Arts Alliance America // 2006 // 95 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Brett Cullum // October 3rd, 2008
Jack Smith: I was knocking myself out to make this stuff. And I always
assumed that people would see this and have pity and give me a little
[shouts] They didn't!
Photographer, filmmaker, and performance artist Jack Smith is not a household name even though he heavily influenced icons such as Warhol, Fellini, and Waters. They all openly admit to stealing from Jack, because he was the inventor of hip underground cinema in New York City in the late '50s and early '60s. He was a tall, thin, "goatee sporting" man who made strangely wonderful films based on his love of the absurd and '40s screen siren Maria Montez (Siren of Atlantis). Only one of his films was ever completed, a controversial work named Flaming Creatures, which featured an orgy of transvestites cavorting with other bizarre types clad in Arabian Knight inspired costumes. Because of its lurid content, the project was promptly banned in four countries and 22 states. Smith lost creative control of this work because an over-zealous distributor took it on tour to make money. Subsequently Smith retained his own future films mandating he be present to edit on the fly and provide sound for any showings. The artist passed away in 1989, but there are few of his films out for the public thanks to his unique approach and a legal battle over who owns them now. He effectively "bit every hand that fed him" as John Waters muses in this documentary, and as a result Jack Smith died from AIDS complications in poverty without a tangible legacy.
Making a documentary about a self-destructive artist along the lines of Jack Smith is a tall order, and it's amazing that director Mary Jordan manages to wrangle out a nice mix of unseen film footage and stellar talking heads to make a moving portrait. We hear from the likes of Robert Wilson, John Zorn, Richard Foreman, John Waters, Mike Kelley, Holly Woodlawn, and Mario Montez as they look back at the man who went from rags to...well...worse rags for the name of his art. Even Andy Warhol gets to pipe in his musings via archival footage from his Factory days where he admits his love and fascination for Jack. What separates Smith from his more famous peers is he routinely shunned the idea of selling his art and becoming a commodity. He saw Warhol as the ultimate commercial sell out, and he did not want to go down that road. This documentary can hardly make sense of his baroque images or his strange ideals, but it certainly gives it all a fair shake. You won't understand the subject, but you'll appreciate his work and influence a hell of a lot more.
The DVD presentation from Arts Alliance American includes the feature film accompanied by deleted sequences from interviews you can access as extras. There's not much more here other than the talking heads, and it's a shame due to rights issues they could not provide examples of Jack Smith's works as supplemental material. The transfer is hard to judge since we are looking at film samples from decades ago made cheaply and purposefully overexposed. It's all a beautiful mess of color and black and white images complete with grain and film stock visual smudges that attest to the poor shape of the source material. With this kind of documentary, that is unavoidable and even desirable for the right feel. A simple stereo is all we need to hear the conversations or the artist's own wobbly tenor voice. All in all it's a fine DVD for the documentary, and represents it well.
Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis paints a nice introduction to the pioneer of performance art and the new breed of aesthetics that led to "camp" and "trash" underground cinema. He is the forefather of the modern drag movement and the mentor/inspiration for such huge names as John Waters and Andy Warhol. His influences can be seen today in the works of David Lynch and Nan Goldin, and his reach created the visual style of Lou Reed and David Byrne. This documentary gives you a basic understanding of a figure who himself is incoherent and enigmatic even by today's standards. It's a visually compelling watch, and one that is a must-see for any fans of the absurd or trashy. It signifies that the man's legacy is one step closer to being cemented and finally known.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Arts Alliance America
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* English (On select sequences)
Running Time: 95 Minutes
Release Year: 2006
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Deleted and Expanded Scenes
* Official Site