This is a shorter experimental film, so this is going to be a shorter review – at least, it will have less film discussion than usual.
Filmmaker Jack Smith made this experimental work on the slimmest of budgets, using nearly-expired filmstock and filming on the top floor of an abandoned theater and casting other avant-garde artists of the time, such as Piero Heliczer, Mario Montez, Judith Malina and Marian Zazeela. And what Smith asked them to do is…a bit chaotic. The film is a series of disjointed scenes, some of them barely visible thanks to the poor quality of the filmstock or the shakey camera; the only sounds seem to be some soundtrack music – opera, other film scores, and the song “Be-Bop-A-Lula” all make appearances – some occasional sound effects, and in one lengthy sequence, there is what sounds like someone reading a parody of advertising copy for a brand of lipstick. That narration accompanies a lengthy sequence of the entire cast sprawling around and putting on lipstick for a solid two or three minutes, before the shot is finally interrupted with another man’s voice asking: “Is there lipstick that doesn’t come off when you suck cocks?”
For, yes – much of the film’s thrust (so to speak) seems to be creating sexually transgressive images. Much of the cast is in sexually ambiguous garb, or are clearly dressing in drag. And often, there are shots of nudity – closeups of a flaccid penis being fondled by a hand and then waggled at the camera, or closeups of a large breast getting the same treatment. Towards the end there are occasional tableaux of a topless woman lying down like an odalisque, facing the camera, as a man lying nearby presses her nipple with one of his fingertips. They don’t do anything further, they just….do that. There isn’t any actual sex, but sex is certainly suggested and mimed in several scenes.
…So it’s clear that Smith wanted to be sexually transgressive with this film; he wanted to play with gender conventions, especially as they were depicted in mainstream culture, and he wanted to turn them on their heads. But there’s one scene that…well, let’s just say that it landed a bit different for me these days. In an early scene, a woman dressed somewhat akin to a Spanish flamenco dancer is chased by a man dressed as a sheikh; when he catches her, they flirt for a couple seconds, but then he suddenly pushes her to the ground, and three other men crowd around to simulate gang-raping her as she screams and beats at them with a folded fan. It’s not “really” sex; there’s a fake staginess to the whole thing. But it goes on for a long time, and the woman’s screams as one man licks her kicking foot and another yanks a breast out of her dress are the only sounds we hear.
I watched this film two days after the highest court in my nation decided to strip me of some of my rights as an American Citizen. I am both an American and a woman by happenstance of birth; my constitution claims that I am entitled to several rights and freedoms. One such right is the right to bodily autonomy; including the right to consult with my own doctor, in privacy, about any medical procedure I may need. However, this court ruling has decreed that some of those rights can be taken away from me.
I personally will not be at risk through the outcome of this case. I live in one of the states which still protects reproductive rights; and, moreover, I am no longer capable of becoming pregnant anyway. But in the aftermath of the announcement, several politicians and other conservative leaders already started speaking of what they were going to do next; one politician even tweeted that the court should also look at the ruling which found that racially segregated schools were unconstitutional. One of the justices even mentioned, in his commentary supporting the ruling, that perhaps the Supreme Court should also reconsider the historic rulings which confirmed the rights to access to contraception, to consensual sexual activity outside of marriage, and the right to same-sex marriage.
Even more frustrating, though, was the response from many of the more liberal politicians – who started flooding every American with pleas for donations, urging us to give them money so they could beat back against the ruling somehow. The pleas left a sour taste in many mouths; news of this possible ruling was leaked nearly two months ago, and many of the leaders I voted for to preserve my rights largely did nothing. One young woman, when asked for her comments about the Dobbs v. Jackson ruling, was highly critical both of the ruling and of the left-wing response; “my rights are not a fundraising platform for you,” she angrily said.
My rights aren’t either. Nor are they conditional. Nor are they meant to be used to create an “edgy” moment in an experimental film. I know Jack Smith may not have had ill intent, but it will be a long, long time before I see it as anything else.