J. Hoberman [Jack Smith]
Flaming Creatures and Other Secret-flix of Cinemaroc
New York City, USA: Granary Books, 2001
144 pp., 25 x 18 cm., paperback
Edition of 2000
The Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman's tells the story of Jack Smith's legendary film Flaming Creatures, which he calls "the most important and influential underground movie ever released in America". Susan Sontag, also writing for the Voice, in 1966, praised the film as a "rare modern work of art; it is about joy and innocence". The artist himself referred to it as "a comedy set in a haunted music studio".
Smith began as a photographer and performance artist, appearing in Ken Jacobs's Blonde Cobra, and several theatre productions by Robert Wilson. In 1964 he portrayed Batman Dracula in Warhol's unfinished film of the same name. He also contributed film criticism to Jonas Mekas' magazine "Film Culture."
He began producing short films in 1952, with the forty-three minute Flaming Creatures (1963) his most celebrated work. Shot on outdated film stock on the rooftop of a now demolished theatre, the film has a ghostly quality and the overt sexuality (including full-frontal male nudity) was considered shocking at the time.
Smith was invited to present the film at the EXPRMNTL film festival in Knokke-le-Zoute, Belgium at the end of 1963. At the last minute, fearing a scandal, the festival decided against the screening.
Mekas, who sat on the jury, was outraged. He resigned in protest, smuggled the film (in a can labelled "Stan Brakhage Dog Star Man") into the projection booth and screened it anyway. The Belgian Minister of Justice insisted it be stopped, mid-reel. Undeterred, Mekas screened the film for a small audience in his hotel room.
A few months later, Mekas presented the film again, in New York City, and was arrested and charged with obscenity. The authorities were attempting to "clean up" the city in advance of the upcoming World's Fair.
Last month, five decades later, Mekas (now 92) received an apology from the prosecutor, Gerald Harris. Twenty-eight at the time, the assistant district attorney (and self-described “kid from the South Bronx.”) had been focused on misdemeanour obscenity prosecutions. He later came to support free expression in the arts, and once refused to prosecute Lenny Bruce, because he found him funny.
“I feel I owe you an apology,” Harris wrote to Mekas, over email in October. “Although my appreciation of free expression and aversion to censorship developed more fully as I matured, I should have sooner acted more courageously.”
“Your surprise generous apology accepted!” Mekas replied. He later told the New York Times, “I was a little bit surprised, but times change. I see it as sort of normal for someone who’s not intellectually dormant and follows what happens. I appreciate that and think it’s to his credit.”
Flaming Creatures and Other Secret-flix of Cinemaroc is augmented with personal recollections and remarkable, previously unpublished on-set photographs. It is available at Amazon, here, for $25.00.
The film was also confiscated in Ann Arbour Michigan a few years later. Below are some clippings from the time (large enough to read when clicked on):