Jack Smith’s underground film Flaming Creatures (1963) was hugely influential, erupting with sexually ambiguous images of gay and trans performers and shot DIY-style on shoplifted black-and-white film stock that was often overexposed to create a hazy white sheen.
By 1962, Jonas Mekas began hosting Film-Makers’ Cooperative screenings at his loft at 414 Park Avenue South, between Twenty-Eighth and Twenty-Ninth Streets. “A normal evening at the Film-Makers’ Cooperative,” Mekas recalled, “you could see Allen Ginsberg, you could see Robert Frank, you could see Larry Rivers, you could see Bob Kaufman or Jack Smith—all the filmmakers, painters, or musicians. It was a mix, and not as separated as today. They were very close, they were using each other.” Mekas’s loft was the office of the Film-Makers’ Cooperative, a space lined with shelves of films and an old Moviola film-editing machine that Jonas slept under to save space. “It was also the office of Film Culture magazine,” he recalled, “and then we built a space with a screen that was good enough for twenty people or so. Every evening, filmmakers used to bring their own films and friends to check what they did just a few days ago. It was very, very active. The low-budget or no-budget filmmakers stuck together because they had nothing to lose and nowhere to go. Nobody wanted to distribute our films, but here we had our own distribution center. The rule was, no film was rejected. The film, good or bad, is your ticket.”
From Chapter 2 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Flaming Creatures debuted in 1963 and was shown three times in early 1964 at the Gramercy Art Theatre without incident until the police issued a summons against the movie and the theater was forced to halt its screenings. The resourceful Jonas Mekas continued the screenings at the Bowery Theatre in the East Village, which was then hosting Diane di Prima’s New York Poets Theatre company. On March 3, 1964, an undercover police officer in the audience arrested as many people as he could, including Mekas. “He watched the film,” Mekas recalled, “and I knew, ‘That’s a cop, and he may arrest me.’ I even had sandwiches in my pocket prepared already. Chicken sandwiches. I knew I might be arrested. They had seen an advertisement and the police just came in. They were waiting until the end of the film. No big fuss. I just spent a couple nights in jail.” Future gay rights activist Harvey Milk was another audience member who was thrown in the police wagon and taken to the Ninth Precinct house on East Fifth Street. Mekas was sentenced to sixty days in a prison workhouse in 1964, an unsettling irony for the survivor of a Nazi labor camp who came to America for the freedoms it offered. His sentence was eventually suspended, and fifty-one years later prosecuting attorney Gerald Harris reached out to Mekas. “I feel I owe you an apology,” he wrote in a 2015 email. “Although my appreciation of free expression and aversion to censorship developed more fully as I matured, I should have sooner acted more courageously.” The New York Times reported that Mekas replied immediately: “Your surprise generous apology accepted!”
From Chapter 10 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Jack Smith’s highly influential underground film Flaming Creatures was shot on shoplifted black-and-white film stock, often overexposed to create a hazy white sheen. With its “disorienting framing and close-ups and lacking any real narrative continuity,” art historian Branden Joseph noted, “Flaming Creatures was a concatenation of seemingly poor technical choices that added up to a hallucinatory new aesthetic vision.” Flaming Creatures erupted with sexually ambiguous images of gay and trans performers, with quick cutaways to penises and breasts—all of which was less prurient than surreal. Smith loved trashy 1930s and 1940s Hollywood films, and his underground film’s opening sequence appropriated the soundtrack of the 1944 Maria Montez film Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. As one of Smith’s characters applies lipstick, a faux ad in the background poses the question, “Is there lipstick that doesn’t come off when you suck cocks?” This gleeful assault on mainstream American values resulted in police raids and United States Supreme Court–backed censorship (the high court declined to hear an appeal, upholding the previous obscenity ruling). By channeling his love of obsolete Hollywood celebrities like Maria Montez and other tacky consumer culture detritus, Smith charged them with new symbolic meaning. In so doing, he created a template for the queer, trashy camp styles that took root downtown and eventually permeated pop culture.
“Jack was a pure genius,” said Jack Smith’s friend Agosto Machado, “a visionary artist who had the strength and determination to carry out his vision with almost no money. Jack talked about going to the Middle East to shoot, but since he couldn’t afford to, he created that location in tenements or various places where he could create an illusion of that faraway place. You were in another dimension when you were with him because he didn’t have a storyboard. He’d just set up and say, like, ‘Oh, you’re walking through the swamp, and there’s a mysterious creature that’s going to do this, that, and the other.’ ” At first Tony Conrad didn’t know what he was getting himself into when he helped Smith set up one Saturday to film Flaming Creatures on the roof of the defunct Windsor Theater, a tiny movie house on the Lower East Side. It took three hours for everyone to apply makeup and costumes, all while the drug intake spiked. Something very weird is going on here, Conrad thought as he and others began cross-dressing. Geez. If my friends like La Monte could see me now, I would be so embarrassed, because this is like the weirdest shit. “Jack also shot some of the scenes in Prospect Park, which wasn’t as peopled or cleaned up during those years,” Machado said. “You could walk through sections of slummy areas and do a shoot, if you just minded your own business and you did your thing.” Playwright Ronald Tavel, who went on to write scenarios for Andy Warhol’s mid-1960s films, also worked on Flaming Creatures—dropping bits of plaster from a ladder onto the actors during the earthquake scene, among other tasks.
“I would go on the Greyhound bus and sneak away to New York,” recalled film director John Waters, a devotee of Jonas Mekas’s screenings. “I’d go to the Bridge Theatre. I went to the Film-Makers’ Cooperative. I went to see the early Warhol movies, Jack Smith movies, all that stuff.” He also attended Play-House of the Ridiculous shows, and developed a shared sensibility with downtown artists like John Vaccaro, Jack Smith, and Andy Warhol. “I went to a lot of the John Vaccaro stuff,” Waters said. “Also, Charles Ludlam was my friend. That’s what influenced my movie Multiple Maniacs, like the lobster rape scene. It was the Theater of the Ridiculous.” Waters even attended New York University briefly, until he was expelled after being busted for marijuana possession. “But it wasn’t really NYU’s fault,” he said. “I didn’t go to class. I went to Times Square every day and saw movies. I stole books from their bookshop and sold them back the next day to make money. I took drugs. I probably should’ve been thrown out.”
Andy Warhol’s early cinematic experiments in time, such as Sleep and Empire, were also explored in the music of minimalist composer La Monte Young, who moved to the city in 1960 and became involved in Yoko Ono’s Chambers Street Loft Series and the Fluxus art movement. Just as Warhol and other 1960s underground filmmakers expanded the temporal possibilities of film, Young and his collaborators did the same with music and sound—stretching out notes for hours at a time, creating elongated drones. Warhol, Young, and Jack Smith were at the center of a swirling vortex of collaborative activity that touched many areas of downtown life and art. The Flaming Creatures soundtrack, for instance, was assembled by Tony Conrad, who performed in Young’s group the Theatre of Eternal Music alongside Factory custodian Billy Name and future Velvet Underground member John Cale. Warhol also commissioned Young to produce droning sounds to accompany his silent films when they were screened at the 1967 New York Film Festival, and he worked with Jack Smith on several other projects.
Andy Warhol used an Auricon camera for his first sync sound film, Harlot, which was shot in December 1964. Gerard Malanga had been taking Warhol to Wednesday night poetry readings at Café Le Metro, where the writing of Jack Smith’s friend Ronald Tavel caught the artist’s attention. Warhol hired Tavel to write some “scenarios” for Harlot, and they soon began working together on Warhol’s other film projects. These sorts of collaborations happened often because the mimeo poetry zine scene frequently overlapped with the audiences for underground movies; Beat poet and Fugs cofounder Tuli Kupferberg, for example, could be seen selling his own mimeo publications at Mekas’s screening events. Harlot starred drag queen Mario Montez, who had previously appeared in Flaming Creatures and was named after Smith’s favorite 1940s starlet, Maria Montez. Warhol’s film depicts Gerard Malanga in a tuxedo blowing a puff of smoke at Montez, who is suggestively eating bananas. The only audio is Tavel and Billy Name having a conversation off-screen, perversely defeating the point of using a sync sound camera. “Mario maintained a wonderful duality,” said Montez’s friend Agosto Machado. “If you saw him in the neighborhood, you would pass him on the street and he was an attractive Puerto Rican man. But you would not know that he could transform himself into a goddess as Mario Montez, this goddess muse of Jack Smith and Andy Warhol.” He also appeared in several other Warhol films: Banana, Batman/ Dracula, Camp, Chelsea Girls, Lupe, and 1966’s Hedy, the last of which was part of Warhol’s “Hollywood trilogy” (a series of odd biopics that also included Harlot).
Andy Warhol’s dive into underground film commenced in early 1962 when he began attending screenings at the Film-Makers’ Cooperative, then operating out of Jonas Mekas’s loft and the Charles Theater. Warhol was one of fifteen or so people sitting on the floor, though he and Mekas didn’t become acquainted until 1963. “That’s where Andy Warhol began watching films and got the urge to make movies himself,” Mekas recalled. “He was at the Film-Makers’ Cooperative watching films and meeting his early stars: Mario Montez, Beverly Grant, Naomi Levine, Taylor Mead. He met them at the Film-Makers’ Cooperative, and that’s when he decided to make a film.” Warhol was inspired to make movies after seeing Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures, which precipitated his shift away from visual art. In 1963, he bought a Bolex 16-mm camera with a newly introduced motor that made shooting simpler—one of the ways that new technologies shaped the development of the downtown’s DIY scenes. (The massive amount of cheap 16-mm film stock left over from World War II also gave underground filmmakers access to this medium.)
While Lou Reed dabbled in experimental music in college, John Cale had an extensive background in that world. Born in South Wales, he received an undergraduate degree in classical music and absorbed the works of Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage. In 1963, Cale was awarded a Leonard Bernstein scholarship to study modern composition at Tanglewood in Lenox, Massachusetts, but he quickly fell out with composer Aaron Copland, who had helped Cale secure the scholarship. “Copland said I couldn’t play my work at Tanglewood,” he recalled. “It was too destructive, he said. He didn’t want his piano wrecked.” Cale then moved to New York and dove straight into the city’s avant-garde scene, participating in an eighteen-hour performance organized by John Cage soon after arriving. Once settled there, Cale began playing with La Monte Young’s Theatre of Eternal Music ensemble, which also included Factory custodian Billy Name and Tony Conrad (the friend of Jack Smith who compiled the soundtrack for Flaming Creatures).
From Chapter 11 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Critics of mass media have often denounced popular culture for rendering their audiences passive and inert, but it is hard to view these downtowners as anything but active, knowing, and quite subversive. These gay men latched onto actresses whose over-the-top performances unintentionally parodied their femininity, like 1940s film star Maria Montez, “The Queen of Technicolor.” She was worshipped by director John Vaccaro, Harry Koutoukas, Jack Smith, Ronald Tavel, and, of course, Warhol film star Mario Montez. They would often quote from Montez’s 1944 film Cobra Woman, approximating her exotic accent: Geeeev me that Coparah chewel! “I was in two or three of Jack Smith’s films,” Vaccaro recalled. “We were both crazy about Maria Montez. When I was a kid, I liked her. So did Jack. I liked the way she looked and the way she acted and the type of films she did.” Smith was drawn to what he called “musty” or “moldy” entertainment products from the recent past, which had been swept into the culture industry’s dustbin. The outmoded movie stars of the 1930s and 1940s were beneath contempt for many contemporary mainstream critics, so Smith poached these “secret flix” (as he called them) in ways that resisted the logic of capitalist cultural production. Montez’s acting may have been dreadful—especially by the new Method acting standards—but that was part of the attraction. “People laughed at her acting because it was camp,” Agosto Machado said, “but there was a mystique about her. She didn’t pretend to be anything more than a beautiful woman who was put in an exotic setting, and we all recognized her as our own.” It also didn’t hurt that Maria Montez sometimes looked like a woman imitating a drag queen dressed like a glittery starlet.
From Chapter 13 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
John Vaccaro, Diane di Prima, and their friends also helped Jack Smith with his 1963 film Normal Love, which was shot over the course of three days in Connecticut. It was a sharp contrast from the baroque black-and-white imagery of Flaming Creatures, his previous film. “Normal Love, blazing with gorgeous color, left no holds barred,” di Prima recalled. “So many sequins, lizards, rhinestones, pythons, so much stained glass, makeup, art, flesh, costume jewelry, papier-mâché, spray paint, had never before seduced the filmgoer’s eye.” When Vaccaro formed the Play-House of the Ridiculous in 1965, Smith helped design sets and costumes, which made the shows sparkle and glow. “There was no one person who invented glitter,” Agosto Machado said, “but it was Jack Smith who gave a sense of purpose to it. In the early 1960s, Jack was the first one who used it in a way that made it copyable. The Play-House of the Ridiculous loved to use glitter, and Hibiscus and the Cockettes also loved glitter.” Play-House performer Michael Arian concurred. “John always gave a tip of the hat to Jack Smith,” Arian said. “Jack was the original gay glitter freak, and John always acknowledged that he got a lot of his sensibilities from him.”
From Chapter 16 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Jackie Curtis, Candy Darling, and Holly Woodlawn weren’t clinically insane or homicidal, but they still contributed to the Factory’s edgy atmosphere. It was fueled by heavy drug use and hard living, which Warhol mined as grist for his movies Flesh (1968), Trash (1970), and Women in Revolt (1972), which featured this trashy trio. “He took advantage of them, and I didn’t really like that at all,” said Curtis’s friend Melba LaRose. “I always found Andy very cold, and with not much to say. And of course the people around him said all these witty things and then he’d get credit for it. Jackie and Candy were always very witty.” Their exhibitionism, which made for compelling cinema and great PR, stood in contrast to Warhol’s wordless, blank persona. “Jackie, Holly, and Candy had problems with Warhol because he didn’t really pay them,” said another friend, Bruce Eyster. Warhol did give them token money, but they still ended up marching over from Max’s Kansas City to the Factory to scream and beg for more money—something that underscored a genuine divide between Warhol and some of those he mixed with. Even though many vied to be in his social world, Warhol wasn’t revered or respected in the same way as Jack Smith, Harry Koutoukas, and other struggling downtown artists who prioritized art over money. “You wondered if some of the entourage people—Billy Name, Taylor Mead, and so forth—would jump out the window,” Robert Heide added. “They’d go back to their shabby little rooms because there was this double standard going on. I think ultimately that’s one of the reasons I think Andy got shot.”
From Chapter 18 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore