Flaming Creatures (1963) Or Infantile Art-House Orgy

 

Yep, that about sums it up...
Yep, that about sums it up...

Genre: Avant-Garde Comedy Drama

Starring: Francis Francine (Chumlum), Sheila Bick

Directed By: Jack Smith (No PresidentNormal Love)

Overview: With comedic themes of frivolity and transexuality, Jack Smith’s erotic Avant-Garde film is most famous for its obscenity law controversy.

As it is with Modern/Avant-Garde/Performance art film, I squint a little, trying to see it through the more pragmatic lens of “in what way does this work?” It ceases to be about entertainment for the masses and becomes more about Capital ‘A’ Art. Usually this means having to ignore how boring a film is, and, sadly, Flaming Creatures is no exception. I went into Flaming Creatures with the knowledge that it was not mainstream cinema. The expectation was also set that I would suffer. I can safely say that I’ve lived through worse, but I can easily add that in 2013, Jack Smith’s daring and controversial film from 1963 is not impressive. Influential as it may have been to names like Andy Warhol and John Waters, today it falls as flat as the transvestite bosoms they feature. Let me walk you through my experience.

Knowing that Flaming Creatures couldn’t possibly be worse than Wavelength, I still I bolstered myself with a dram of Aquavit. Flaming Creatures is intentionally shot on old film stock; the images are underexposed, cloudy, muddy, even giving a dreamy quality to the ‘story’. Five minutes in, the frivolity ramped up. All kinds of men and women began applying lipstick. In the background we heard narration and kissing noises - an advertisement about a new kind of lipstick that won't smudge or feather lip edges. I make the connection between the line-defining lipstick and the sexually-ambiguous-edged transvestites wearing it. Then, before the first ten minutes, came the reason this art-on-film became important – the controversy, the obscenity, the police seizures from the theaters it played in – the dick and balls. Moments later, that wang's being waggled by someone else. I still had yet to learn what this movie was about or what it offered me besides close-ups of cocks, but there it was, hanging loose, winking its eye while sitting nonchalantly on a shoulder. It became quickly apparent how obviously the title was a reference to the flamboyant trannies on the screen.

Ah, at least some of the trannies were kinda hot.
Ah, at least some of the trannies were kinda hot.

Flaming Creatures feels like a story told as an Indian or Middle Eastern play. I’m also reminded of an orgy and performance art full of nudity - mostly because there’s an ORGY and performance art full of nudity... at least instead of all the penises they moved on to breasts with waggling areola filling the screen in extreme close-up. Sadly I couldn’t fully enjoy it because when the woman's skirt is pulled up past her bush it sort of turns into a gang-rape… then it gets weird. Personally, I can take a lot when it comes to performance art, but when it starts getting into the grossly sexual, I start wondering what I’m doing here - and believe me I am no prude, seriously, you’ll just have to take my word for it - but this display wasn’t telling me anything, it’s wasn’t making me think anything. The nude porking had been going on for, what? EIGHT minutes? And the whole time I was just sitting there waiting for the message while the low-budget, choppy, slow cinematography sat in my retinas. Luckily, somehow, I found the visuals forgivable. They didn’t quite piss me off.

But let me get back to the ‘art’, the themes, the dare I say ‘message’: images of violence, of sex, of vanity through lipstick application, of muddied sexuality and gender, of decadence and dance and disaster and death. Flaming Creatures isn’t cohesive, it’s a far more organic and ethereal experience. But what saddened me most was what I said at the beginning: for all those emotions that I've outlined, Flaming Creatures is also superficial. I tried to get into it, but it had no focus. It didn’t reach me. The camera jumped away from the action, focused on something else. The only thing I could really enjoy consistently was the music. Whether a haunting, screechy violin or a sudden fanfare of 40s Rockabilly or Cuban bolero music, that set list is nice to hear. So here’s my gift to you: rather than forcing you to sit through the somewhat boring Flaming Creatures, I’ll just tell you what songs Jack chose, and you can just listen to them.

Jack Smith: Anton Levey-looking perverted filmmaker
Jack Smith: Anton Levey-looking perverted filmmaker

It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels
by Kitty Wells

China Nights
Performed by Yashiko Yamiguchi

Concerto for Solo Violin
Written by Béla Bartók

Be-Bop-A-Lula
Performed by The Everly Brothers

Siboney
1930s Cuban bolero

Flaming Creatures is a film that I know begins and ends as Art, and I like modern art. I like movies that make no sense. David Lynch is my hero. Institute Benjamenta is confusing and beautiful. I understand that underground artists can’t afford it, but I just prefer craft and artistry, and that usually means money. That being said, I believe it is far more necessary to watch Jodorowski’s The Holy Mountain - a film that is unfortunately not on the list - than it would be to watch Flaming Creatures, which did nothing to support itself as having such value that would make it deserving of belonging on a definitive list of our history of cinema. There’s so little that’s memorable or entertaining in this childish display that I would never dare recommended it, or even mention it, to friends and moviegoers.

Still, all is not quite lost, because really, how bad can a film be if it ends with a jiggling tit?

Yes that cock is SITTING on the transvestite's SHOULDER... and winking...
Yes that cock is SITTING on the transvestite's SHOULDER... and winking... Doubt me? Click the image!

Performance: 5 Cinematography: 6 Script: 6 Plot: 4 Mood: 5

Overall Rating: 52% (Lukewarm, Actually)
Aftertaste:

One thing that Flaming Creatures did do for me was to provide an instant education - ultimately the reason for going through these films in the list. Films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Reservoir Dogs, The General, these are the movies that we all know belong on the list. With those, we bloggers who make up the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die Club most likely simply watch, think, write. It’s films like Flaming Creatures that make us ask “why?”. In my case that meant doing some research and learning more about Jack Smith, his influences and influencees. If nothing else, Flaming Creatures invited me to learn more.

And, as expected, it wasn’t half as boring as Wavelength

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