Famously difficult and evanescent experimental filmmaker Jack Smith has finally found a champion worthy of transmitting his rich legacy; helmer Mary Jordan does an extraordinary job sorting through extensive material and gathering a who’s who of collaborators and disciples, offering an insightful and incisive portrait of a self-destructive paranoid artist whose importance is partly hidden by his own divisive nature. Already scheduled for a slew of fests, “Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis” should easily draw an eager arthouse crowd into select bi-coastal theaters.
Originally presented as a work-in-progress at Rotterdam, docu had a difficult genesis. Much footage is still held up in legal limbo as rights are disputed between family and archivists, further hampering efforts to make Smith’s career better known. Still, Jordan has succeeded beautifully in not only bringing out the man himself, but in explaining his key role in avant-garde art, and his influence on everyone from Warhol to Fellini.
Although scandal clung to his best-known feature, “Flaming Creatures,” Smith’s legacy was considerably more pervasive than that one film; unfortunately, his singular talent in biting every hand that fed him, as John Waters declares, continues to bar anyone from understanding the totality of his art.
Born to a neglectful mother in a Midwestern suburb, Smith escaped his unhappiness through Hollywood’s saturated color fantasies, especially the exotic spectacles of Maria Montez. More than simply the ultimate symbols of camp, pics like “Cobra Woman” and “Siren of Atlantis” symbolized for Smith the limitless possibilities of imagination and desire.
At first a photographer, Smith shot pictures as if they were movie stills. He bucked the popular artistic trends, seeking out an explosion of intense color and theatrical composition that surely has roots in the British photographer Madame Yevonde. Feeling limited by photography, Smith ventured into the experimental film world, and soon “Flaming Creatures.”
Banned in more than 20 states and four countries, “Creatures” presented a pan-gendered baroque fantasy world, transforming inner exuberance into the outwardly flamboyant trappings of style. The film was both Smith’s controversial triumph and his albatross: when Jonas Mekas toured it around, happily getting himself arrested in the name of artistic freedom, Smith felt the film had been taken away from both its creator and its purpose.
Never again did Smith finish a work of art. His subsequent films were screened only when he had total control, editing even within the projection booth.His films became ever more ephemeral, viewable by only a select few.
Smith was especially bitter at Warhol’s embracing of consumerism and fame. But by refusing to relinquish control of any of his own works, he set the stage for his artistic disappearance.
Which is why, despite the rights problems, Jordan has scored a triumph.
Editor Alex Marquez deftly handles the extraordinarily rich scraps of material on hand, not only Smith’s films but recorded interviews and terrific talking heads, from Judith Malina’s amusing memories of making “Flaming Creatures” to Ron Tavel’s clear-headed commentary. Oddly excised from the final version, however, is a perfect Holly Woodlawn sound-bite, heard in the work-in-progress: “I’d sell a Warhol, but if I had an original Jack Smith, I’d keep it!”
Wonderful titles and graphics by Juan Gatti playfully deconstruct art nouveau elements with a campy psychedelic overlay — Athletic Model Guild meeting Busby Berkeley. Musical accompaniment, from original compositions to Bizet and Rimsky-Korsakov, would have made Smith proud.