Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures

Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures

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.

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


Jack Smith's loft
Canal St & Greene St, New York, NY 10013