The New York Life Of a Flaming Creature – By Steve Dollar

Underground icon Jack Smith is famous ? or is that infamous? ? for a 1963 film that was a free-speech lightning rod in its day but is rarely screened anymore. His 43-minute “Flaming Creatures” was an orgiastic hallucination in deliberately overexposed black-and-white that might single-handedly have heralded the cultural, social, and sexual tumult of the 1960s. It must have, because it was seized by the New York Police Department at its premiere, banned by the city on the grounds of obscenity, and eventually had its artistic merits considered by the United States Supreme Court.

Glimpsed now, the film retains its surreal beauty and gender-bent melodrama, offering a world of uncontrollable sexual energy where women and transvestites pose, dance, love, and sometimes assault one another. Today, of course, for all its once-shocking power, its fleshy ruckus could pass for a Saturday afternoon at the Burning Man festival.

Such is cultural process. What once were vices are now habits. And Smith, a penniless visionary in the purest sense, was a fountain of transgressive ideas that generations of artists have tapped for their own work. Many of them appear as talking heads in director Mary Jordan’s crisp documentary, ” Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis,” which makes use of materials from the Smith archive to create a unique collage of the performer and filmmaker’s mostly unfinished efforts.