“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.
From Chapter 10 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore