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Movie Review

Rethinking the edgy filmmaker who made Warhol look tame

A photo collage of Jack Smith, an underground filmmaker and one-time collaborator of Andy Warhol. A photo collage of Jack Smith, an underground filmmaker and one-time collaborator of Andy Warhol. (Jack Smith Estate)
Email|Print| Text size + By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / November 29, 2007

Mary Jordan's documentary "Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis" is part unsparing explication of a life story, part love-stuck personification of Smith's working philosophy. Jordan seems to get that the only way to approach Smith, to convey his unmitigated avant-gardism to a civilized audience is, in a sense, to become him. The soundtrack is alive with his recorded musings and disembodied audio rants (his breakup letter to mom would make Lillian Hellman blush). The screen is gloriously awash in snippets and condensed interludes from his films and the films he appeared in for other people.

Jordan wrangles the obligatory talking heads, but the things they say are smart, vivid, complex, miffed, and uncensored. Judith Malina, Taylor Mead, John Waters, Robert Wilson, Gary Indiana, Ken Jacobs, Sylvère Lotringer, and Smith's rueful sister, Mary Sue Slater, among others - these are people who knew Smith's manias and paranoia, his peculiar genius. The anecdotes pop out of them like bread from a toaster.

From the standpoint of filmmaking, Jordan's big achievement, though, is philosophical. How might Smith, who died 18 years ago of AIDS, in a moment of sustained clarity (98 minutes) explain not only why he's America's most important underground filmmaker and performance artist (he was one of the very first) but why so few people have heard of him and so many have heard of his collaborator in subversion, and eventual source of envy, Andy Warhol?

Body of work is one reason. Smith left behind a handful of movies and completed only two after his banned orgasmic magnum opus "Flaming Creatures" (1963). So is temperament. His blood could scald. Or maybe Warhol, as it is more or less argued in this movie, just did Smith better than Smith himself, taking an obvious path to fame, embracing the commercialism and capitalism Smith openly despised.

Smith grew up in Columbus, Ohio, and moved to New York, polluted with movie imagery. The Hollywood dream factory provoked him to make wilder, realer dreams. His films, particularly "Flaming Creatures" and "Normal Love", were in no way Hollywood pictures. They were all the bodily secretions roiling the stars and the erotic junk just on the other side of the soundstage door - hormonal fevers allergic to clean classical style. Lust was chaos, and Smith's movies with their beautiful ugliness cut right to that chase.

Smith's attraction to Hollywood was pretty oddball anyway. His formative obsession was with Maria Montez who drove him to rechristen his main muse, the striking drag queen Mario Montez. The movie devotes a hilarious passage to Smith's devotion, and you're reminded what about her got him going - she was a bad movie star and a worse actress. But she was captivating. Someone in this film says Montez was the apotheosis of the drag queen, and several well-selected passages bear this out. And you can see how that principle of raw, fabulous badness appealed to Smith. It was honest. It was exciting. Smith's approach to his own acting was similar. But he had a real star quality and an alluring handsomeness apparent in clip after clip - those darting, rolling silent movie eyes. His voice, though, was a high, congested whine. The way it drifts around this movie, in search perhaps of a body, is creepy.

"The Destruction of Atlantis" gets a lot done. It raises the issue of Smith's financial poverty, credibly suggests his victimization through artistic robbery - did Warhol, Fellini, and John Waters steal from him? - and implies that avant-garde filmmaking's greatest champion, the Village Voice critic Jonas Mekas, who shows up here, might have capitalized on the impounding of banned "Flaming Creatures" prints when he toured with a copy of his own. (That's how Smith felt anyway.)

The movie also manages to conjure Smith's story while also telling a story about art in America. Smith's cinematic brilliance couldn't really survive because his vision was too independent, his temperament too hot. The critic J. Hoberman, who wrote a thorough appreciation of "Flaming Creatures" in a 2001 book, has called the movie a negative career move. If Smith could have held out for 40 or so more years, that might not entirely have been the case. He was a pioneer of the sort of event that just doesn't seem possible in an age when counterculture feels like mass culture and very little art is shocking. Indeed, it breaks the heart and boggles the mind to think that today all the resistant, rebellious Jack Smiths just end up on YouTube.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/ae/ movies/blog.

Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis

Written and directed by: Mary Jordan

At: Museum of Fine Arts today and various dates through Dec. 13

Running time: 98 minutes

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