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Jack Smith’s World of Camp

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Filmforum’s major retrospective “Jack Smith and His Secret Flix” continues Friday at 8 p.m. at the Art Center College of Design, 1700 Lida St., Pasadena, with “No President” preceded by three shorts. The program will be repeated Sunday at 7 p.m. at LACE, 6522 Hollywood Blvd.

Opening the evening is the five-minute “Song for Rent” (1968-69), in which Smith appeared as Rose Courtyard, a decrepit entertainer in bright red elaborate Madwoman of Chaillot finery pawing over her scrapbook as we hear first Ethel Merman and then Kate Smith singing “God Bless America” on the soundtrack. The sense that Rose represents a decaying, exploited--and exploiting--United States sets the tone for this group of films, in which drag queens (not all of them male) have turned themselves into exquisite, bespangled and bizarre works of art who strike poses while Smith strikes political sparks.

As usual, Smith creates artificial paradises out of detritus in the seedy basements and lofts in which he lived. As usual, too, pacing is nothing to Smith, who verges on the static; for him camp sensibility is everything. Smith had a passion for and a knowledge of old Hollywood movies and evokes both the grandeur and pretentiousness of the silent cinema, much as Billy Wilder did with his creation of Norma Desmond, and Smith had an abiding love for Maria Montez Technicolor epics of the ‘40s. The 15-minute “Reefers of Technicolor Island,” with a water-filled bathtub representing the South Seas, is an experiment in gorgeous color in which various orchidaceous creatures loll about while we hear old Hawaiian pop songs on the soundtrack.

According to underground filmmaker-historian Jonas Mekas, Smith was no fan of Yvonne De Carlo, considering her a second-rate Maria Montez. (Actually, De Carlo is a versatile actress with a notable career in film, stage and TV.) In any event, Smith cast himself as a goateed auteur, clad in a fake leopard-skin jumpsuit, a celebrity granting his fans an audience in the 30-minute “I Was a Male Yvonne De Carlo” (1968-70s), filmed in his derelict loft. Gradually, his drag fans, who look like iridescent fish in an aquarium, create their own mini-dramas, silent movie-style; we hear snatches of an old record giving instructions in the tango, a visit of the Lady in Black to Valentino’s crypt and footage of an old theater undergoing demolition.

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With the 50-minute “No President” (1967-70), Smith drew upon a trove of campaign footage from Wendell Willkie’s 1940 run for president on the Republican ticket. It imagines that Willkie was abducted out of his crib by a pirate and later auctioned off at a slave market in a scene said to be modeled on that 1942 Maria Montez-starrer “Arabian Nights.”

Typically, there are lots of drag poseurs, some of them presented as if modeling for a Vogue cover of the Diana Vreeland era--the kind with natives in the background. The curious juxtaposition of Willkie, prototypical Midwestern square-shooter, with languid drag tableaux has to do with a question Smith posed anarchically in a flier for a screening of his film: “If one knew what one expected of one’s president, one wouldn’t need a president, would one?” (213) 466-FILM.

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The American Cinematheque’s “Jean-Pierre Melville and the French Crime Film” reprises some Melville favorites along with some notable underworld movies by his contemporaries. The five-weekend series, running through July 11 at Raleigh Studios, 5300 Melrose Ave., begins Friday at 7:15 p.m. with the virtually unknown 1959 “Classe Tout Risque” (Consider All Risks), directed by Claude Sautet--in only his second film--and adapted from a novel by famed French crime fiction writer Jose Giovanni, who will be present.

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There’s a classic feel to this swift, unpretentious picture that stars Lino Ventura as a gangster on the wanted list forced out of his long Italian exile by diminishing funds. His idea is to go to America with his wife and two small sons, but first he goes back to France to reconnoiter only to find the old friends, grown rich on his largesse, most uncomfortable about helping him. They do dispatch rising gangster Jean-Paul Belmondo, with whom Ventura develops a solid rapport of mutual respect.

Yet what Ventura discovers upon his return is that the notion of honor among thieves is becoming dangerously passe. “Classe Tout Risque” has a great noir look and a terrific Georges Delerue score; already Sautet was an astute observer of male friendship.

Melville’s “Bob le Flambeur” (1955), which follows “Classe Tout Risque,” was his first film noir, a variation on John Huston’s “The Asphalt Jungle.” More personal and stylish than the Sautet film, it stars Roger Duchesne in the title role as an elegant, silver-haired onetime bank robber (and ex-con) and now full-time Montmartre gambler, running out of luck but not gallantry. Trenchcoated, he’s a Gallic Bogey with a code of honor who tries to save a young girl from the street--never mind that she’s only got minks and Cadillacs on her mind. But he’s tempted by that famous one last big heist.

Drenchingly romantic, “Bob le Flambeur” has a gritty, spontaneous flow--it was photographed, largely at night, by New Wave icon Henri Decae--amid actual locales, primarily around Place Pigalle.

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Jacques Becker’s “Le Trou,” screening Saturday at 7:15 p.m., is an exciting prison-escape picture that shows in minute detail how five cellmates, all awaiting trial, try to break out of France’s famed maximum-security prison La Sante. Of the five, four are facing such stiff sentences that they decide they must escape. Just as they are about to put their plan into action, a fifth man, accused of attempted murder, is temporarily placed in their cell. Because of the time element, they have to include him, hoping they have convinced him that he has as much to gain as they by getting out. Thus the suspense becomes twofold: Will they make it? Will the new man prove trustworthy?

Faultlessly photographed in documentary style, it develops into a study of human nature. Besides being a paradoxical comment on the notion of honor among criminals, it is also a tribute to man’s resourcefulness. “Le Trou” (The Hole) was written by Becker with Jean Aurel and Giovanni, who will again be present. “Le Trou” will be followed at 9:45 p.m. be a repeat screening of “Classe Tout Risque.”

The Cinematheque’s Alternative Screen is presenting tonight at Raleigh at 7:30 Max Makowkski’s “The Pigeon Egg Strategy,” a film that is as brilliant as it is tedious, a visual labyrinth and meditation on linguistics, in which a team of assassins, all wearing identical suits and bowler hats, scourge Hong Kong in search of a writer of children’s fiction they believe has divined their modus operandi. (213) 466-FILM.

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Lucio Fulci’s 1981 “The Beyond,” which starts screening midnights every night for a week at the Sunset 5, proves to be “Seven Doors to Death” and seems to be even worse than it was when it played Los Angeles in 1984. That’s because we’ve seen in between so much first-rate Dario Argento that when it comes to grisly Italian horror flicks, Fulci’s films seem lots more schlocky than visionary.

Anyway, when a New Yorker (Katherine MacColl) down on her luck inherits a derelict hotel outside New Orleans she tries to make a go of it--even though the old place happens to be built on one of the seven gateways to hell. Maybe the midnight crowd will find it good for a laugh. (213) 848-3500.

The Los Angeles Conservancy’s “Last Remaining Seats” presents Wednesday at 8 p.m. at the Orpheum, 842 S. Broadway, Jose Luis Garcia Agraz’s intoxicating “Salon Mexico” (1948), which tells of a mid-'30s crime of passion from several points of view, “Rashomon"-style.

The setting is a Mexico City dance hall, a hangout for composer Aaron Copland. It involves a fiery triangle--a macho pimp and the two women who love him--and boasts irresistible music and atmosphere. There will be more irresistible music and atmosphere following the screening at a Salsa Dance Party at the Mayan, 1040 S. Hill St. (213) 896-9114.

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