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The Perfect Queer Appositeness of Jack Smith 


 by Jerry Tartaglia


            Those who are familiar with the writings of Jack Smith will recognize the inspiration for the title of this study in one of Smith’s most notorious essays entitled “The Perfect Filmic Appositeness of Maria Montez/’ first published in Film Culture magazine in 1962 (Hoberman, 25-35). The article is ostensibly about Maria Montez, but in it Jack lays out the manifesto of his art, the expression of his vision, and the testament of his Queer soul.

             All of these are reflected in his personal identification with the failed actress and B Movie star, the “Queen of Technicolor,” Maria Montez. Her films made for Universal Pictures included Arabian Nights (1942), White Savage (1943), Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (1944), Cobra Woman (1944), Gypsy Wildcat (1944) and Sudan (1945).  Smith’s obsession with Maria Montez as a movie diva was neither an isolated condition nor was it unique. Her films do enjoy a cult following even today, especially among gay men who came of age before and during the Stonewall era. That is especially so among Queers whose appreciation of languid acting, feeble plots, veiled homoeroticism (Sabu was a costar of three of the Montez films) and garish but fabulous sets and costumes mark them (or should I say us?) as followers of the “cult of the cobra.”

            Now just to be absolutely clear about the regard in which Maria Montez was held among her professional peers, let me quote Robert Siodmak, the director of Cobra Woman: “Cobra Woman was silly but fun. You know Maria Montez couldn’t act from here to there, but she was a great personality and she believed completely in her roles.” (Vermilye, 17).

            The worship of the Diva in her many forms has long been a part of Queer life.  Most adopt the more conventional choices, such as the strong-willed women of 1930s and 40s Hollywood: Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich. There are also the Divas of Opera, of which there are two main camps with a multitude of sub-groupings: the principal duo, are Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland. Then there are the pop singers and stars whose personae figure into the passing tastes of the Queer subculture. From Bette Midler whose shows at the Continental Baths in New York made of her an icon in the post Stonewall milieu to Donna Summer. And of course, there’s Barbara Streisand, as well.

            All of these women are emblematic figures for their Queer followers because each in their own character, or persona, or in their endeavor, represents the Other in a straight male world. As artists they all embodied the fancy-free creative life, suggested in films like Auntie Mame (1958), which starred Rosalind Russell, or All About Eve (1950) which featured Bette Davis in one of her most famous roles, or even in Puccini’s Tosca. “They struggle through their lives in a world of straight men and the women who love them” (Tartaglia,  Remembrance). They are the perfect screen onto which gay men of a particular generation could project their own struggle, alienation, and bold triumph in that same world of heterocentric domination.

            Into this culture of Diva worship comes Jack Smith, with his movie queen, Maria Montez. Jim Hoberman, who was one of the people responsible for saving the Jack Smith legacy from the dumpster, is very accurate when he commented on this strange choice and how the Montez worship and Smith’s film Aesthetic go hand in hand: failure and trash meet despair. Hoberman says: “the notion of Maria Montez as cinema goddess was campy to be sure—although Smith’s Film Culture paean appeared two years before Susan Sontag would publish her ‘Notes on Camp’ in the Fall 1964 issue of Partisan Review… In any case, just as Maria Montez ranked far below Maria Callas (for example) on the Diva Scale, so most of the secret-flix Smith celebrated in ‘The Perfect Film (sic) Appositeness of Maria Montez’ were considerably more outre than those Sontag would cite. If these movies were junk. Smith never denied it: ‘Trash,’ he proclaimed, ‘is the material of creators.’ ‘The Memoirs of Maria Montez/’ first published in Film Culture in the heady aftermath of Flaming Creature’s spring 1963 release, suggests… a ritual set in a derelict movie studio. (In this case, the star is a decomposing corpse.) The trash heap is a recurring Smith trope. A collector of cultural detritus, a connoisseur of ‘moldiness,’ he was an aesthete with an acute sense of collapse and failure” (Hoberman, 17).

            It was through this identification with Maria Montez in a campy Diva worship that Jack found the locus of his cinema. In some very important ways. Jack Smith was significantly different from his straight male peers in the Underground film scene in New York. He wanted to mimic the Hollywood Cinema of his childhood, whereas the others like Jonas Mekas, Ken Jacobs, Bruce Baillie, Hollis Frampton, and Tony Conrad worked in opposition to the aesthetics of Hollywood. Jack was different; he worked with a campy twist in counterpoint with the Hollywood forms and style. Smith himself said, “I would like to point out that unlike my colleagues in the avant garde cinema my experience and interests have been influenced not by literature or painting as much as by movies. I have tried to recreate the beauty and power of the secret raptures I first discovered in the Hollywood movies of my childhood. Maria Montez, The Arabian Nights, Casablanca and other ‘cult’ films left me with an insatiable lust for a visceral fantasy that is both foreign and terrible” (qtd. in Hoberman, 25). Jack found his iconography in the B Movies of his youth in Maria Montez—in the Hollywood of the 30’s and 40’s. But in a typically Queer way, he took the “worst” rather than the most “idealistic.”

            We need only remember that Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) was a product of the same era as Maria Montez; this was the mainstream vision supported by the audiences and practitioners of the dominant cinema. Jack Smith’s vision of the 1940s was that of Queer alienation: the campy sensibility which turns straight images on their head, revising the paradigm, re-ordering not only the constructions of heterocentric dominance, but of the gay so-called subculture and its tradition of Diva worship. Smith’s was an aesthetic quest to identify the gay image, and relocate it a Queer landscape. Jack Smith was a vanguard filmmaker, a radical photographer, a seminal performance artist, a Queer saint. He maintained an intense, lifelong rapture conjured out of the frayed magic and glamour of a Hollywood that had come to camp out on the movie set of his own mind. The externalization of that tarnished magic and glamour, which obsessed him, enabled him to both exoticize and humanize a conservative American culture enamored with progress and bruised in its formation by economic speculation and cold war.

            Jack Smith was one of the most accomplished and influential underground artists in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, a key figure in the cultural history of Downtown film, performance, and art. From the late 1950s until his death from AIDS in 1989, Smith was chiefly recognized for his work in film and performance. Innovative and idiosyncratic. Smith explored and developed a deceptively frivolous camp aesthetic, importing allusions to B-Grade Hollywood films and elements of social and political critique into the arena of high art. Much less celebrated than the many people he inspired. Smith’s multi-media influence is evident in the works of a broad segment of the American Avant Garde. In film, his influence is evident in the work of Andy Warhol, Ken Jacobs, John Waters, George Kuchar, Scott and Beth B. In avant-garde theater and performance art, his hand touches Robert Wilson, Charles Ludlam, John Vaccaro, Cindy Sherman, and Richard Foreman.

            In his filmmaking. Smith created an “aesthetic delirium.” Through his use of outdated film stock and baroque subject matter, he pushed the limits of cinema, liberating it from the straitjacket of “good” technique and “proper” behavior. In his best known film, Flaming Creatures (1963), characters cavort in a setting reminiscent of the court of Ali Baba. The film is a fantasy of Androgynes and Transvestites in which flaccid penises and bouncing breasts are so ambiguously equated as to disarm any distinction between male and female. In Flaming Creatures, Smith manages to combine the ornate imagination of his youth with the realities of adult fantasy.

            Smith’s second feature length film. Normal Love (1963), is something of a sequel.  Unlike the black and white Flaming Creatures, it is shot in rich color, at outdoor locations including the swamplands of Northern New Jersey and suggests the archetypal Gardens of the human imagination. The characters include a variety of 30s horror film monsters, a mermaid, a lecher, and various “curies” performed by a cast which included Mario Montez, Tiny Tim, Eliot Cukor, Tony Conrad, Diane DePrima, Beverly Grant, and John Vaccaro. Smith then created No President (1968), originally titled The Kidnapping of Wendell Willkie by the Love Bandit, in reaction to the 1968 Presidential campaign. It mixes black and white footage of Smith’s creatures, with old campaign footage of Wendell Willkie, the 1940 Republican Presidential candidate. In addition to No President, Smith produced numerous short films and fragments of short films. Some of these include Overstimulated (c.1960), I Was A Male Yvonne DeCarlo (1970s), Scotch Tape (1962), Wino (c.1977), Hamlet (c.1976). Buzzards Over Baghdad (1951), Respectable Creatures, and others.

            Smith was both filmmaker and performance artist. After a period of about eight years (1961-1969) in which Smith showed the films in their completed forms in conventional film screening settings, he began to incorporate the films and his

slides into the performances. He developed this technique in many of his performance pieces of the period: “The Tenant Landlordism of Lucky Paradise,” “Exotic Landlordism of the World,” “Dance of the Sacred Foundation Application,” “Death of A Penguin,” “The Secret of Rented Island,” “Shark Bait of Capitalism,” and “The Horror of Uncle Fish Hook’s Safe.” Smith created startling stage effects through the spontaneous rearrangement and interplay of recorded imagery on film and slides, with the live action on the “stage”, editing and re-editing the film images on the spot, in the midst of the performance. This spontaneous editing, however, required a unique form of splicing in which he put together strands of camera original as well as printed material with masking tape (Tartaglia, 209). Thus Smith managed to create a unique version of the films for each performance.

            In his book, Deathtripping: The Cinema of Transgression, Jack Sargeant describes Jack Smith as one of the filmmakers who paved the way, demarcating a terrain which others, like Richard Kern and Nick Zedd would later  explore (Sargeant, 7-8). Jack Smith’s cinema was transgressive, but it was also a cinema of transformation. Transgression can be transformative because it can propel the rebel out of the realm of the Normaland into the realm of the Queer. To break the rules is to announce that one is a self-declared misfit, and to occupy that  position is to unleash upon oneself the projected fears of all of the “Normals”, acted out through ridicule, attack, separation, and alienation. The purpose of all this psychological violence is to dissuade and distract the transgressor, pushing him/her back into the safety zone of predictable similitude: normalcy. And for the sexually different person; for the Queer, that “safety zone” is the closet.

            There is, however, a second component in this transgressive process but it is only realized if the rebel consummates the violation of the ordinary, and passes through the violence of the separation. If that happens, the transgressor is transformed. This emergence from one world into another is reflected in a Spanish word for gay men, Mariposa (Butterfly) and in the German expression, vom anderen Uffer (from the other side) (Grahn, 37-38). But this transformation is understood differently by both the now transformed Queer, and by the mainstream Normals whom s/he has left behind. To the “great, outside, unwashed, heterosexual public,” as Ondine once called them in my film Lawless (1977), positioned safely behind the self constructed metaphoric barbed wire fence which circumscribes and defines the heterocentric world view; to these, the Queer is viewed as either an outcast (if s/he has little or no social / economic status) or s/he is seen as an exotic individualist if there is some use that the mainstream can find for her life or work. But if the mainstream heterocentric culture allows the Queers for whatever reason, to enter into its fabric, it must occur within the constructs of the heterocentric world view of culture, values, and identity. In short, the Queer is allowed to enter the barbed-wire enclosed heterocentric compound but s/he must then occupy the space of the Other on the fringe of the Heterocentric Social Construction.

           But that “fringe” is a great misnomer, as Judy Grahn pointed out in her study of Another Mother Tongue.  Grahn describes human culture as a multitude of “interlocking worlds,” with Queers living on the cusps of many of them (Grahn, 84). This leads to the inevitable Transgression of conventional values, the transformation of the self, and the Transiting the cultural boundaries. This threefold process is what I call “The Ontology of the Queer.” Using the critical perspective of this Queer Ontology, we can turn to Jack Smith and his work in Cinema and understand it in its own terms rather than straining to first sanitize it, de-sexualize it, and de-politicize it and then safely praise this Queer cinema as “a celebration of joy and innocence”, as Susan Sontag once did (Sontag, 119). Or as a handful of other commentators have done, only look to his film Flaming Creatures, simply because of the notoriety associated with its American censorship trial, and ignore the blatant unashamed homo-sexed films such as No President, I Was A Male Yvonne DeCarlo, Hot Air Specialists, and his great work, Normal Love.

            Jack spoke about transgression in his essay, “The Perfect Filmic Appositeness of Maria Montez”: “the more rules are broken, the more an activity becomes enriched. Breaking the rules allows an expansion to occur” (qtd. in Hoberman, 34).

            There are seven distinct transgressions, through which transformation occurs and which facilitate the transiting of cultural boundaries. I like to think of them as the “Seven Deadly Transgressions”: structural violations, violations of the film projection environment, gender fucking, mocking the heterocentric, promoting the homoerotic, thwarting the dramatic resolution, and pursuing the Queer Elysium.

            At the most basic level. Smith’s films violate the formal structure of narrative cinema which holds that each element of the film has a particular function to serve in the production and that taken as a whole, they all serve the propulsion of the narrative. None of Smith’s films has a linear story. The only exception is the film fragment which was his first film. Buzzards Over Baghdad (1951). That fragment found its way into the reel entitled Respectable Creatures (1950s-80s). With this single exception the action of his films take place without a narrative. In the article on Maria Montez, Jack says that the visual-film rather than the scripted idea-film offers the possibility of true immediacy for the viewer, because, in its making it is a personal process. “Thoughts via images,” he says, “… are more varied. More interesting to me than discovering what is a script writer’s exact meaning” (qtd. in Hoberman,  33). Jack used the “script” as a launching pad into the film’s space. The meanings are not inherent; they are not built into the plan in pre-production. It is not the purpose of the technique, that is, the acting, the camera, the lighting, the costumes, all orchestrated by the director, to support a narrative superstructure. Rather, the script is merely one of the elements of the film. If we imagine a Jack Smith film as a journey into the realm of visual thought, replete with fantastic scenery, peopled by arcane characters who engage in bizarre actions unlike any we have ever encountered in a film—if the film is the journey, then the script is merely the roadway which makes possible our arrival in a new, very Queer landscape. Cinema presents the challenge to step into the visual realm. As Smith noted, “Maria Montez was remarkable for the gracefulness of her gestures and her movement. This gracefulness was a real process of moviemaking. Was a delight for the eye—was a genuine thing about that person—the acting was lousy but if something genuine got on film why carp about acting— which HAS to be phony, anyway” (qtd. in Hoberman,  34). In the films of Jack Smith, the reality of his gay sensibility becomes part of the revelation which is seamlessly presented and visibly portrayed. The invisibility of the gay sensibility to the heterocentric gaze is shattered in the cinema of Jack Smith.

            Because, in Smith’s films, the primary purpose is not exposition of the narrative, but rather, a revelation of the “Genuine Thing,” then he is freed as an artist, to allow the conventions of moviemaking to collapse, to allow the structure to implode, and take the viewer into the dreamlike world of his own Queer landscape. The viewers expectations collapse like the pasty movie sets of Montez land. He frees the actors to inter-act with one another as the camera attempts to follow, and only very loosely, the prescribed actions of a script. The result is an expression of Queer visual thought. The felicity of cinematic process—of making cinema with “bad scripts” and “bad acting”—exactly as Maria Montez had done—that process opens up the possibility for the meanings which are outside the realm of the prescribed for the Real, the true, the Queer. Thus, the performances and performers are no longer saddled with the burden of acting. “In my movies, I know that I prefer non-actor stars to ‘convincing’ actor-stars—only a personality that exposes itself… and I was very convinced by Maria Montez in her particular case of her great beauty and integrity” (qtd. in Hoberman, 35). These “human slips” are focal points in the films of Jack Smith.

            They are moments of rupture in the fabric of the cinematic illusion. When they occur, the viewer is wrenched out of the reverie of the film and plunged into a kind of alienation. The viewer is slapped in the face and reminded of the illusionary nature of the film. But Smith was not content to allow for randomly occurring slips and ruptures. He took this a few steps further. He created conditions in which the ruptures were bound to occur during the shooting. Beverly Grant’s performance with the live cobra in Normal Love, the Mermaid and the Werewolf falling into the mud, the creatures dancing with the frightened cows—all these scenes were brought about because Jack created the conditions in which the confluence of actors, sets, costumes, and impossible actions bring about “accidents” which move the viewer out of the state of reverie and into an alienated state of awareness. The illusion is violated by the consciously provoked “accidents.” But Smith took this alienation a step further and violated the most sacred convention of cinema. He intruded into the one place where the filmmaker is not ever supposed to be: the projection situation. During the period of time ranging from Stonewall until his death in 1989, twenty years later. Jack presented his work in live performance situations.

            The lore of Jack Smith is replete with both hilarious and terrifying anecdotes of these performances. Sometimes he would make impossible demands of the theater manager and explode in a rage when the management would refuse to repaint the entire theater in a new color immediately. Or he would fixate upon some unfortunate person in the audience and demand that they leave or the show would be cancelled. In February, 1999, Klaus Wyborny told me about a presentation of No President, which he attended in the late 1960s, which took place on the roof of a building on the Lower East Side. Jack arrived a few hours after the announced starting time, and proceeded to set up the bedsheet-movie screen by walking on a ledge only two feet wide across a chasm three stories high, to clip the sheet to the wall of the adjacent building. When it came to his art. Smith was utterly fearless, operating in a zone of indifference to personal dangers.

            In the performances in which he advertised the presentation of a film. Smith would project reels of film material from one of the three feature films. Flaming Creatures, Normal Love, and No President, and to this he would add various shorts and extraneous “scenes,” as he labeled them, such as the “Yellow Scene,” “the Crocodile Scene,” and other sequences. But Smith wouldn’t simply project this film material in a straightforward manner. There would also be live performance consisting of slides,  records, and the ever present disruption of Jack himself, protesting against the horror and failure of the event. He would sometimes remove the full take-up reel from the projector, add or excise certain material, and then re-project it to the unsuspecting audience. When I began the work of restoring Jack Smith’s films I interviewed many people who insisted that NormalLove ran for three or four hours and that I had not found all of the footage (Tartaglia, 210). They never realized that they had fallen under the spell of this master film illusionist who had shown  them the same images more than once. By violating the conventional screening situation/ Jack transformed his role from filmmaker to performer. He appeared in many of the slides and in some of the films. He transited across both roles/ and often demanded that audience members help him as “volunteer” actors.

            The next of the “Seven Deadly Transgressions” to consider are Gender Fucking and Mocking the Heterocentric. In his essay “Flaming Closets,” originally published in the journal October shortly after Smith’s death, Michael Moon offers readings of Smith’s cinema which “short-circuit their relations to the heterosexualized representational regimes from which they derive” (Moon, 20). Further, Moon notes that it would be reductive to describe the work as simply a transvestite comedy, since cross-dressing is only one of the culturally enforced “police lines” which the film crosses (Moon, 20). We can see this expansion of cross dressing into gender fucking in Normal Love. There is a scene in which the Werewolf pursues and captures the mermaid then slips and falls with her into the mud. It is both a moment of premeditated narrative rupture, to which I referred earlier, but it is also a moment of transit through multiple worlds of gender. The mermaid is played by Mario Montez and the Werewolf by Eliot Cukor. Because of the narrative rupture (the accidental fall) which Jack leaves in the film, the narrative is not propelled forward into the next sequence, which would have been an abduction to who-knows-where. Instead, we watch as the Werewolf pours Coca-Cola on the Mermaid’s face to clean off the mud. All through this action, Mario is desperately clinging to his wig, trying not to lose it and really destroy the scene by re-crossing

the gender line in error. But the transgression of the narrative convention in which Jack allows the “mistake” to remain in the film plot is so jarring, that the viewer quite comfortably transits the worlds of human and fantastic creatures.

            We completely accept a trans-gendered piscatory vamp (a male mermaid) being abducted by a male victim of lycanthropy (a werewolf). But the scene reads quite naturally in the Queer landscape of the film, because there is a homoerotic underpinning upon which the layers of identity and gender are constructed.

            In his writing. Jack referred to Normal (heterosexualism) as “the evil side of homosexuality.” His film Normal Love can be read as a campy expression of this premise and there is an example of his Mocking the Heterocentric in the film. In Normal Love, the Cobra Woman, played by Beverly Grant, is pursued in an elaborate visual passage by the Mummy, played by Tony Conrad. The scene is thoroughly charming, seductive, and visually entrancing, with Beverly in resplendent in green body paint, wearing ruby red shoes. It is so hypnotic, in fact/ that the viewer forgets that a resurrected corpse is seducing and being seduced by the Cobra Woman. Thus, in Normal Love we ride the cusps of necrophilia, bestiality and heterosexuality, as Jack Smith beguiles us with the beauty and humor of his aesthetic, all the while making a subtle comment on the death worshipping heterocentric culture of violence and exclusion.  Another example in which gender fucking becomes a mocking of the heterocentric norm occurs in Smith’s short film Hot Air Specialists. Jack appears as Rose Courtyard—a sort of voluptuous alter ego who also turns up in another of his short films, Song For Rent. Rose is the object of the amorous attention of a rather wimpish looking man. The five minute film consists of Rose protecting her modesty/ rebuffing the man’s advances, and generally playing the role of a sexually proper heterosexual woman, determined to reject the man’s interests. Smith’s gender transiting performance rests squarely upon the border of credibility. In his gestures, eye contact and deportment on screen, he communicates to the camera, and to the audience, that he does not expect us to believe completely in his gender switch. Smith does want us to believe, but not in the switch, for to do so would disempower the performance. Rather than try to convince us of the verisimilitude of his drag, he would have us laugh at the act which is precursive to hetero sex: the Courtship, upon which Holy Matrimony itself is predicated.

            The next of the “Seven Deadly Transgressions” is one of the more threatening to the cultural hetero hegemony: “Promoting the Homoerotic.” How often have we heard the plea, “I don’t mind it if people are gay; I just don’t want them to flaunt their sexuality?” This is said while hetero-sexualism is actively flaunted in every arena of human culture. Smith’s film No President is an answer to that normative compulsion. The secondary title of No President is The Kidnapping and Auctioning of Wendell Willkie by the Love Bandit. The plot of the film very loosely alludes to that story, using found footage culled from a campaign film from Willkie’sunsuccessful run for the presidency against Franklin Roosevelt. In the footage from the campaign  film, Willkie talks about all the good he’s going to do for the farmers, and he opens and examines a corn cob. The images of the corn cob with a Vaseline jar reoccur later in No President, and the corncobs are also seen in I Was A Male Yvonne DeCarlo, Song For Rent, and in various Super 8 films Smith made. The corncob is a dildo, and as such it is an emblem of the single greatest perceived threat to heterocentric dominance: anal penetration of the male.

            The homoeroticism continues later in the film, during the auction scene with the underground film actress Tally Brown, featuring poet Charles Henri Ford as a vampire in drag. During this scene, the “creatures” are posed in a tableau, and ogle a nude muscular young male. We are witness, in this sequence, to unashamed homosexual desire, and as film voyeurs, we share in the cruising of the hunky male as the drag queen vampire, using his/her hypnotic and silly stare, tries to lure the youth. The young man soaks his testicles in the vampire-queen’s champagne glass, and after feigning disgust and horror, the vampire accepts the forbidden elixir. The action is so perfectly natural that we are hardly aware of the transgressive act which has just been represented on the screen, and we barely notice that we have crossed the boundary of the homoerotic. This campy yet visible homodesire serves to subvert the heterocentric gaze, and the concomitant imperative to interpret culture through it.

            While some of the previously mentioned transgressions may be jarring to the heterocentric gaze. Smith’s most anarchic structural device disorients all perspectives. A basic dramatic expectation in film and theater is that there will be a beginning, a middle, and an end. Smith denied his audiences even the satisfaction of this expectation. The live performances had no real beginning; Smith would usually arrive late, and integrate the process of setting up within the performance piece itself. The middle phase of the film or performance, in which one would expect development of structure through narrative structure, was also frustrated. Visual and performed material would be repeated and recycled. Actions would double back upon themselves, causing the audience to become unconsciously aware that they had seen certain scenes or sequences twice. The endings of Smith’s theatrical pieces were equally ambiguous. Either the performance would go on interminably until everyone left the performance space, or it would end on an abrupt, dissatisfying note in which the viewer is denied the feeling of satisfaction which comes from dramatic resolution.

            Overarching all of these ploys is Smith’s own all-encompassing feeling of failure and despair. “What a horrible story!” he would exclaim during a performance. He did his best to make the audience see that the actors were inept, that the sets were amateurish and ugly, that the execution was a disaster, and that he himself was a failure in life and in art: a miscreant doomed to suffer the misery of oblivion. In an untitled videotape performance made around 1976, which is the only lip-sync recording of any of his performances, he repeatedly interrupts the action, asking the cameraman to turn off the camera. “The tape is already ruined,” Smith moans. But the video camera continues to record the performance piece, as Jack sinks into deeper despair, utterly convinced of the “failure” of his staged spectacle. But watching the works of Jack Smith isn’t supposed to be a normal experience. If we try to be open and accepting with his work, we’ll be thwarted. We’ll fester in a state of anxiety. We’ll feel uncomfortable and begin to understand why he labeled so many experiences as “horrors.” In short, we’ll begin to share in the infamous Jack Smith paranoia. We’ll feel the alienation which this Queer artist felt. We’ll begin to understand what it means to be a artist whose aesthetic bars his own work from appreciation and acceptance.

            Yet if we are open and accepting we will also find ourselves transported, in the last of these Seven Deadly Transgressions, into the Gay Elysium. This is represented by an eternal Halloween party, a never ending gay holiday (Grahn, 83).  This Gay Elysium is a landscape in which all creatures are welcomed, and where the only exclusion is that of the divisive heterocentric gaze. Jack once wrote, “when you have police/ everything looks queer” (Leffingwell/ 35). Indeed/ the elements of order, judgement and division are what separate us mere mortals from this other realm. It doesn’t matter, then, if Smith’s “creatures” do or do not fuck the “same” or the “different,” because the divisions of the heterocentric are gone. And if allow the normative, the heterocentric,. and the exclusionary instinct to die, we can journey there, into the transformative landscape of Jack Smith’s films and slides. There we can romp freely in the perfumed garden of perversity, savoring the aesthetics of trash with all of our fellow creatures, who, with us, are spun out of the stuff of the imagination, like the tales of Scheherazade. There we will find ourselves among the truthful, the glamorous, and the Queer.



Creekmur, Corey K. and Alexander Doty. Out In Culture: Gay, Lesbian and Queer Essays on Popular Culture. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1995.


Grahn, Judy. Another Mother Tongue: Gay Words, Gay Worlds. Boston: Beacon, 1984.


Hoberman, Jim and Edward Leffingwell. Wait For Me At The Bottom Of The Pool: The Writings of Jack Smith. London and New York:                 Serpent’s Tail, 1997.


Hoberman, Jim. Jack Smith and His Secret Flix. Astoria, NY: American Museum of the Moving Image: 1997.


Leffingwell, Edward, et al. Flaming Creature: Jack Smith, His Amazing Life and Times. London and New York: Serpent’s Tail, 1997.


Moon, Michael. “Flaming Closets,” October 51 (Winter 1989): 19-54.


Sargeant, Jack. Deathtripping: The Cinema of Transgression. London: Creation Books, 1995.


Smith, Jack. “The Perfect Filmic Appositeness of Maria Montez,” Film Culture 27 (1962-63): 28-32.


Sontag, Susan. “Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures,” Against Interpretation. Delta, 1966: 94-99.


Tartaglia, Jerry. Remembrance. 16mm film, color, 1991, 6 minutes, distributed through Canyon Cinema.

 ——. Lawless. 16mm film, color, 1977, 60 minutes, distributed through Canyon Cinema.

 ——. “Restoration and Slavery,” in Leffingwell, Edward, et al. Flaming Creature: Jack Smith, His Amazing Life and Times. London and                        New York: Serpents Tail, 1997: 209-211.

 ——. Unpublished interview with Klaus Wyborny, February 1999.


Vermilye, Jerry. “Maria Montez, The Queen of Technicolor,” Nostalgia Monthly 9 (September 1978): 17-20.

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