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by Michael Rowin
April 9, 2007 4:45 AM
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REVIEW | Flame Out: Mary Jordan's "Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis"

Jack Smith, subject of Mary Jordan's "Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis." Image provided by Film Forum

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.

[Michael Joshua Rowin is a staff writer at Reverse Shot. He also writes for L magazine, Stop Smiling, and runs the blog Hopeless Abandon.]

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7 Comments

  • sentimental | April 15, 2007 4:04 AMReply

    Dear Michael,

    Well, Mekas was the central recipient of Jack's Lobster rants. In Jack's world, Mekas transcended his person and became emblematic of the entire

    system that Jack railed against. After Mekas "took over" Flaming Creatures,Smith completely changed his process and work product. That's why I included Mekas.



    Sincerely,

    Mary Jordan

  • mjr | April 15, 2007 2:07 AMReply

    Ms. Jordan,



    You still fail to answer my question: why INTERVIEW Mekas if you aren't interested in his viewpoint, or in any context he might provide about the Flaming Creatures wars? His role in the Jack Smith story could have been referenced without an over-edited interview. I'm not sticking up for Mekas, who -- you're correct -- doesn't need my support. I'm pointing out what I felt was a blind spot of your film.



    mjr

  • sentimental | April 13, 2007 5:40 AMReply

    Dear Michael:



    Your criticism (as I understand) was that my not offering Mekas' point of

    view re. Jack's anti-Lobster stance was:



    "...at the detriment to a fully elucidated account of the combative

    ideologies and motives within the underground."



    Like I mentioned, I am not interested in the combative ideologies and

    motives within the underground (especially not after having swum these

    waters for five years). Simply that is not the movie I chose to make.



    With due respect, Jonas doesn't need you (or anyone else for that matter) to

    stick up for him. His reputation as an accomplished filmmaker, critic,

    cultural archivist and champion of the avant-garde stands on its own.

    That's the Jonas Mekas everyone knows, who surely will be soon recognized as

    an American Master by PBS and others in the mainstream. I have great

    respect for Jonas, and owe him much gratitude for his help with this

    picture. My film is not indictment of Jonas Mekas the Lobster....rather I

    wanted to illuminate Smith's history with him as a means to arriving at

    Smith's meta-arguments against the system.



    As the central recipient of Jack's Lobster rants, Jonas (through Jack's

    eyes) transcends his person to be emblematic of the entire system that Jack

    worked against. Because of the way he processed his Flaming Creatures /

    Mekas experience, Smith completely changed his process and work product.

    Leaving the Smithian Lobster Icon #1 out of an homage to Jack Smith would of

    course be a ridiculous omission.



    Sincerely,



    Mary Jordan

  • mjr | April 12, 2007 11:55 AMReply

    Ms. Jordan,



    If you made a film about Jack Smith and his ideas and didn't want to elucidate the workings of the New York underground film scene, why bother interviewing Mekas at all? That's what I was referring to with the "editorializing" comment.



    mjr

  • sentimental | April 10, 2007 8:59 AMReply

    Dear Michael,

    I made a film about Jack Smith and his ideas not about elucidating underground ideologies or Jonas Mekas. That was my point.

    Thank you for watching and liking it beyond what you missed not seeing and please tell your friends to come to Film Forum!



    Sincerely,

    Mary Jordan

  • mjr | April 10, 2007 3:48 AMReply

    Ms. Jordan,



    Yes, yes, I'm a handmaiden of the Lobsters because I criticize. How Lobsterless our world would be without dissent!



    Anyway, I now realize your difficulties in procuring footage from the Jacobs' (if we choose to credit them to Jacobs) film, for which you can't be faulted. But the absence of the mention of Smith's collaborations with Jacobs (and others) was, I believe, sorely felt, a missing piece in his story.



    As per the style of "The Destruction of Atlantis," Smith's point of view might have been offered, but at the detriment to a fully elucidated account of the combative ideologies and motives within the underground. That's (part of) what I meant.



    My apologies to Mike Kelley.



    mjr

  • sentimental | April 9, 2007 8:31 AMReply

    Dear Michael



    Please note a correction to your review and a clarification:



    In response to:



    "How can a film about Smith possibly omit his working relationship to Ken

    Jacobs? "Blonde Cobra," one of the milestones of experimental film..."



    By simply dismissing Blonde Cobra's absence as sloppiness you enter a glass

    house. With just a little homework one learns that Ken Jacobs is not

    nicknamed "the Nervous System" for nothing. When I started this film Ken

    was one of the first people I approached even though everyone advised me

    Nervous Ken would not let me use anything. At one point I though perhaps

    Ken would prove detractors wrong, but alas not one frame of Blonde Cobra was

    allowed by Ken.



    The irony is Blonde Cobra is as much a Jack Smith film as it is a Ken

    Jacob's film. Jack constructed and acted the scenes while Bob Fleishner