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Hellfire and Camp Nation: Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures

Flaming Creatures

The interchangeably heavenly and infernal beings who constitute the title characters of performance artist Jack Smith’s 1962 Flaming Creatures include sheiks, concubines, satyrs and possible vampires, all in various states of frilly dress (and undress) as they perambulate a primitive, black-and-white dreamscape (aptly described by Village Voice critic J. Hoberman as “a cross between Joseph von Sternberg at his most studiedly artistic and a delirious home movie of a transvestite masquerade”). Shot on stolen film stock, on a Lower East Side rooftop, for a reported budget of $300, Smith’s 45-minute opera prima observes this motley crew, resplendent in their unapologetic otherness, as they dance, compulsively fondle one another and, in the movie’s pièce de résistance, gang-rape an ostensibly innocent maiden while something like an earthquake erupts, covering them all in ceiling plaster. The end of Sodom and Gomorrah or the birth of an underground film nation? An eruption of camp before Susan Sontag got around to rebranding it, Smith’s censor-baiting opus was like a mythological phoenix in reverse, plunging down deep into the detritus of Hollywood at its most artificial — costume epics, studio-bound travelogues, hapless starlets — and emerging with a new trash aesthetic that would help to pave the way for everyone from John Waters to Harmony Korine. A Wellesian figure, both exploited and underrecognized in his lifetime, Smith began but never completed several follow-up projects before his death from AIDS in 1989. Hoberman, who has been a galvanizing force behind the preservation and restoration of Smith’s work, will make a rare West Coast appearance to present REDCAT’s Flaming Creatures screening and discuss Smith’s oeuvre. (REDCAT; Mon., Nov. 9, 8:30 p.m., redcat.org)


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