Fine Vintage

Fashion, thrift shops, and the space of pleasure in queer underground film
by Ronald Gregg  posted April 15, 2011
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This article—originally published to coincide with the Fashion in Film Festival: Birds of Paradise at Museum of the Moving Image in April 2011—is republished here on the occasion of the death of Mario Montez; actor, drag "superstar", and longtime collaborator of avant-garde directors such as Andy Warhol and Jack Smith.

This excerpt is from Ronald Gregg's article for the forthcoming
Birds of Paradise: Costume as Cinematic Spectacle, Marketa Uhlirova (ed.), London: Koenig Books, 2011. As part of the Museum of the Moving Image's series Fashion in Film Festival: Birds of Paradise, the screening of Drag Glamour, on Saturday April 23, will be followed by a panel discussion with Ronald Gregg, Stuart Comer, Agosto Machado, and Ela Troyano.

Flaming Creatures was only one of several films to emerge out of 1960s New York underground cinema that paid little heed to conventions of narrative and spatial and temporal continuity. Like Chumlum (Ron Rice, 1964) and Lupe (Jose Rodriguez-Soltero, 1966), it instead focused on and recreated the sensuous pleasures of dazzling, ostentatious fashion, spectacular mise-en-scène, and exaggerated acting associated with a particular period of Hollywood film. All three films produce something similar to the "cinema of attractions," whose emphasis on exhibition and spectacle over "diegetic absorption" and narrative, according to film historian Tom Gunning, dominated the first decade of silent cinema. As Gunning explains, the "cinema of attractions" was supplanted by the emphasis on narrative in classical Hollywood cinema, but it continued to influence musicals and other genres and erupted again in certain avant-garde films.1 "It is possible," Gunning notes, "that this earlier carnival of the cinema, and the methods of popular entertainment, still provide an unexhausted resource—a Coney Island of the avant-garde, whose never dominant but always sensed current can be traced from Méliès through Keaton, through Un Chien andalou (1928), and Jack Smith."2

Smith, together with his star, the actor Mario Montez, and other experimental filmmakers and actors, discovered in the "cinema of attractions" a spectacular form and style that granted them the freedom to ignore professional standards of filmmaking and dominant conventional narrative structures. Their films instead provided a hallucinatory vision of themselves as a "cinema of attractions"—a fountain of "intersexual, polymorphous joy." Flaming Creatures and its underground progeny Normal Love (Jack Smith, 1963), Chumlum, and Lupe transported their audiences away from this despondent narrative into a "space of pleasure"—a concept that Susan Sontag evokes in her famous defense of Jack Smith's Flaming Creatures in The Nation in 1964. They did so by following Smith, Montez, and their playful co-conspirators into the fantastical world of Hollywood glamour, fashion, and B-movie actresses. How Smith and Montez got there is worth pondering.

Like so many artists in the 1960s underground scene, Jack Smith and Mario Montez struggled to pay the rent and feed themselves on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. J. Hoberman notes that Smith's "was a marginal existence lived on the edge of bohemian squalor."3 In his review of Flaming Creatures, Gregory Markopoulos describes Smith's near poverty. But as poor and embattled as they both were, Smith and Montez refused to live in abjection. Hollywood spectacle was their inspiration. Jose Rodriguez-Soltero told me that he often watched films with Montez and Smith in Montez's apartment. They were such an inspiration that even when Montez was performing in Theater of the Ridiculous productions, he would run home as soon as he was done to "see a film like Gold Diggers of 1935 or The Barefoot Contessa on television."4

Their immersion in Hollywood spectacle inspired and enabled both Smith and Montez to turn their everyday existence into lives of Hollywood fantasy. Both decorated their apartments in a faux-luxurious style inspired largely by Hollywood epics, particularly the shadowy, lavishly textured films of Joseph von Sternberg and the Technicolor Orientalist and South Sea spectacles produced by Universal Studios and starring Maria Montez. In Arabian Nights (1942), Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (1944), Cobra Woman (1944), Sudan (1945), and other Montez films, Universal set designers created a sensuous backdrop of brightly colored, jeweled interiors full of tapestries, curtains, tiles, and columns inspired by an Orientalist fantasy of Moorish design. Smith and Mario Montez enthusiastically reproduced their excess.

But while Hollywood designers had enormous budgets to create sets and costumes, Smith and Mario Montez had to rely on thrift shops and trash heaps to build their fantasies. Like the assemblage artist Joseph Cornell, who scoured the used bookshops and record stores of Fourth Avenue to find bric-a-brac, engravings, French and German books, postcards, photographs, films, and movie magazines, both Smith and Montez were masters of the found object, the throwaway, the vintage, and the forgotten. Both of them seized upon the ephemeral, the mass-produced, the childlike, and the moldy and used them to emulate the worlds created by von Sternberg and the Universal designers. They furnished their rooms, as Smith's biographer Edward Leffingwell puts it, "with pickings from the invisible department store of the street."5 Smith frequently outfitted his apartment so that it could serve as a fantasy set for his photographic shoots, films, and theatrical productions. Montez also adorned his apartment with bold colors and spectacular décor. For several years, it featured a bathtub covered with two gold plastic laminated boards, a dining table with lion's feet, a maroon carpet and chartreuse sofa, and rainbow-colored curtains. The centerpiece of his living room was the television, his entrée to Hollywood, which he decorated by placing a pearl necklace around the screen.6

These same Hollywood sources influenced Smith's Flaming Creatures and Ron Rice's Chumlum. Smith in particular learned from the films of von Sternberg that he didn't need color film or a large, expensive set to create a sumptuous and exotic visual world. As Andrew Sarris has noted, Sternberg needed very little space to create his mise-en-scène, which was "not the meaningless background of the drama, but its very subject, peering through nets, veils, screens, shutters, bars, cages, mists, flowers, and fabrics to tantalize the male with fantasies of the female."7 Smith filmed the black-and-white Flaming Creatures on the rooftop of the Windsor Theater, a Lower East Side movie house, with outdated film stock, giving it a faded, ghostlike quality. He painted a single backdrop of a large vase of flowers, but created the impression of a richer, multidimensional set through his varied compositions and camera positions, moving from a static tableau vivant to swirling actors dancing like dervishes, shot from overhead. The exoticism of set, costumes, and actors was heightened by Smith's choice of Orientalist and pop music for the soundtrack.

Ron Rice used his own apartment for Chumlum, which starred Smith and Mario Montez, along with other underground actors. Chumlum was influenced by Smith's Flaming Creatures and the colorful, sumptuous Normal Love (1963), which Smith was working on at the time of Rice's shoot. Rice also created an extravagant Orientalist and South Sea aesthetic consisting of moving hammocks, brilliant fabrics, and exotically dressed and bejeweled characters in various poses and movements. Chumlum's rich, dazzling visuals are enhanced by Rice's multiple superimpositions composed in-camera, which dominate the film. These superimpositions create layers of vibrant colors, jewelry, rope hammocks, and costumed characters, which make the film more abstract and psychedelic than theatrical.

Smith and Mario Montez drew upon the same Hollywood sources when they designed costumes for their film and theatrical productions. The costumes designed for Maria Montez by Universal's costume department, headed by Vera West, were especially influential. West's designs for gowns worn by actresses both on and off screen used bold coloring and alluring designs to counteract the darkening mood in the United States in the late 1930s and '40s as it witnessed the fascist march toward power and war in Europe. West's designs for the wartime Montez vehicles complemented the spectacular sets designed by R.A. Gausman and Ira S. Webb. She dressed Montez and the supporting female characters in green, red, white, and gold Arabian-style dresses, pants and blouses, white veils, and elaborate multicolored headdresses and turbans, while draping them from head to foot with glittering jewels. Makeup removed all blemishes, and Montez wore perfectly applied, voluptuous red lipstick.

Despite being filmed in black and white, Flaming Creatures portrays a spectacular collection of exotic creatures, many of whom were men, who posed, promenaded, put on lipstick, and danced in the exotic costumes, makeup, and "junked up" accessories inspired by West's designs. Francis Francine played an elegant Arabian woman, dressed in a turban, brocaded Moorish dress and long white gloves. Joel Markman played an alluring vampire with a Marilyn Monroe blond wig, arched eyebrows, and a simple, slinky form-fitting dress. Rene Rivera became Dolores Flores (later changing his underground film name to Mario Montez), a Spanish dancer complete with fan, lace mantilla, comb, and flower in his mouth.

Drawing on the same Hollywood imaginary, Mario Montez made costumes for many of his later film and theatrical roles using the vintage clothing, fabric, makeup, and accessories he found in thrift shops and dime stores. Like many women of his generation, he learned to stretch his clothing budget by sewing his own costumes. Montez developed a discerning eye for cheap dresses and accoutrements that could be transformed into the marvelous. By 1967, he would boast, "I don't like cheap things. Of course, most of the time I design and sew my own costumes, but when I go to thrift shops I don't pick up just any old thing. The gown I bought the other day, for example, was a Ceil Chapman, and it was quite expensive. I insist on looking my best in front of the camera."8 By the time of Rodriguez-Soltero's Lupe, Montez had established his own costume house, Montez-Creations, which made costumes for Lupe and Theater of the Ridiculous productions. His imagination knew no bounds, even if his budget did. In 1969, he told Queen's Quarterly that he spent $50 a year on costumes and $20 on makeup. Charles Ludlam and other Theater of the Ridiculous members claimed that it was Mario Montez who taught them about makeup as well as how to use glitter and sequins to create the fantastic.9

This space of pleasure was expanded to the community that came together to create these fantasy worlds. They produced the sets together, performed together, and dressed and put on makeup together, extending the pleasure in each task. After his first visit to the rooftop set of Flaming Creatures, Tony Conrad commented on how surprised he was "when it turned out that people took three hours to put on their makeup" and "when people took several more hours to put on their costumes."10 Andy Warhol witnessed a similar scene on the set of Smith's Normal Love: "preparations for every shooting were like a party—hours and hours of people putting makeup on and getting into costumes and building sets."11 According to Markopoulos, Smith "spent hours, a whole night" before shooting Normal Love, "arranging, changing, shifting, replacing, placing objects, people, cheese cloths, fabrics about a prefabricated moon pool."12 As Stefan Brecht commented on the community that came together in the Theater of the Ridiculous, "while the framework of reference of conventional theater experience is the individual presentation of the play, in this theater it is the [collective] production of the play—the series of presentations, rehearsals, composition of the script....The performance gives a glimpse into a process of personal interactions within a continuing community, everyone contributing personally."13 Or as Michael Moon puts it, this community of performers created a "voluptuous fringe"14—the creative excess that Flaming Creatures and Chumlum document so brilliantly.

Lupe, Rodriguez-Soltero's homage to the Mexican-born actress Lupe Velez, displayed Montez's capacity for self-transformation more than any other film. Like Maria Montez, Velez's B-movie career and tragic end led to her becoming a gay diva (she committed suicide in 1944). Velez became a star in the late 1920s and was a major focus of the tabloids due to her high-profile romance with Gary Cooper and subsequent marriage to Johnny Weissmuller. Toward the end of her film career she starred in the B-movie Mexican Spitfire comedy series at RKO, playing a stereotyped fiery Spanish woman.

Rodriguez-Soltero's Lupe stands in sharp contrast to Andy Warhol's Lupe (1966), made at the same time. While Warhol focuses on the sad, lonely, sordid end of Velez's life, Rodriguez-Soltero and Montez celebrate her operatic-like successes and tragedies. They portray her as choosing and living a life of excess, and even in her death they show her body and soul ascending to a saintly, inspirational place. Unlike Warhol's minimalist, deadpan aesthetic, with its improvisational, long take structure, Rodriguez-Soltero's Lupe is "visually very generous," as Sontag would have put it. Filmed on Ektachrome-EF and printed on Kodachrome-II stock, it contains exuberant explosions of Vera West-like reds and greens and amazing superimpositions shot in the camera. This lavishness draws loving attention to Mario Montez's costumes and makeup. While Warhol's film depicts the self-destruction of the star (played by Edie Sedgwick), Rodriguez-Soltero's Lupe celebrates the freedom and pleasure of Mario Montez's transformation into this cherished actress, relishing his ascension and departure from ordinary life—a life constrained by political, moral, and economic structures—into an alternative space of glamour and pleasure.

By creating an unfettered "cinema of attractions," Smith, Mario Montez, and their contemporaries appropriated Hollywood excess in order to construct and perform their own utopian spaces of pleasure. Their glamour and gestures, generous visuals, and vibrant music created spaces of pleasure for both audience and performers. They enabled a group of impoverished filmmakers and actors to affirm their lives and their right to existence. Anything but abject, they became the exotic, glamorous, and confident Scheherazade and Cobra Woman.

1. Tom Gunning, "The Cinema of Attractions: Early Film, Its Spectator and the Avant-Garde," in Early Cinema: Space-frame-narrative, ed. Thomas Elsaesser, BFI Publishing, London, 1990: 57.

2. Ibid: 61.

3. J. Hoberman, On Jack Smith's Flaming Creatures and Other Secret-flix of Cinemaroc, Granary Books, New York, 2001: 18.

4. Ibid: 18.

5. Edward Leffingwell, "Jack Smith: The Only Normal Man in Baghdad," in Flaming Creature: Jack Smith, His Amazing Life and Times, Serpent's Tail, London, 1997: 71.

6. Gary McColgen, "The Superstar: An Interview With Mario Montez," Film Culture, volume 45, Summer 1967: 18.

7. Hoberman, On Jack Smith (n. 3): 22.

8. John Gruen, "The Underground's M.M.—Mario Montez," New York/World Journal Tribune, 22 January 1967: 29.

9. David Kaufman, Ridiculous!: The Theatrical Life and Times Of Charles Ludlam, Applause Theatre and Cinema Books, New York, 2002: 66.

10. Hoberman, On Jack Smith (n. 7): 26.

11. Andy Warhol and Pat Hackett, Popism: The Warhol '60s, Harper & Row, New York, 1980: 32.

12. Gregory Markopoulos, "Innocent Rivals," Film Culture, volume 33, Summer 1964: 44.

13. Stefan Brecht, "Family of the. f.p.: Notes on the Theatre of the Ridiculous," The Drama Review, volume 13, issue 1, Autumn 1968: 125.

14. Michael Moon, "Flaming Closets," in Out in Culture, ed. Corey K. Creekmur and Alexander Doty, Duke University Press, Durham, 1995: 284. 


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Fashion in Film Festival and The Film-Makers’ Cooperative
Frame enlargement from Lupe, directed by José Rodríguez-Soltero
Photo Gallery: Fine Vintage


April 15–24, 2011 Fashion in Film Festival: Birds of Paradise


experimental film  |  fashion  |  sexuality  |  Jack Smith  |  Mario Montez  |  Hollywood  |  Andy Warhol


Ronald Gregg is Senior Lecturer in American Studies and Film Studies and Director of Film Programming for the Whitney Humanities Center at Yale University. He has published articles and curated programs primarily on topics of gay identity and queer representation, for festivals internationally including the San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival, Chicago Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, and the South African Gay and Lesbian Film Festival.

More articles by Ronald Gregg