Flaming Creatures: The Birth of Gay Underground Film

By: Christopher Harrity

Jack Smith’s 1963 ultra-loony odyssey may seem like a chaotic mess at first—and it is— but it was also a launching point for a gay, camp, underground film genre that inspired folks like Andy Warhol and John Waters.

Jonas Mekas, founder of New York’s Anthology Film Archives said:

In Flaming Creatures Smith has graced the anarchic liberation of new American cinema with graphic and rhythmic power worthy of the best of formal cinema. He has attained for the first time in motion pictures a high level of art, which is absolutely lacking in decorum; and a treatment of sex, which makes us aware of the restraint of all previous filmmakers.

A gender-disruptive orgy of drugs and excess, it is a crude and depraved delight. Smith (pictured left) cast East Village drag queens — some would soon be in Warhol films like Mario Montez (below, right) and Francis Francine — and other on-the-edge actors who gave completely unrestrained performances.

Some called it the birth of gender-fuck. Some called it the birth of performance art. But however much the film world intellectuals adored Flaming Creatures, the boys at the Manhattan DA’s office weren’t all too keen on it. The movie was seized and subsequently banned in the state of New York. Thus, a legend was born.

Flaming Creatures was shot on the roof of the now-demolished Windsor Theater in New York on severely outdated film stock, which lent it a skuzzy, hallucinatory effect. The much talked about sex seems innocent to us today, but the depiction of male genitalia on film was almost unheard of (asides from porn) at that time.

Legal problems followed wherever the film was shown, despite such ardent defenders as Susan Sontag. Jonas Mekas was arrested and almost had to serve time in a work farm for showing the film in Manhattan’s Bowery Theater.

And even to this day the rights and ownership of the film is in dispute between Smith’s sister, from whom he was estranged but is his only surviving relative, and the Plastic Foundation, an organization comprised of performance artist Penny Arcade and J. Hoberman.

Watch the film here, and judge it for yourself.


"Inventors of Gay" is our series on important people and cultural influences in LGBT history that helped create the culture we enjoy today.