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The Lens: Outside, looking in

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: September 15, 2008 - There are artists whose works are hung in galleries or shown on screens or preserved in books, and there are artists who ignore the rules and find material in everything from the interior decoration of their apartments to the organization of trash piled on the street. There are "outsider" artists, and there are artists so esoteric that they never even make it outdoors. Three recent DVD releases show four major artists working underground, out of bounds or within worlds solely of their own making.

Jack Smith's 1962 film "Flaming Creatures" was one of the first major films of the late 50s-early 60s underground cinema, and possibly the most notorious, busted for obscenity and banned in several cities. Smith was a young Midwesterner who came to New York in 1950, worked in photography and theatre and soon began creating work of his own - not just films, but staged "happenings", sculpture, even his own flamboyantly over-decorated apartment - all steeped in a personal mythology that reflected his own conflicted homosexuality as well as his obsession with 40s kitsch-starlet Maria Montez. (When Susan Sontag wrote her famous "Notes on 'Camp'" in 1964, she probably had Smith in mind). The orgiastic atmosphere of "Flaming Creatures", with its drag queens, and makeshift historical sets, made Smith a leading figure of the underground, but to its creator it also became a burden. To his frustration, its controversy overshadowed all of his later work.

Mary Jordan's documentary "Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis" is about as good an introduction to the filmmaker's work as you'll find, with generous excerpts from his work, taped interviews and private footage revealing his life, and a genuine respect for his creative talents. Smith, who died in 1989, was a complicated and troubled man, living in near poverty for most of his life, nursing grudges against a variety of real and imaginary enemies from underground impresario Jonas Mekas to the threat of "landlordism".

One of the most interesting aspects of Jordan's film is its exposure of an artistic New York subculture that existed outside of the bohemian and beat circles of the 50s as well as the pop-oriented underground of the 60s. On screen and off, Smith lived in a playfully baroque world of glitter and trash, aestheticism and movie fandom. Though he lamented the slighting (real and imagined) he received from the art establishment, he didn't court fame or sponsorship or even critical acceptance (unlike, for example, Warhol, whose own films were inspired by Smith's and who collaborated with him on an unfinished project). He continued to pursue his own vision on film, in the streets or even in midnight performances in his apartment - whether he drew a crowd or played to an empty room.

Though their worlds and work couldn't be further apart, you can see some of the same intensity that drove Smith in the Seattle-based animator Bruce Bickford, subject of Brett Ingram's "Monster Road". Like Smith, Bickford hints at an unhappy childhood and works obsessively in pursuit of a highly personal and eccentrically non-commercial vision. Bickford works in clay animation, creating miniscule figures who go through elaborate scenes of torture and warfare. When he discusses his work, you sense that he identifies closely with each of the thousands of tiny clay creatures carefully inventoried in his house, and when he seems shocked at the idea that anyone would ever choose to do anything other than make animated films, there's no doubting his sincerity. Ingram's film is lest a biographical account (For most of the 1970s, Bickford worked for Frank Zappa - his animation can be seen in "Baby Snakes" - but the film never mentions it) than a portrait of Bickford's current affairs, divided between his work and caring for his Alzheimer-afflicted father. The relationship between father and son is loving yet guarded, the former coming off as a somewhat eccentric character who is both confused by and indifferent to the realities of fatherhood.

Surprisingly, "Monster Road" neither exploits nor sentimentalizes Bickford's position as a somewhat eccentric practitioner of "outsider art". The film enjoys the quirks of Bickford's character but is even more impressed by the passion and commitment to his time-consuming art. And to his credit, Ingram has also filmed a sequel and helped provide post-production and distribution to Bickford's work. "Monster Road" recognizes his eccentricity but respects the passion behind it.

In 1989, John Cale, the Welsh musician whose career has included collaboration with avant-gardists like Terry Riley and LaMonte Young, charter membership in the Velvet Underground and solo efforts that ranged from exquisitely-formed art-rock (his 1973 album "Paris 1919" is a sadly under-appreciated classic) to punk, went to Russia to record "Words for the Dying", a musical reaction to the Falkland Island war, with lyrics taken from poems by Dylan Thomas. The recording was produced by Brian Eno, known to rock fans as both everyone's favorite three-letter crossword puzzle answer and an uncompromising musician who insisted on full collaboration with the artists he produces. Cale also asked Rob Nilsson, the independent filmmaker best known for making "Northern Lights" and "Heat and Sunlight" in the days when "independent film" was more than just a sales pitch. The resulting film, also called "Words for the Dying", released in 1990 but making a belated DVD debut, is a sober but somewhat unfocused look at a relatively unglamorous subject, the somewhat tedious process of making a record. There is a built-in conflict: early in the production, Eno objects to the presence of cameras in the studio and tries to impose limits on what Nilsson can film. In the end, the conflict seems to become less than meets the eye. The record gets made and Eno manages to allow the filmmakers a little more freedom. It's hard not to suspect Nilsson of blowing the conflict up a bit to cover the fact that recording studios are not particularly interesting places. For admirers of Cale or Eno - or Nilsson - it's an admirable film, but not a revealing one.

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