Director: Jack Smith
Screenplay: Jack Smith; photography: Jack Smith.
Cast: Francis Francine, Delores Flores (a.k.a. Mario Montez), Joel Markman, Shirley.
Tyler, Parker, Underground Film: A Critical History, New York, 1969.
Suarez, Juan Antonio, Bike Boys, Drag Queens, Superstars: Avant-Garde, Mass Culture, and Gay Identities in the 1960s Underground Cinema, Bloomington, 1996.
Leffingwell, Edward, Carole Kismaric, and Marvin Heiferman, editors, Jack Smith, Flaming Creature: His Amazing Life and Times, New York, 1997.
"Avant-garde Movie Seized as Obscene," in New York Times, 4 March 1964.
Levy, Alan, "Voices of the Underground Cinema," in New YorkTimes, 19 September 1965.
Lester, Elenore, "Mr. Godard, Fire That Cameraman!," in New YorkTimes, 29 January 1967.
Regelson, Rosalyn, "Where Are 'The Chelsea Girls' Taking Us?" in New York Times, 24 September 1967.
Hoberman, J., "Treasures of the Mummy's Tomb," in Film Comment (New York), vol. 33, November-December 1997.
Jerome, Judith, "Creating a World Waiting to Be Created: Karen Finley and Jack Smith," in Women & Performance (New York), no. 1–2, 1999.
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Though it was produced in the early 1960s, Flaming Creatures—a seminal work of the American underground cinema movement of the mid-twentieth century—is a cinematic poem born of an earlier beat generation. In the 1950s, this generation of poets—unfairly enshrined en masse in popular memory garbed in stereotypical black turtleneck shirts and mohair sweaters—shunned the plasticized, sterilized, march-in-step order of the decade in favor of a more shaggy, offbeat lifestyle. In keeping with the beat aesthetic, the technical values of Flaming Creatures are more primitive than they need have been, the camera movements purposefully herky-jerky. Actors appear in costumes and trinkets gathered from the finery of their home closets or perhaps from a Washington Square or East Village five-and-dime store. As a result, Flaming Creatures comes off as a homemade concoction—certainly not from the kitchen of Betty Crocker, but from the New York Greenwich Village rooftop where filmmaker Jack Smith and his friends converged to produce the film.
For decades, Flaming Creatures has rarely been seen and, for this reason, it has frequently been misinterpreted, misunderstood, and analyzed in generalities. Thus it is worthwhile to examine its content in greater detail. As the film unfolds, the viewer sees the faces of women from a harem and learns that Ali Baba "comes today." Then the small, handwritten credits become visible. Already difficult to read, the credits are further obscured by characters—a masked, helmeted man and a woman who sticks out her tongue—who walk left-to-right and right-to-left in front of the information. Then, with the effect of a needle hitting a phonograph turntable, the sounds of an old-fashioned, operatic rendition of "Amapola-Pretty Little Poppy" commence. A vamping woman and a drag queen wiggle, wave, and converse near a large vase of flowers. This pair and others, including more drag queens, put on lipstick to the soundtrack for a lipstick commercial. The group lies about, intermingling, and the camera wanders about the intertwined bodies at odd angles. As the soundtrack announces that this indelible lipstick does not come off "when you suck cocks," viewers see a close-up of a penis at the face of a man wearing a large false nose. Soon we hear animal noises, as if from an out-of-control kennel.
Is this a languid recovery from a sex orgy, or a drugged-out group who simply are enjoying slow-paced genital contact? Just as thoughts begin to arise of illicit lillied pipes in Limehouse opium dens, a lively, campy oriental-style song starts to play, and the action accelerates in pace. People in the group run left-to-right, right-to-left across the screen. A drag queen wrestles down a woman, who is then ravaged by several people as she screams. The camera moves to a close-up of her large, round, jiggling breast, as she gyrates and screeches. This rape sequence, to which the film returns, is a disturbing, cruel segment that seems out of place amid the otherwise offbeat but mellow exoticism.
The action continues, with cutaways to a swaying ceiling lamp, a flash of lightning and, again, the vase of flowers. The group members have their orgy, including kissing and organ caressing and stimulation, and the camera shakes wildly as it explores the scene. The orgy continues amidst shrieks and wild animal sounds. Only the ravaged woman, her single breast still hanging exposed from her dress, appears to be touched against her will. She is standing, and is dragged to a spot by a blonde woman, who peacefully caresses her. The orgy continues, and is recorded in pieces—arms, legs, faces—by the lens of the curious camera. Flower petals fall on the ravaged woman, while veils blow in front of the vase of flowers.
In the next section, a fly has landed on a piece of cloth. The top of a wooden coffin opens, and the music changes again. The soundtrack changes to the nasal strains of a country-western song, the lyrics of which declare "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels," as a blonde, high-heeled drag queen arises from the coffin. She is a vampire; first she begins sucking blood from the neck of another drag queen, and then she masturbates. This sequence is chronicled in side shots, close-ups, and overhead shots. The two drag queens dance to a slow, torrid, campy South American-style song. At first, a new group of people watches them. They include a Spanish dancer with a rose between her teeth, a sailor, a drag queen carrying a lily, an African-American drag queen, and the muscular masked man in a loin cloth who was first seen in front of the credits. They all begin dancing; as they swirl about, the camera remains close, alternating frontal shots with overhead positions.
Once more the camera notices the ravaged woman with her single exposed breast. She lies on the floor, and a disengaged finger touches near her nipple. The following shots show her and her partner, and others of the group who lie near them as if in a tableau. The camera explores the group through intimate shots, including a series of closeups of faces and a kiss between two drag queens. The cool, deliberate beat of "Bebop a Lula, She's My Baby" begins as the camera shows more close-up detail of the scene. "The End" finally appears on a piece of cloth, followed by one last glimpse of the jiggling, exposed breast of the ravaged woman.
The individuals who appear in Flaming Creatures constitute a sexual subculture—and, surely, back in the 1950s and early 1960s, their antics never would have been depicted on The Dinah Shore Chevy Show or The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis! Indeed, whenever a "beat" character would appear in mainstream entertainment— Maynard G. Krebs, the beatnik pal of Dobie Gillis, is a perfect case in point—that character would be stereotyped and lampooned. Beat generation types were also demonized. In countless "B" teen potboilers, the villain—the character who attempts to seduce the virginal heroine, or turn her on to drugs—was the goateed hipster. Yet even the most broadly cliched subculture type depicted in mainstream popular culture is orthodox when compared to the eccentric personalities portrayed in Flaming Creatures. Drag characters and spoofs would not be accepted by mainstream audiences for decades, until the popularity of Tootsie and The Crying Game and the eventual, aboveground fame of Divine and RuPaul. And to this day, the explicit views and fondling of genitalia in Flaming Creatures would label it in many quarters as a homosexual stag film.
However, the film cannot be written off as low-budget sexploitation. What seems so ragged and homespun in Flaming Creatures— resulting from Jack Smith's use of hand-held camera, primitive lighting, and awkward, untrained actors—is a triumph of beat art structure and content. Unsurprisingly, the film was the subject of much legal controversy. In December 1963, it was banned from the Experimental Film Festival in Belgium. The following March, filmmaker/journalist/underground film distributor Jonas Mekas and three others were arrested and, according to a report in the New York Times, "charged with showing an obscene motion picture" at the New Bowery Theater on Manhattan's Lower East Side. The film in question was Flaming Creatures. "The police seized reels of film, a projection machine and a portable screen," continued the report.
Within the underground artist communities throughout the United States, Flaming Creatures was considered a bold visual-poetic record of a subculture that most of America wanted to keep hidden. Smith's film gained a reputation among underground artists, including Andy Warhol, who was influenced by Smith to make films in a similar crude style. Both artists played with the mix of eccentric characters and symbols of the drag queen culture with popular culture icons to create the fundamental language of an alternative cinema.
—Audrey E. Kupferberg