There’s an image that leaps to mind when I think of a frolicsome pan-sexual high-camp underground bohemian. Jack Smith doesn’t fit the image, though he was a pivotal creator of just about all those things. Tall and ruggedly forlorn, with a prominent sloped nose, he was a refugee of the WASP heartland, and looked like the statue of an ancient warrior come to life. Yet when he put on glitter and an Egyptian headdress, rambling on in his slightly nutty head-cold voice, imagining himself to be the radiantly amateurish B-movie actress Maria Montez — his private goddess — he turned from statue to pure spirit.
The intoxicating documentary Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis, directed by Mary Jordan, is a love poem to the New York City of the ’50s and ’60s, when Smith, the visionary of camp (Andy Warhol stole from him), more or less invented performance art. He also made Flaming Creatures, the influential 1963 merry-pranksters-of-drag underground film that became a lightning rod for obscenity law. Smith hated the film’s success. He was the ultimate penniless purist, a scavenger who found material in trash bins and didn’t even believe in finishing works. (After Flaming Creatures, he’d edit his prints in the projection booth during screenings, as if not to do so would be to kowtow to the establishment.) The beauty of Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis is that it takes Smith’s fragmentary works — his largely unseen photographs, bits of the midnight shows he improvised in his Lower East Side loft, film clips — and gathers them into a single, sustained projection of his interior landscape. It may be a fuller, more ravishing Jack Smith work of art than Smith himself ever created.
The movie is also an elegy — for a lost New York, but also for the vanished dream of an American counterculture. One of the ironies of Smith’s life is that he raged against capitalism, yet in his playful dress-up transgressions he helped to pioneer the outré fashion world that commodified bohemia. His art crusade was that of a holy, starving martyr: When he was dying of AIDS, he thought the hospital meals were the best food he’d ever eaten. Smith created a utopia, a thrift-shop Atlantis of the spirit, only to destroy it in order to save it. That was its tragic beauty.