As documented by Mary Jordan, Jack Smith’s art was incontrovertibly tied up with his vengeful, assaultive personality. Misconstrued, mislabeled, misappropriated, Smith was a charging bundle of self-described baroque sensibilities, proto-queer Pangaea, and the artistic equivalent of Asperger’s Syndrome. But he was also, thanks to the scandal surrounding Flaming Creatures, a victim of the sort of salable celebrity status he would spend the rest of his artistic and natural life fighting against. Populated by a cast of talking heads that positively dwarfs the roster of day players in any given Maria Montez epic, Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis tries a little too fastidiously to piece together a life its owner tried quite brazenly to shatter and disseminate into a thousand shards of passive-aggressive antipathy. But then again, the portrait it gives is itself awfully incomplete and fragmented, so I’d say Jordan and Smith are Even Steven.
Smith arrived on the New York scene a cripplingly Oedipal wreck, at least if his letters to his mother were to be taken at face value and not as some attempt to reenact his beloved Hollywood melodramas. He was baptized as the second coming when Flaming Creatures attracted enough enthusiastic attention to set authorities’ noses sniffing for potentially immoral content. The film was later banned in nearly half the states in the Union. In retrospect, it doesn’t seem so clear-cut that the film’s bobbling cleavage and flaccid, floppy phalluses led to the censorship. What might have registered as truly dangerous was Smith’s strangely clean-minded presentation of a pansexual utopia. Not only did the film rub Strom Thurmond the wrong way, it also became something of an aberration to its own creator.
Smith, perhaps cognizant of how easily commodified his film’s whiter-than-white ribaldry was, spent the rest of his career trying to extrapolate and hide the physical artifact from his artwork, thereby leaving only the artist. He spent more time reworking his films and photos than he did creating them, perhaps sensing that nothing bothers connoisseurs more than not being able to tag, index, and shelve their collections. Toward the end of his life, he turned to the ultimately un-ownable form of expression: performance art. (He would perform his all-night monologues to an audience of zero if need be, as one interview subject regales. One wonders if Smith considered it the finest work of his career, given the fact that it truly belonged to no one else.) Nevertheless, his influence was far-reaching and inspired a number of artists who Smith later repudiated. Jordan collects a number of them to populate her documentary portrait—Jonas Mekas (probably the most prominent recipient of Smith’s venom), Ken Jacobs, and John Waters—but perhaps the most compelling participant is one of the least expected. Smith’s sister Mary Sue Slater, who legally owns her brother’s collection, is the only one who seems to see the man for the mentally scarred mama’s boy he very likely was.