From the inventor of the wheel to the Ramones, originators repeatedly get the short end of the stick: unrefined and unfamiliar, their innovations usually fly over the heads of unappreciative audiences until someone shrewder comes along and renders them accessible. Thus goes the ecstatic yet tragic story of Jack Smith, DIY artist, trash flaneur, visionary photographer, lowlife von Sternberg, absurdist provocateur, invisible shaman, and last of Lower Manhattan’s true bohemians. Catalyst of the New York underground from the 1950s through the 1970s, and a direct influence on Andy Warhol, among a multitude of likewise indebted artists, Jack Smith is an overlooked genius worth an incisive onscreen portrait. Mary Jordan‘s “Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis” attempts to paint that portrait by documenting Smith’s often exploited legacy, but in striving to emulate the one-of-a-kind director’s aesthetic too often betrays the spirit of its subject with obfuscating messiness.
It wouldn’t constitute an overstatement to echo the “Atlantis” press notes that claim Smith “perhaps America’s most influential artist from the last 50 years.” A wiry homosexual whose mopey voice and oftentimes rakish, mustachioed appearance perfectly epitomized his raging, paradoxical personality, Smith came to New York from Ohio in the fifties and almost immediately became a force in the Lower East Side art scene. Smith’s junkyard sensibility extended over photography with unique tableaux vivants of voluptuously costumed transvestites; Dadaesque performances that predicted the event-oriented Warhol factory and other countercultural happenings; and filmmaking. Smith most notoriously left his mark in the last: his “Flaming Creatures” (both the film and the Smith-made superstars within it) was a disarming celebration and apotheosis of camp featuring an orgy of faux-exotic costumes, unabashed nudity, and purposely overexposed film stock that enraged authorities, who seized the film at its premiere and outlawed it in two dozen states.
Smith’s attitude toward commercial viability had always been uncompromising, but the infamy that accompanied “Flaming Creatures” exacerbated it, his outrage over the controversy redirected toward Jonas Mekas when the fellow filmmaker and critic screened the film across the country to goad the law into busting him. Smith felt monetarily and creatively usurped by the stunt, and associated Mekas with others he deemed “lobsters” — vampires of capitalism and “landlordism” gorging themselves on the blood of real artists like himself. Mekas, Warhol (Smith’s collaborator on the previously thought lost “Batman Dracula,” clips of which are featured in “Atlantis”), and other friends became increasingly alienated by Smith’s quixotic pursuit of artistic and political purity, while Smith’s abrasive, confrontational antics — including performing at his apartment long past the midnight hour just to see who would stick around to watch — drove him into obscurity, poverty, and a lonely demise brought on by AIDS. The title of the documentary is fitting: it refers to Smith’s concept of a crushed paradise, a lost continent of exotic exuberance available, it seems, only to idol Maria Montez (the patron saint of Smith’s transvestite protege Mario Montez) and Smith in occasional moments of creative nirvana.
Jordan’s video — featuring a veritable “Who’s Who of the Underground” with interviews with Tony Conrad, Gary Indiana, Taylor Mead, John Zorn, and John Waters, among many others — does a good enough job shedding light on Smith, his ignored work (especially the photography and overshadowed films like “Normal Love“), and the hardships that accompanied his religious vow to a life of art. But “The Destruction of Atlantis” is otherwise sloppy: How can a film about Smith possibly omit his working relationship to Ken Jacobs? “Blonde Cobra,” one of the milestones of experimental film, on its own provides sterling examples of Smith’s improvisational genius. And “Atlantis” is edited in such a way as to confuse and disorient viewers looking for something very different from a documentary than from an experimental film — several sequences, most of them having to do with Mekas, editorialize by abusing out-of-context shots when they could simply tell both sides of the story. “Half the music videos you see on MTV look like a Jack Smith,” one interviewee says, and while that statement might be true, it seems like a disservice to make it the documentary’s aesthetic principle. Smith made beauty out of trash, not the other way around.