There are many contenders for the crown of king of camp, but infamous 1960s New York underground filmmaker Jack Smith (1932-1989) surely deserves top consideration. Admittedly, there were many competitors among Smith's own crowd; who can forget rival Warhol "shooting" a scene with an empty camera, or neighbor Dov Lederberg projecting his 8mm films after baking them in an oven? But Smith, who coined the term "superstar," had neither the chilly randomness of Warhol nor the dead-end whimsy of Lederberg. Instead, he mined a glittering half-world of mythopoeia, drawing on a complex personal mythology populated by turbaned transvestites, sirens, mermaids, and monsters from 1940s B-movies, and naked, polymorphous, drug-swilling artists and hippies. Smith, by all accounts a difficult but charismatic personality, did pioneering work in several fields -- performance art, photography, and film -- but his legend (largely self-created) often overshadowed his art. The Yerba Buena Center's four-part miniretrospective, hosted and annotated live by film critic J. Hoberman, addresses this.
Smith's early masterpiece, Flaming Creatures (1963), was too outré to find many venues outside New York's underground, but enough eyes saw it that it got banned all over the place. This 45-minute stroll through America's unconscious via a series of tableaux vivants starring drag queen Francis Francine and a transvestite vampire also had the temerity to wag a few tits and penises in the viewer's face. Far from being pornographic, the effect is witty, ecstatic, and even affectionate, as Smith parades his "creatures" across a mock-Arabian Nights landscape of comic orgies and "Oriental" music. In retrospect, Smith virtually predicted postmodernism, as the narrative constantly disintegrates, characters violate the frame, and structure is joyously skewed through repetitions of the same shot (the credits appear three times). Even the film stock is artfully compromised -- Smith "appropriated" low-grade color reversal stock for his films, adding a dreamy effect that makes the vision all the more powerful. Flaming Creaturesscreens Saturday, May 13, at 8 p.m.
Also included in the festival are his 105-minute epic Normal Love (1963-64) -- featuring Mario Montez prancing and posing through a camp Eden complete with snake and devilish "gilded hag" Tiny Tim (screening Tuesday, May 16, at 8 p.m.) -- along with two rare filmed performance pieces (Thursday, May 18, 8 p.m.) and a pair of Smith's favorite Hollywood films, Maria Montez's Arabian Nightsand Sternberg's glorious The Devil Is a Woman (showing together Sunday, May 14, at 1 p.m.). All screenings are at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission (at Third Street), S.F. Admission is $3-6; call 978-ARTS.