When Jack Smith moved from Ohio to New York in the '50s, he opened a portrait-photography studio, and between paying jobs, he brought friends, customers, and curious degenerates into his back room, where he dressed them in diaphanous costumes and created what can best be described as publicity stills for some fantastical quasi-pornographic version of Golden Age Hollywood. Inevitably, Smith migrated into filmmaking, and in 1961, just before Andy Warhol's Factory—and well before the full flowering of New York's gay community—Smith made Flaming Creatures, a trippy, decadent tableau of cross-dressing men and women molesting one another. The film was widely banned, securing Smith's reputation as a provocateur and an icon to outsider artists around the world.
But according to Mary Jordan's documentary Jack Smith And The Destruction Of Atlantis, infamy was the furthest thing from Smith's mind. In fact, he was so irritated by the way some colleagues turned him into a cause célèbre—while others just ripped off his ideas outright—that he never again completed a piece of art. But he didn't stop creating. Smith continued to shoot films, stage plays in his apartment, and organize street protests that were half theater and half political commentary. When he died of AIDS in 1989, he left behind a formidable archive of unfinished work—though Smith would've quibbled with that choice of words, since it implies that works of art have a concluding point. Nevertheless, if modern art-lovers want to understand what the Jack Smith experience was like, Jordan's documentary may be their best chance.
It's definitely worth grappling with Smith, whose images of the polysexual utopia he dubbed "Atlantis" were extraordinarily beautiful, even as his anti-establishment rhetoric came off like a line of excuses. Destruction Of Atlantis' one major flaw is that Jordan relies too much on the testimony of Smith disciples like John Waters, George Kuchar, and Ken Jacobs, who defend the purity of his methods, as though there were something noble—as opposed to cowardly—about making art that almost no one was allowed to see. In a way, the hero and villain of Jordan's film is the city of New York, which fosters the kind of artistic community that lets a man like Smith literally live out the American dream of personal liberty. Smith's is undoubtedly an inspiring example, and yet, his sister may put it best when she explains the toll his ideals took on his family, his career, and anyone who might've wanted to see more Jack Smith films. "Before he got to New York," she says, "He was okay."