In the tiny underground world of experimental film, an artist's reputation often precedes him. The trouble is that said reputation is often spoon fed to viewers that might otherwise no better, delivered to them by festival programs and Avant-Garde Cinema instructors. One must look beyond the political agendas of many so-called supporters of these films to see what is really happening in them. The first time I saw Little Stabs at Happiness, I dismissed it outright. I thought movies had to look serious to be important. Ken Jacobs was, in my estimation, anything but. Not only did I find his films irreverent; he seemed to me sloppy, lazy and boring. I was told that this movie was important because it had something to do with Queer Cinema. I was led to believe that any fault I would find with this film was indicative not of any shortcoming of the Jacobs or his movie, but my own homophobia. Given time, distance, and a fresh set of eyes and ears, I would now argue that Little Stabs has less to do with sexuality at all, than the simple virtues of silliness. This is a special kind of silliness, of course. To praise Jacob’s playacting is quite distinct from analyzing the psychological function of watching clowns in a circus. Those kinds of clowns aren’t self aware. Ken Jacobs and his subject, Jack Smith, are overtly self-conscious and this sets them apart from the rest of the clowns. Jacobs is one of the few poets of the clown world.
The great moment of revelation in this film comes when the guy with fedora (Jacobs?) plays with the children on the brownstone steps. Seeing the children at play with the adults reminds us that the film has been about play all along. Little Stabs is not about being outrageous or flamboyant, but dressing up and play-acting like a child. Without the sequence with the children one could do the queer reading, but this scene takes the film beyond the one-dimensional, sexual interpretation. It would be a home-movie for the loonies who made it to laugh at when they get together to drink and smoke pot. The scenes with the children make it a film for the rest of us to take seriously. It is perhaps difficult to understand because we do not take children, or the way they act, seriously in our culture. Jacobs does and Little Stabs at Happiness is his poem to children and to continuing to act like one when you are supposed to be grown up.
I am not sure, despite consensus to the contrary, Smith’s Flaming Creatures is all that different. To me it does not so much seem like a homoerotic challenge to normative sexuality as an attempt to get back to pre-sexual physical relationships. None of the people in it are having sex – it is not pornography; they are just playing with each other’s body parts. They grab at limp dicks and floppy breasts in a way that is deliberately silly. Even the so-called “rape” scene seems less about psycho-sexual terror and more about self-conscious role-playing. Surely a rape scene in which the victim laughs the entire time is not much of a rape scene. Rather it is as playful as anything else, and to call it a rape at all, is to refuse Smith his attempt to impose upon the viewer’s vision a pre-sexual lens. It may be that for some viewers this return, even if only for the brief duration of the film, is impossible.
Certainly the adults in this film with their adult bodies cannot go back and become as they were before they had carnal knowledge. Nor can the viewer. Still, to psychoanalyze Smith’s film from one’s armchair is to miss the point. Too often criticism of Creatures hangs up on the viewer’s inability to go back to an early state of sexual development. It is not that Smith wants to neutralize the erotic charge of genitalia and breasts. It is that he wants nothing more than to shake them. This is foremost. The sexual charge is up to the viewer. This is not a bohemian desire to demystify the body. It’s not about confronting the repressed with what they want to keep sacred. Giggling penises and breasts are about play. Flaming Creatures is about acting like a little kid, even in relation to another adult person’s naked body.