On Flaming Creatures (excerpt from “Infantile Aggression, Queer Performance and Ambivalent Love”)

Flaming Creatures‘ queer “placeless and timeless” aesthetic was to such an extent that Jonas Mekas reported hearing it erroneously described as a “’remarkable first public screening of a film made fifty years ago.’”

Flaming Creatures continues in its ambiguities, “casually blurred genders and abstract body tangles…There’s a serious lack of gravity, an absence of perspective…[for such graphic sexuality] Flaming Creatures is notable for its absence of tumescence.”  Naturally, considering the prominence given to a scene of cunnilingual rape and, later, a drag queen Marilyn Monroe vampire, feeding on and resurrecting the titular creatures, we once again encounter instances of oral and genital love/sadism confusion. This time encountering an actual vampire, rather than simply passing reference to the vampire’s devotee as in Blonde Cobra , we come face-to-face with an icon of queer time: animated non-linearity, disrupted futurity and alternative (to) reproduction. However, the key to grasping the full potential of Flaming Creatures as opposition to the normal society that might be ensured through the psychoanalysis of children lies not just with queer sadomasochism and supernatural creatures but within the film’s aesthetic, both at its most avant-garde and also, perhaps surprisingly, at its most conventionally cinephilic.

To summarise briefly Jean- Louis Baudry’s “Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematographic Apparatus, ” cinematic specificity is defined by mechanical processes which act to mystify the transformation of an “objective reality” into individual photographic images with Renaissance perspective, and then into a fluid, singular stream of coherent vision and narrative. Accordingly, the cinematic-spectatorial process is founded upon multiple psychological fictions, only one of which has anything to do with the story itself. Thus, although it may be argued by Klein and others that a fundamental aspect of development out of infanthood is the discarding of phantasy for reality, there remains a dominant culture of fantasy, functioning wholly on the obfuscation of the divide between reality and fiction.

In Flaming Creatures, Smith employs multiple techniques which could paradoxically be classified either as narratologically-justified formalism or as veritable verfremdungseffekt – as P. Adams Sitney describes:

In the first scene, as figures pass back and forth in front of a poster on which the credits of the film have been ornately written, the grey, washed-out picture quality gives the impression that he was filming in a cloud. The narrowing of the tonal range obscures the sense of depth, which Smith capitalizes on by cluttering the panning frame with actors and with details of limbs, breasts, a penis, and puckered lips so that not only depth disappears but the vertical and horizontal coordinates as well.

Indeed, through processes of visual abstraction, non-professional acting, obviously painted sets and the extreme disturbance of the rape scene itself, with the victim’s screams battling and besting the score’s control of the aural space, Flaming Creatures proves a challenging spectatorial experience, whose effects of interpellation and alienation oscillate wildly throughout its 43 minutes. Simultaneously affective, however, is Flaming Creatures’ overt reference to recognisable Hollywood tropes, in their most concentrated forms. Sitney again:

Flaming Creatures deliberately manifests what [Smith] finds implicated in Maria Montez’s and von Sternberg’s films, and without the interference of a plot. When he brings to the fore what has been latent in those films— visual texture, androgynous sexual presence, exotic locations (the Araby of Montez’s fi ms or the Spain, China, and Morocco of von Sternberg’s)— and at the same time completely dis cards what held these films together (elaborate narratives), he utterly transforms his sources and uncovers a mythic centre from which they had been closed off.

Indeed, by making such references to the camp potential of Montez and Sternberg, whilst eschewing the “serious” elements of the plot, Smith’s cinema does not just showcase the drag performances of its cross-dressing and/or otherwise openly mannered actors, but it in fact may be understood to characterise the Hollywood aesthetic with just the same mindful, parodic drag performance as defined by Bornstein. The mindfulness of this performance, as well as its disregard for the carefully constructed stories of its source material goes some way to address and challenge the interpellative nature of these hegemonically-sanctioned fantasies, whilst giving space to the riotously confused, queer and violent phantasies of neurotic children with homosexual tendencies who would be “cured” by psychoanalysis. The American underground’s camp, queer position in relation to Hollywood (not just limited to Smith and Jacobs but also George Kuchar and Kenneth Anger to name but two others) is defined by Hoberman as an “obsessive ambivalence,” a term which, aptly enough, is nothing more than a succinct condensation Klein’s description of Erna’s relationship to her own parents. Perhaps this truly reflects the position of the American underground drag cinema in contrast to its Hollywood parent figure: challenging the transcendent ego of interpellative conventional narrative and form, parodying the super-ego of heteronormative hegemony and linear time, and revelling in the unbridled phantasy of a destructive id.


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