You’d smell fish and smell the water and smell the north woods. You’d also smell diesel oil, you’d smell electricity-charged ions that were floating around from the exploding relays and you could smell the heat from over-heated coppering. You could smell the smell of heating asbestos, you’d see once in a while the great exploding flash in the air when somebody off in the distance at an open hearth had tapped another heat.
I’m walking way out into the water. This was the first time I was really on my own in the mill. No longer am I connected with this labor gang, I’ve been sent down on my own to the far end, the shipping end of the forty-inch soaking mill. I’ve been through this particular mill before but this is the first time now I’m going to do a job.
Right in the middle of the forty-inch soaking pit building they had a steel mill commissary. Picture this scene. It’s all night work, and steel workers at three o’clock in the morning are in this little room that’s painted battleship gray metal. They’re all sitting close together. Maybe a hundred-and-fifty of them all jammed in this tiny overheated room eating ice cream out of big soup bowls. Tremendous soup bowls of strawberry ice cream, and drinking black coffee. And they are covered with dirt and crud and grease, and half of them you can hardly see their eyes because they’re looking out of this thick coating of dust and grime and crud. And they’re sitting there shoveling in this strawberry ice cream and wearing their blue safety goggles up on the top of their head, and all around them you can just feel the ground moving up and down. It’s the first thing that hits you about a steel mill—once you’ve felt it all around you, you’ll never forget it. There’s the tremendous vibration of moving cranes, this almost subterranean earthquake, the sound of the rolling mill which is right next to you turning out the one hundred inch plate.
In early 1964 I’d just begun to write short film reviews for a small newsletter at which a friend of mine worked. I wrote about a variety of intelligent films such as: Genet’s Un Chant D’amour; Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb; Bergman’s The Silence; and Louis Malle’s Zazie Dans le Metro, about which I commented that this frantic and delightful work, dealing in reality vs. illusion, for its comic effects used techniques of the film medium itself such as slow motion, fast motion, quick cutting.
Many of the “intellectual” and experimental films of the 1960s that I was aware of were just artistic creations and were not sexual in nature. As I put it:
Exciting (erotically, visually, aesthetically) things are being done on film these days….The films include experiments with abstract shapes, comments on contemporary life, and an occasional venture into pure poetry.
But, unexpectedly, one film I saw was outrageously weird and sexual (partly played in by hermaphrodites)—Flaming Creatures (1963) by Jack Smith. I’d had no idea what I was walking into when I sat down and it appeared on the screen. Seeing it in an early screening of it in March, 1964, I exited the small theater on St. Marks Place shocked, disturbed, and unbelieving. As I continued west toward Astor Place I noted police cars pulling up to the theater and I realized that it was a pornography raid—then I saw, hurrying toward the theater, the film’s promoter, Village Voice’s experimental-film critic, Jonas Mekas. I warned him that the cops were raiding the place and he said something to the effect that he might as well go there now rather than being accosted later. I wrote about the film twice in the little newsletter, saying in part:
It is a parody of romantic love in the movies….It is a love song to the world of romantic fantasy that Hollywood once created, and that it and the public have now rejected in favor of less romantic illusions. Note that Smith recognizes and attacks the fantasy, yet mourns its loss….The beautifully photographed under and over exposure, the fuzzy shots and unsteady camera, serve the film’s purpose perfectly and should have been described [by me] as anti-Hollywood-slickness rather than as anti-artistic.
“Our Infamous Surprise Program” = Flaming Creatures.
I found out about the obscenity trial and thought it would be interesting to see. (At the time, I was spending a couple of months without a job–working on the first draft of my first unpublished novel.) From the audience, I saw among others there to testify/defend the work, poet Allen Ginsberg and critic Susan Sontag (The New York Times–“In Miss Sontag’s best essays she is doing something really new, attempting to decipher and describe her own sensibility in relation to new cultural phenomena….”). Sontag, in her book of reprinted essays, Against Interpretation, published her extensive, enthusiastic review of the film:
…in defending as well as talking about the film, I don’t want to make it seem less outrageous, less shocking than it is.
…amateurishness of technique is not frustrating, as it is in so many other recent “underground” films. For Smith is visually very generous; at practically every moment there is simply a tremendous amount to see on the screen….,there are no ideas, no symbols, no commentary on or critique of anything in Flaming Creatures.
Flaming Creatures is a triumphant example of an aesthetic vision of the world and such a vision is always, at its core, epicene.
Among witnesses for the defense, because only Sontag’s words were in published form, only she was allowed to speak. It took the three judges about fifteen minutes to find Jonas Mekas and the other defendants guilty.