Too hot to handle

Jack Smith's films scandalised the censor and the public in early-Sixties New York. Now, they're thought fit for a celebratory exhibition. Morgan Falconer reports
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The Independent Culture

During Jack Smith's last days in September 1989, while he drifted in and out of consciousness in a New York hospital bed, a number of his old friends and collaborators made a valiant last attempt to persuade him to make a will. In his 56 years, Smith had been massively prolific, making films, acting in others, performing in innumerable very off-Broadway theatre productions, taking photographs, creating collages and drawings, and writing for magazines. And much of what remained lay in a disorganised heap in his East Village apartment.

During Jack Smith's last days in September 1989, while he drifted in and out of consciousness in a New York hospital bed, a number of his old friends and collaborators made a valiant last attempt to persuade him to make a will. In his 56 years, Smith had been massively prolific, making films, acting in others, performing in innumerable very off-Broadway theatre productions, taking photographs, creating collages and drawings, and writing for magazines. And much of what remained lay in a disorganised heap in his East Village apartment.

Today, those same friends must be wishing that they had succeeded. For Smith's estate is currently the subject of a legal battle between the organisation they established to safeguard his work, the Plaster Foundation, and Smith's estranged sister, who lives in a trailer park in Texas and, until recently, allegedly had no idea how much her outlandish brother's art had come to be worth.

Smith's work has rarely been exhibited in the UK, and with lawyers in New York having, in effect, frozen his estate while arguments are settled, it is all the more surprising that the Lawrence O'Hana Gallery, in Shoreditch, east London, has managed to find material to put together an exhibition. But they've stepped around the problem and are mounting a moving tribute to Smith with a selection of Norman Solomon's photographs of the artist filming on the set of Flaming Creatures (1963), his most enduring and extravagant succès de scandale. And, by hunting high and low, they've also amassed enough films to put on a series of screenings throughout July.

The performers and artists who have been influenced by Smith are legion. Fellini was said to have been an admirer, and Warhol was certainly indebted. Smith produced the same vast, undifferentiated sea of material as Warhol, and his entourage was formed of the same kind of free-living East Village beatniks as Warhol's Factory. But today, reviewing Smith's love of trashy excess, of Hollywood flamboyance and eroticism, one thinks first of John Waters, and indeed, Waters says that he "genuflects" before Smith.

There were films such as Brassieres of Atlantis; Withdrawal from Orchid Lagoon; and I Was a Male Yvonne De Carlo; performances such as Claptailism of Palmola Christmas Spectacle, and an adaptation of Ibsen's Ghosts called Orchid Rot of Rented Lagoon. And along the way, rather as Waters found Divine, Smith found his own figures of worship, such as the Forties Hollywood idol Maria Montez (though she would never perform for him); and figures of hate, such as the Lobster, whose crawling, segmented frame and cannibalistic aggression embodied for him the evils of government and private property, and whom he savaged in films such as Lobotomy in Lobsterland and Boiled Lobster Easter Pageant.

Smith's value can occasionally seem occluded behind the comedy of such colourful titles, but few things clarify it once again than a viewing of Flaming Creatures. In itself, however, it isn't exactly a model of narrative clarity. Lasting just 40 minutes, it's a discontinuous patchwork of fantastical erotic scenes, blending Arabian odalisques, Spanish dancers, blonde vampires and sultry beatniks. It opens with a long sequence of ornately lettered credits, close-ups of puckered mouths, wagging tongues and - provocation No 1 for the censors - a fondled penis. It moves on to the "smirching scene", a sort of eroticised make-up session. There is a chase, a struggle; and a horde of figures pins down "Delicious Dolores". Bodies writhe, the camera shakes, ceiling-plaster rains from above, a transvestite arrives in a coffin, and the whole thing climaxes with a dance.

Smith filmed all of that in just a few weekends in the summer and autumn of 1962, on the roof of an old East Village cinema, and it is the atmosphere of those days that Norman Solomon captures in his pictures. As ever, Smith's means were limited. He painted the backdrop himself, he did the filming himself, and pictures show only a propped-up ladder to offer extra lighting and a rickety catwalk for overheard filming. Smith was so hard-up that he even had to shoplift the film stock, which meant that he ended up with the odd and outdated varieties simply because they were easier to pinch than the better stuff.

He can hardly have imagined what would come of such modest means. The film had its first screening at the Bleecker Street Cinema in April 1963, and was well received by the likes of The Village Voice and, later, by Susan Sontag in The Nation. But censors were less enthused, and police harassment became a regular feature of screenings. This culminated in the arrest and prosecution of two exhibitors, and a trial that led all the way to the Supreme Court. At one point, Senator Strom Thurmond even had a copy to flown to Washington so that he could fulminate against it to Congress and the assembled press. Exhausted by all this, and also, perhaps, by the peculiar obsessional hatred he developed towards the film-maker Jonas Mekas, who was one of the defendants (he became "Jonas Mecrust" and "Uncle Roachcrust"), Smith never completed another film.

Today, at least in the New York City boroughs of Manhattan and the Bronx, Flaming Creatures remains technically obscene; a good enough reason, some would say, for rushing out to see it.

Jack Smith: Flaming Creatures, Lawrence O'Hana Gallery, 35-42 Charlotte Road, London EC2 (020-7739 0245; www.ohanagallery.com), 25 June to 8 August. See website for dates and times of screenings

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