Up on the Roof

On the making of Jack Smith's Flaming Creatures
by J. Hoberman  posted January 5, 2012
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On January 4, 2012, J. Hoberman was laid off as film critic of The Village Voice, a move that quickly became as notorious as Charles Foster Kane's sacking of Jedediah Leland. A critic at the Voice for more than 30 years, Hoberman has also worn many other hats; he is an accomplished and prolific historian, author, scholar, and curator—in short, a central figure in contemporary film culture, with unparalleled erudition and insight. (His most recent book, Army of Phantoms, was published last year.) He has organized a number of series for Museum of the Moving Image, including a seminal Jack Smith retrospective in 1997. This essay on Smith's incendiary 1963 film Flaming Creatures also appears in his book On Jack Smith's "Flaming Creatures" (and Other Secret-Flix of Cinemaroc). - David Schwartz


Flaming Creatures was initially conceived as a vehicle for Marian Zazeela. However, Zazeela's meeting and subsequent involvement with the composer LaMonte Young precluded her participation: "I had to spend night and day with LaMonte," she later explained.1

Thus, "La gran estrella Maria [sic] Zazeela," as she is known in Smith's journal, was replaced by another Lower East Side ingenue, Sheila Bick, the wife of Zazeela's high school boyfriend. The musician and future filmmaker Tony Conrad, a disciple of Young's who had just graduated from Harvard, was invited to stay at Zazeela's now-vacated East Ninth Street studio. There, in the early summer of 1962, he discovered Smith installed and in the process of assembling The Beautiful Book, a collection of photographs that Conrad deemed "some kind of bizarre, contemptible New York art pornography."2

By his own account, Conrad initially regarded his eccentric roommate with benign contempt:

I found Jack one day working on a gigantic grey painting of a vase of flowers, maybe nine feet square. How marvelous, thought I, ironically, a vase of flowers. "Oh, uh, Jack, what is this?" Jack said, "It's the set for my new movie.3

Although "still at this point quite unimpressed," Conrad, nevertheless, offered to help Smith transport the painting to his movie's location, schlepping it a dozen or more blocks to the leaky, tar-paper roof of the Windsor Theater at 412 Grand Street, where Flaming Creatures was staged and shot over the course of eight or so weekend afternoons throughout the late summer and early fall.

Having established the Charles Theater as an ongoing concern, owner Walter Langsford had acquired the venerable Windsor (said to be the city's oldest movie house) with an eye to expanding his Lower East Side exhibition empire. Photographer-filmmaker Richard Preston, who produced some animated collage trailers for the Charles, took the unfinished loft above the theater as his studio. This space, which overlooked and opened onto the Windsor's roof, served as Flaming Creatures' dressing room and prop department, as well as providing a physical support for the painted backdrop Conrad helped carry to the set.4

On his first visit to the Windsor roof, Conrad discovered that "there were lots of weird substances being consumed and strange people arriving on the scene. And boy, was I surprised when it turned out that people took three hours to put on their makeup; I was very more surprised when people took several more hours to put on their costumes."5 (Conrad's ultimate surprise came when, after assigning him a dress to wear, Smith "ripped it down the back to expose my ass and turned my back to the camera.")

When, in "The Perfect Filmic Appositeness of Maria Montez," Smith wrote that film is "a place where it is possible to clown, to pose, to act out fantasies, to not be seen while one gives (movie sets are sheltered, exclusive places where nobody who doesn't belong can go)," he was, in a sense, describing the making of Flaming Creatures. The two-story Windsor was flanked by higher buildings, which, as old-law tenements, had no side windows. Thus, the lengthy preparations and riotous goings-on involved in the production of the movie would only have been visible from an adjacent roof, several stories up. Preston remembers sporadic complaints, but no actual disturbances.6

Norman Solomon's production photographs reveal Flaming Creatures' sheltered, if not shaded, open-air set to be a secluded and surprisingly small space—marked by a painter's drop cloth estimated by one participant as 10-by-14 feet—not unlike the courtyard used by Ken Jacobs for Star Spangled To Death. A ladder, supported at a slight angle by a seven-foot stepladder and the roof of Preston's loft, provided a hook for the glass lantern and served as a rickety catwalk for overhead shooting. Smith not only directed Flaming Creatures but, using available light (if not a light meter), filmed the action himself. His sole credit is "Photographer" and he can be seen, in one of the photos, holding a 16mm Bolex camera with three lenses.7

Flaming Creatures was shot on a variety of black-and-white reversal film stocks, including such exotic brands as Agfa-Ferrania and Dupont, stolen from the outdated film bin at Camera Barn. (According to Conrad, Smith made particular use of Perutz Tropical film—a specialized German-made film designed for shooting at high temperatures—because, thanks to its counter location, it was the easiest to shoplift.) Preston notes that the late-afternoon lack of direct sunlight contributed to the ethereal, distinctively low-contrast quality of imagery.8

Conrad's recollections suggest that Flaming Creatures' lengthy Mardi Gras sequence was, in fact, the first section of the film to be shot, although, by all accounts, Smith took great care in preparing for each shooting session. Preston, an observing non-participant, was surprised at how "orderly" and "businesslike" the production actually was. Although he could not imagine a finished film emerging from such primitive conditions, he remembers being struck by the actors' "reverence" for Smith.9

Ronald Tavel, who crouched on the catwalk pouring plaster dust down on the actors while Smith filmed the Rape-Earthquake-Orgy, cites the solemnity with which one of the women was filmed partially nude. Other participants remember an altogether more delirious environment. By Joan Adler's account, the Rape-Earthquake-Orgy was shot "in broiling sunlight."

With the set falling all over [the performers] high as kites, Jack pouring ceiling plaster all over them (a large chunk bruised Frankie, who got mad telling about those sufferings too) and careening dangerously above on some swinging, homemade contraption.10

While it would surely be an exaggeration to describe Flaming Creatures as having been created in a state of stoned ecstasy, the participants were scarcely innocent of New York's still-underground drug culture. Marijuana, cocaine, and methamphetamine were at various times used on the set; indeed, Sheila Bick's husband (a chemist) was busted for cocaine manufacture at the time of the filming.11

According to Tavel, Flaming Creatures was originally to be called Pasty Thighs and Moldy Midriffs. (Alternate titles gleaned from Smith's journal include Flaking Moldy Almond Petals, Moldy Rapture, and Horora Femina.) By summer's end, the title was definitely Flaming Creatures. Zazeela, who painted the film's spidery credits, consented to pose for one sequence. In late September, after the Mardi Gras and Rape-Earthquake-Orgy scenes had been filmed, she arrived at the Windsor accompanied by LaMonte Young and Irving Rosenthal.12

The Flaming Creatures shoot extended well into October. Judith Malina, the co-founder of the Living Theater, remembers filming her scene with Sheila Bick on the afternoon of Yom Kippur. Malina, fasting in observance of the Jewish holy day, maintains that Smith positioned the two actresses on "a heap of flower petals and garbage" with "absolutely no preparation." ("Jack shouted ‘Pull out her boobie. Push her tit in!' I pushed in her nipple as if it were a doorbell," is how Malina recalled Smith's direction, although their encounter seems hardly so violent.)13

Smith's letter to his friend David Gurin suggests that, a week or so later, Flaming Creatures was still in production:

Instead of finishing the movie according to the script I shot some pure psychotic footage of Sheila SINGING . . . singing mind you—I was reeling I was so zonked that morning behind that c . . . Now I spend my days wondering where to insert that footage.

Smith further notes that "the movie's expenses are mounting" and there was difficulty getting the footage processed: "We have to send it to Colorado to Stanley Brakhage."14

The fact that only 15 minutes of Flaming Creatures outtakes are known to remain suggests a frugal shooting ratio, all the more impressive in that Smith evidently filmed many crucial scenes without benefit of seeing his earlier rushes. Gregory Markopoulos would write that Smith needed only a week to cut Flaming Creatures. Given the density of the montage (and the other events of the fall, which included Smith's arrest for shoplifting), this seems unlikely. In any case, several months were required for the closely synchronized sound accompaniment that Conrad assembled on ¼" magnetic tape in the winter of 1962-63.15

Smith screened the unfinished Flaming Creatures for friends and associates throughout the winter, with one publicized benefit organized by Piero Heliczer's dead language press at painter Jerry Jofen's cavernous West 20th Street loft, which, among other things, had a reputation as a shooting gallery.16

News of the movie broke into print in mid-April when Jonas Mekas wrote in his Village Voice column that Smith had just completed "a great movie." Flaming Creatures, Mekas maintained,

is so beautiful that I feel ashamed even to sit through the current Hollywood and European movies. I saw it privately and there is little hope that Smith's movie will ever reach the movie theater screens. But I tell you, it is a most luxurious outpouring of imagination, of imagery, of poetry, of movie artistry, comparable only to the work of the greatest, like von Sternberg.17

Not two weeks later and accompanied by a second version of Tony Conrad's taped soundtrack, a further revised Flaming Creatures received its theatrical premiere, midnight, April 29, at the Bleecker Street Cinema on a bill with Blonde Cobra.18

Flaming Creatures' definitive version may be dated to midsummer. In early August, Mekas and Jacobs attended the Flaherty Film Seminar, an international documentary event held in Brattleboro, Vermont, toting prints of Blonde Cobra and Flaming Creatures. It was late before Mekas was able to put the movies on the projector. "Midnight screenings in Vermont!" Mekas exclaimed to his readers. "My God, we felt like underground even at Flaherty's." (This expedition is documented in the last reel of Mekas's epic diary film Lost, Lost, Lost.)19

Flaming Creatures was distributed by the Filmmaker's Cooperative from 1963 through 1968. By the end of 1965, Smith had withdrawn the negatives for both Flaming Creatures and Overstimulated from the Coop's safekeeping. (It is unclear whether Overstimulated was actually in circulation.) At some point in the late 1960s, perhaps anticipating a licensing agreement with Grove Press, he produced a new high-contrast print of Flaming Creatures. The edited camera original was subsequently lost until discovered in 1978 by filmmaker Jerry Tartaglia among a mass of lab-discarded 16mm footage.

1. Marian Zazeela, unpublished interview with Edward Leffingwell (February 1996). Introduced to Smith by writer Irving Rosenthal, in late fall 1961, Zazeela, then a young painter, became the most important female model in the series of photography sessions Smith staged weekends from late 1961 through June 1962 at his Lower East Side apartment—tableaux that featured many subsequent participants in Flaming Creatures including Francis Francine, Mario Montez, Joel Markman, Ronald Tavel, and David Gurin.

2. Tony Conrad in Reisman op.cit. p. 63.

3. Ibid.

4. Preston, unpublished op.cit.

5. Conrad in Reisman op.cit. p. 64. Conrad, unpublished op.cit.

6. Preston op.cit.

7. Conrad unpublished op.cit. Preston op.cit. The two rolls of 35mm film (color and black-and-white) shot by Norman Solomon on the Flaming Creatures set give some indication of the space. To judge from the personnel, Solomon was present on the day of the Smirching Sequence (see below).

8. Conrad unpublished op.cit. Preston op.cit.

9. Preston op.cit. Various participants assumed Smith's direction was improvised and spontaneous. In fact, his journal notes are fairly detailed. Flaming Creatures was intended to open with a "Smirching Sequence: Marion [sic] & Francine applying lipstick." The scenario continues:

Marion and Francine pose about envying each other's lips . . . F.F. grabs at M. The chase Marion strikes with purse. The clinch. F.F. pulls out her tit. (E.Q. [earthquake] builds up) . . . C.U. of F.F. bouncing M's tit. Marion screaming & struggling. Final shot of many people holding M. down as F. bobbles her tit. F's erection under his dress.

With the exception of the final fillip and the substitution of Sheila Bick for Marian Zazeela, the final film plays much as written. The screams are written into the script as are the tolling bells that accompany "Marion's recovery." There is, however, an unfilmed twist: "Mary [the part taken by Judith Malina in the movie] puts Marion on a camel and they ride off across the desert—Mary's burnoose flowing (chorus of religious music swells)."

10. Ronald Tavel, unpublished interview with J.H. and Callie Angell (August 24, 1994). "On Location" in Dwoskin, Stephen, Film Is: The International Free Cinema (Woodstock, NY: The Overlook Press, 1975) p. 12. No participant in Flaming Creatures to whom I spoke supports Adler's suggestion that Jerry Jofen shot portions of the film. For all its visual tumult, the orgy sequence may have involved as few as five or six performers.

The source of this falling plaster may be deduced from an anecdote related by Walter Langsford during the course of a memorial held for Smith at P.S.122 on October 16, 1989. Langsford recalled that Flaming Creatures was in production while he and a crew were renovating the Windsor below:

Smith went up on the roof with what equipment he had and what friends he had. And we went on about our business. Half an hour or so later we heard this tremendous crashing noise from the roof, and I ran up and Jack had a sledgehammer, and he was banging away at one of the main support beams.

(Transcript courtesy Edward Leffingwell.)

In a journal entry dated August 11, Smith refers to "the incident on the Windsor Roof" and expresses an unfounded concern that Langsford may prevent subsequent filming. In September, Langsford and Stein announced plans to reopen Windsor as a sister theater to the Charles; both movie houses went dark by the end of the year.

11. Conrad unpublished op.cit. Marian Zazeela and LaMonte Young, unpublished interview with J.H., July 1996.

12. Tavel op.cit. Zazeela unpublished op.cit. Smith's correspondence suggests some mild tension on the roof that afternoon:

Irving became overstimulated Sunday and said certain semi-tactless cracks in an attempt at ironic levity but they went over like lead balloons and caused Joel to walk off the set of Flaming Creatures and later when they were taking off their gowns there was an exchange of homo-waspishness between them.

13. Judith Malina, unpublished interview with J.H. (May 10, 1996).

14. The first portion of Smith's letter—written over two days but dated "who knows"—is published in Wait for Me at the Bottom of the Pool op.cit. p. 164.

Brakhage, who was experienced in processing problematic footage, had a close working relationship with Western Cine-Lab in Denver. In a letter dated Halloween 1962, Smith wrote Gurin that, although Flaming Creatures was completely shot, "I've been waiting 3 weeks now for it to be sent to Colorado to be developed. Due to Dick Preston's farting around."

Flaming Creatures' total budget, Jonas Mekas would later report in The Village Voice (March 13, 1963), was $300. While this unverifiable figure was likely devoted to film processing, some was devoted to props. Smith's October 6 letter to Gurin complains of being "doublecrossed by the funeral home turds" who charged him a "$10 rental for Joel's coffin."

15. Conrad unpublished op.cit.

16. A sometime visitor chez Jofen, P. Adams Sitney provided a vivid memoir in the May-June 1997 issue of the Anthology Film Archives calendar:

A cluttered, wildly messy series of large rooms one flight up from the street . . . It delivered the shock of another world. The railroad corridor led to an immense studio, heaped with monumental canvases, thick with overpainting and collage. . . . [The sleeping quarters were] always filled with people, more women than men. Most of them seemed dangerous or desperate in my nineteen-year-old eyes. I came to imagine it alternately as a harem or shooting gallery . . . (n.p.)

Joan Adler describes the scene in similar terms, "On Location" op.cit. p. 16.

17. Mekas, Jonas, Movie Journal: The Rise of a New American Cinema (New York: Collier Books, 1972) p. 83.

18. Conrad unpublished op.cit.

19. Mekas op.cit. p. 95. 


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J. Hoberman is a renowned film critic whose latest book, Film After Film: What Became of 21st Century Cinema, was published by Verso. He was the senior film critic at the Village Voice, and he now writes for numerous publications including Artinfo.net and The Tablet. His writing is aggregated at his website, j-hoberman.com.

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