“The primitive allure of movies is a thing of light and shadows. A bad film is one which doesn’t flicker and shift and move through lights and shadows, contrasts, textures by way of light. If I have these I don’t mind phoniness (or the sincerity of clever actors), simple minded plots (or novelistic “good” plots), nonsense or seriousness (I don’t feel nonsense in movies is a threat to my mind since I don’t got to movies for ideas that arise from sensibleness of ideas. Images evoke feelings and ideas that are suggested by feeling.”
When approaching Flaming Creatures as an apparatus of sexual redefinition, on must also take into account Jack Smith’s aesthetic approaches to the content that works as transgressive symbols of sexual identity. These symbols help to craft a myth regarding sexual discourse, gender, and the act itself. As Susan Sontag describes it, the film is an aesthetic vision of the world which settles itself in a special gap between the normal and the bizarre, which is not where American critics would usually place art; the space of moral ideas. Instead, it is an aesthetic space, “the space of pleasure”, through which it moves and finds its being.
The visuals function not as symbols of sexuality but as representative of sexual myths that are so fantastical in nature that they have to create their own sense of symbolism. They belong to a larger definition of sexual sensibility than just that of the “gay” film, but of a film of perversion, each myth being represented by different means. Sitney explains that Smith’s particular relationship to his actors and his representation of their sexuality borrows from Josef von Sternberg’s relationship to Marlene Dietrich in his work almost three decades earlier. It is a relationship of Subject (Von Sternberg)/Object (Dietrich) in that the subject manifests his own fantasies and myths with the costuming, mannerisms, and actions of the object. Von Sternberg built this character of Marlene Dietrich as an exotic temptress who possesses a heightened sense of sexual awareness and sexual power, and who is universally appealing from the other characters of his films to the voyeur. Mario Montez functions under the same principles in Flaming Creatures, as Smith creates a super-human mythological creature that is both male and female, gay and straight, to be used as means of power. He thus becomes the physical representation of sexual principles that guide us through the context of the film into realms of mythological reenactments of sexual sensibilities.
In Flaming Creatures, Mario Montez becomes a catalyst of sexual mythology. He is the objectification of gender ambiguity as well as the homosexual principle of camp. Camp being the means through which homosexuals redefined masculine principles for the purpose of building a sexual identity that was inherently theirs. As Newton further defines camp, it is means by which gender roles are redefined for homosexual sex practices.
“Masculinity also depends crucially on differentiation from, and the dominance over women. The problem is not, strictly speaking, just that homosexuals reject woman as sexual objects. The moral transgression is in the choice of another man as a sexual (and/or romantic) object. Since male-female sexual relations are the only “natural” model of sexuality, at least one of the men of a homosexual pair must, then, be “acting the woman: passive, powerless, and unmanly…all a woman has to do is “open her legs” (a passive act), but a man has to “get it up” (That’s “action”).”
He is at once symbolic of homosexuality as well as heterosexuality, through the filter of female impersonation. Flaming Creatures identifies him as both the active male and the passive female. He is shown in his female incarnation, smelling a flower, wondering about in a very feminine manner and playing with the camera gaze as if flirting with his audience. And though always dressed in drag, he does maintain a masculine incarnation as a participant of the rape, and later shows the viewer his genitalia. Thus, the myth of gender is being addressed as means to eradicate the space of sexual identity. This is an example of myth overpowering sexual context, which further challenges the label of “pornography” to Flaming Creatures. J. Hoberman cites that as a homosexual film, the content of Flaming is articulated through various images of genitals and the means in which the characters of the film use them. Even the rape scene is subject to interpretation as a sexual symbol that includes fondling and masturbation of both male and female organs. This setting, which can be identified as pornographic and categorically “gay”, can also be interpreted as means of presenting the end of homosexual mythology and the birth of a subjective artistic sensibility of sexual principles. It is not the homosexual sensibility that makes Flaming Creatures “deviant”, but Smith’s ideas of perverting universal sexual ideology that redefines these labels. In Flaming Creatures exists a separate world where acts of rape, perversion, and infantile sexuality function as the status quo. The rape is not even a rape in the strictest definition of the term. There is no forcible penetration, and the assault seems to mirror a child’s fascination with sexual organs, rather than the mature means of utilization of the organs for sexual pleasure.
Jack Smith places sexual acts among an atmosphere of fantasized scenarios that marry in a mythological context. Though the act is identifiable to the viewer as rape, just as the organs of the various characters are identified as male or female, the presence of eccentricities like drag queens, vampires, sexual fetishes like Eastern and Arabic presences to formulate new means of interpreting their actions and identities. Everything seems to be an exaggeration of sexual principles. The mythology of Flaming Creatures creates a separation between its context and the label of “pornography” as it means of redefining two opposing sides of the sexual spectrum; the eroticism of fetish and the degradation of the perverse. The mythology of sexuality is manifest through the coupling of these two extremes to where the voyeur is at once sexually excited and sexually disgusted.
It is also important to remember that the construction of mythology is one of Flaming Creatures’ main principles. It is the transporting of the viewer to new and different visual worlds that can be fraught with any principles the director deems necessary in order to better articulate his sexual, political, social, and filmic ideologies. The usual means of this process is the narrative that is able to transport the voyeur to exotic places, the minds of desirable characters, and fantastical atmospheres where the practicalities of the voyeur’s actuality do not apply. Smith instead focused on minimalizing Flaming Creatures by incorporating all of these elements into the mise-en-scène of the frame. Everything fantastical, erotic, transgressive, and perverse in this study of sexuality is condensed into one super-film of mythological symbols regarding not only the homosexual sensibility but of the voyeuristic principles of film watching. Smith explains just how his films function. They are interpretations of accepted means of artistic expression and representation through means of visual assault so that the viewer is instigated, but is hyper-aware at the same time. Smith is provoking his audience so that though they experience disgust and detriment, they are first paying full attention. Smith explains his methodology citing his fascination with Josef Von Sternberg’s filmic principles and how he interprets them and subsequently appropriates them for his unique filmic sensibilities.
“People never know why they do what they do. But they have to have explanations for themselves and others. So Von Sternberg’s movies had to have plots even tho they already had them inherent in the image. What he did was make movies naturally – he lived in a visual world. The explanations plots he made up out of some logic having nothing to do with the visuals of the film.”
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