Outrageous! Flaming Creatures
This is the 8th post in a series covering the most outrageous moments in underground film history. You can follow the entire series here.
Jack Smith‘s iconic underground film Flaming Creatures is outrageous for two reasons. One, for what’s actually included in the film. Two, for what happened whenever it screened publicly.
Originally a photographer and a performance artist, Smith began his cinema career as a performer in the films of director Ken Jacobs, who was one in a long list of close friends with whom Smith would later become completely alienated from. He also wrote several articles about movies for Jonas Mekas‘ Film Culture magazine. Again, Mekas being someone Smith would later break away from.
Smith did eventually begin making his own films, such as Scotch Tape (1960) and Overstimulated (1961), but in 1963 he finished his most notorious epic, Flaming Creatures. Shot on severely outdated film stock on the rooftop of a now demolished theater, the film has an ethereal, ghostly quality as it depicts several flamboyant performers vamping it up for the camera and participating in a violent, groping orgy.
While today the sexuality on display in Flaming Creatures — and I say sexuality because there’s no actual sex in the film — seems quite innocent, at the time the humorous discussion of oral sex and the groping of topless women was quite provocative. Oh yeah, the film also shows full-on naked male genitalia.
Initially, Smith held only private screenings of Flaming Creatures for friends who recognized it as the masterpiece of avant-garde cinema that it is. The film gained a quick reputation and was invited to screen at the EXPRMNTL film festival in Knokke-le-Zoute, Belgium at the end of ’63.
However, fearing a major scandal if the film were actually screened, the EXPRMNTL organizers ultimately decided not to screen it. Outraged by the censorship, jury member Jonas Mekas recused himself from his duties and screened the film anyway after smuggling it into the projection booth in a film can marked for Stan Brakhage‘s Dog Star Man.
Chaos ensued and the film was stopped from screening by the Belgian Minister of Justice. Undeterred, Mekas at last screened the film for a curious audience in his hotel room.
However, that wouldn’t be the only trouble Flaming Creatures would cause. A few months later, on March 3, 1964, Mekas, Ken Jacobs and his wife Flo would be arrested in NYC when they screened the film at the Bowery Theater, which was part of an attempt by authorities to “clean up” the city in preparations for the upcoming World’s Fair.
Jacobs and Mekas were ordered to serve time in a workhouse, but luckily the charges were eventually dropped.
With all the commotion surrounding his film, Smith would blame Mekas for concocting all these stunts for self-promotional purposes, not because he really believed in fighting against outdated obscenity laws.
Although Smith would work on a few other films, he never truly completed anything out of fear that others would take control of them as Mekas had Flaming Creatures. Instead, his movies would become incorporated into performance art pieces he would conduct in his loft, sometimes editing them right on the spot as the celluloid wound through the projector.
Currently, the film and all of Smith’s estate is caught up in legal wrangling between Smith’s estranged sister, who insists she should have ownership of it all since she’s his closest living relative even though the two didn’t speak as adults, and the Plastic Foundation, an organization comprised of performance artist Penny Arcade and J. Hoberman. Arcade was friends with Smith until his death in 1989 from AIDS. She claims that Smith entrusted her with his legacy and recruited Hoberman to help her fight to do just that.
Lastly, while I normally encourage readers to seek out films on DVD or VOD or, best yet, in a theater, since it doesn’t seem that Flaming Creatures will be freely available to see anytime soon, I encourage you to watch it on the site UBU. However, if it does screen at an arthouse or a museum near you, by all accounts go see it. I’ve seen it in a theater several times and it’s an experience to behold.