Flaming Creatures

Film Review by Dean Duncan Oct 3, 2014

You’ve heard of this infamous film’s infamous history, maybe. Prosecuted and banned. Pornographic, deviant. That’s not the only take, of course. From the first there was also advocacy, and Flaming Creatures always had its champions. This is Camp, they said, or Alienation Effect, or sophistication. More than that, this is a courageous defense of difference. Susan Sontag, J. Hoberman. Either way, and in any case, Flaming Creatures is interesting, emblematic, important. The US 1st amendment and all.

Also. Flaming Creatures is obscene, I think. Not in a vacuum, perhaps. Nothing operates that way. Unseemly communications have their roots and reasons, and those roots and reasons are worth considering. You can imagine for instance Jack Smith’s childhood and youth, doubtless surrounded by incomprehension, unkindness, hyperbolic masculinity. You can see why he and his might be drawn to this sort of antic masquerade. Around the margins of the frame and of the erstwhile story you have lots of lipstick and cross-dressing and flaccidity. Just the thing to upset the oppressor, and to counter a very particular kind of oppression. It’s all quite valid. “Wild camp and subtle polemic,” Gary Morris called it. (See the laudatory summary here: http://bit.ly/17CDWmO.) But a condemnation of hyperbolic masculinity in the form of an agonizingly long, allegedly comical rape sequence? Groundbreaking, I guess, but it is possible to ask whether this ground needs to be broken?

Of course, Jack Smith wouldn’t expect me to approve of this film. Might not even have wanted me to. I’m not a constituent, though I might inadvertently do those constituents a favour. There’s a crafty little snare that gets sprung in situations like this. It’s not always premeditated or calculated. It’s very effective, and it has its uses. Here’s how it works, I think. The squares catch wind of what sound like unseemly goings on. They get up in arms. They protest, even prosecute. They probably don’t do any of those things very elegantly, or artfully. They often haven’t even read or seen the thing that they’re upset about. There goes their court case, of course. Squares have their rights and their reasons, but their fears and deep convictions push them into error. Sometimes they even put on the jackboots.

What to do? Pretty simple. Bring up Thoreau and Twain, James Joyce and DH Lawrence. Bring up JK Rowling and Philip Pullman. Maurice Sendak, even. See? Only fascists, or ignoramuses, or ignoramus fascists burn books. Type in “banned books,” and notice how uniformly, how universally the sites that come up celebrate the brave written word, and abominate the censors.

Well that’s all good, at least in part. But it’s also incomplete, and maybe unfair, in a number of important ways. Notice the smug, self-satisfied attitudes on those websites. They not only abominate the censor, they also, at least implicitly, deride the censorious, which includes, sometimes, plain befuddled and frightened folks. You don’t hear much about the possibility that there might be another side to this coin.

I think there is. Being offended, or offendable, isn’t always a sign of intolerant stupidity. It can also mean that there are things that you hold sacred. In a collective sense, it means that there are community standards that have sense and substance, that need defending, or protecting. Here’s The Oxford English Dictionary, defining obscenity: “Offensively or grossly indecent, lewd; (Law) (of a publication) tending to deprave and corrupt those who are likely to read, see, or hear the contents.” It’s not just what is said, but the effect that saying is likely to have. (Cf. the complicated relationship between free speech and hate speech…)

As far as banned books go, Flaming Creatures isn’t at all like Thoreau or Twain. Should I anticipate an impending, quite valid objection? It’s not like Whitman either, or Forster. In a free society (John Locke, Thomas Paine, etc.) the speaker does indeed deserve consideration. In a safe society (Thomas Hobbes, etc.) the vulnerable over/hearer deserves the same consideration.

The movie, as a movie? If we are to criticize, let alone condemn, we had better be informed. Well, it’s interesting. There is a great deal of remarkably bad framing. There’s some interesting sound collage. There’s a long, Boschian series of overhead shots—composed strikingly—of what appears to be a play orgy. The straights may well be cruel, and disrespectful of legitimate difference. But this is worse than an orgy, or a picture of pitiable degradation—it’s a play orgy, which turns out to be a cynical and ugly thing indeed. A third section carries us toward the film’s conclusion. It features those two men again, in a number of unseemly situations. Shots appear to be partly designed so that we look down their fronts. We conclude with a series of tableaux in which the players lounge languidly. It’s a bit painterly, for a minute.  Then, more slop.

Flaming Creatures ends by playing Be Bop a Lula on the soundtrack, which kind of puts everything into perspective. After all, you have to grant that this offensive mess of a thing does invite a reassessment, and a set of redefinitions. What does “she” mean, or “baby,” or even “my”? Let alone “be” and “bop” and “lula.” In ways it intends, and in way it doesn’t, here’s a study of what extreme bohemianism means, leads to, is. Not a pretty picture, I’d say. There for you to see, if you want.