Friday, June 27, 2014

The Best Films I Have Never Seen Before: Flaming Creatures (1963)

Flaming Creatures (1963)
Directed by: Jack Smith.
Written by: Jack Smith.
Starring: Francis Francine (Himself), Sheila Bick (Delicious Dolores), Joel Markman (Our Lady of the Docks), Mario Montez (The Spanish Girl), Arnold Rockwood (Arnold), Judith Malina (The Fascinating Woman), Marian Zazeela (Maria Zazeela).

Never doubt that banning a movie will make sure that far more people see it than if you just left it alone. As an example, take Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures from 1963. The film was confiscated and deemed obscene upon its premiere in New York, and was for all intents and purposes banned. To this day, it is still technically banned, although no one really enforces it anymore. The film was even shown in the U.S. Senate in 1968 as an attack on nominee for Chief Justice, Abe Fortas, as an example of what he didn’t think was obscene. Fortas was not confirmed. Now, 50 years after it was made, Flaming Creatures still shows up on many Must see lists. It has been included in the 1,001 Movies to See Before You Die Series, and ranks on They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They? Top 1,000 list. To me, Flaming Creatures isn’t that good – it is the type of campy movie that I just never really respond to. The film certainly has its defenders – chief among them J. Hoberman – but I have a feeling the reason it still shows up on all these “must see” lists has at least as much to do with the fact that it was banned than anything else.

The film is high camp – it plays like something Josef von Sternberg would have made with Marlene Dietrich if they had absolutely no restrictions on them. The elaborate, over the top costumes and production design certainly bring to mind Sternberg, as well as cheap, exotic B-movies of the previous decades. The film has no real story, and no dialogue – we hear scratchy records playing in the background – and is really just a series of erotic set pieces. Shot very cheaply (apparently $300), using old film stock, the film does everything on the cheap – especially it’s earthquake finale, whose effect was created by literally shaking the camera.

The film was banned because it was apparently obscene. This is because for the most part, all the roles in the film are played by men. The characters are men, women and transvestites. The film shows nudity of all kinds, and certainly doesn’t shy away from the fact that many of the men in the movie are gay – shots of female breasts are often intercut with the men’s flaccid penises – and the film’s infamous “rape” sequence doesn’t involve any actual penetration.

Viewed 50 years after it was made, Flaming Creatures isn’t all that shocking anymore – we’ve all seen much, much more than what is shown in Smith’s movie. But it was revolutionary at the time. When the film was banned, it got some champions like Susan Sontag, who argued that the film was high art, and not pornography, and was really a serious film. Smith apparently didn’t like that view very much – the original audiences who he showed the film to privately got that Smith was going, at least in part, for camp value, and found the film hilarious. Once it was “high art”, people stopped laughing.

Flaming Creatures is an important film because it was groundbreaking at the time, and inspired many other filmmakers along the way – it’s impossible to watch the film and not think of someone like John Waters. Like Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising, released the following year, Flaming Creatures is a film that is more important for what it inspired than what it actually is. Personally, although the film is only 43 minutes long, I was rather bored by Flaming Creatures. It didn’t hold the same curiosity value to me that Scorpio Rising did – which is a more polished film than this one. Flaming Creatures will forever be an “important” film. But for me, that doesn’t mean it’s necessary a very good one.

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