Senior Thesis on 1940’s B Pictures. The jewels stopped hiding among the garbage long ago. Now the trash is in the display case and sold as diamonds. Is it the death of culture or the birth of a potential anarchy Jack Smith dreamed about?  Uncle Fishhook still holds his claws on those beloved prints, unraveled every now and again. But still the cults appear and vanish. It would delight Jack Smith to no end that an 18 year old boy from Pensacola, Florida could look up a print of Flaming Creatures on Dailymotion, and watch it in its entirety, that his audio plays with accompanying photographs can appear like a comet in the sky on Youtube, to be consumed by millions for free.

Where are the community movie sets of Smith’s Capitalism in Lotusland? Everyone has the god-given right to make films in consumerist America. On their cell-phones, on their lap-tops, on their web-cams. Where oh where are the teenage bohemians getting high and wearing costumes, making love and filming every moment, could Smith give them any ideas?

Could it be, Jack Smith is creeping from his swarthy lagoon?



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