Congealing around Manhattan’s not-yet gentrified Lower East Side at the beginning of the 1980s, Cinema of Transgression is the underground’s underground of filmmaking.
An intermingling of directors, performers, musicians and miscellaneous reprobates, including Nick Zedd, Richard Kern, Lydia Lunch, Lung Leg and Sonic Youth, the movement launched an audio-visual assault on what they considered to be ‘impotent avant-gardes’ and academic cinema auteurs. As their manifesto (written pseudonymously by Nick Zedd) states, they would be guided by the conviction that “the only heaven is the heaven of sin, being rebellious, having fun, learning new things and breaking as many rules as you can.”
What this means in practice is a cinema stuffed to bursting with blood and gore; video nasty with a high-octane disdain for all forms of restraint. At the same time, however, many of the movement’s best films (in particular those by Zedd and Richard Kern) contain moments of startling beauty and absurd, twisted humour. Pitched somewhere between Situationist anti-cinema and Viennese Actionism’s art of the body, however trashy their no-budget films may at times appear, they represent a very real, still powerful effort to liberate cinema from all forms of conformity, coyness and complacency. In this way they can, for good or ill, be seen to have influenced the popular offerings of overground-underground cinephiles like Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez.
At the opening of their retrospective at Berlin’S KW Institute of Contemporary Art, which brings together major works by the principal participants for the first time, we spoke with Nick Zedd, author of the movement’s manifesto and autobiographical books Bleed and Totem of the Depraved, about his work, the current exhibitions, cinema, transgression, and all points in between.
Cinema of Transgression includes not just filmmakers, but performers, artists, writers and musicians. What brought you all together? Sex and no wave music. I moved in with Lydia Lunch, leaving my previous life and going to London to shoot a very personal film about her, The Wild World of Lydia Lunch. Upon returning to NYC, I acted in a film I entitled Totem of the Depraved and learned to survive on the streets. I then had a brief affair with a filmmaker named Beth B who was also involved with Richard Kern, who she introduced me to. In the fall of ’84 he and I made Thrust In Me, a segment of The Manhattan Love Suicides. I later met a film student who I christened Casandra Stark with whom I had an intense fling for a year. Her best friend Lung Leg tagged along when we visited Kern one day. We were editing the film in his apartment. When he met Lung Leg he put her in a movie. Later, he ended up in a band with her ex-boyfriend Natz, who ended up with Casandra. I moved onto Susan Manson, the drummer in Scum Goddess.
How was your work received at the time and who was it made for? It was received with shocked revulsion and open hatred. No critic has ever had the guts to come to our defense, so I put out The Underground Film Bulletin to fill the void. That ‘zine was the sole voice of truth to this day as far as taking a stand in favour of the Cinema of Transgression. My work was made for me. I don’t believe in target audiences. The whole world could either take it or leave it. Our cheap super-8 and 16mm movies attracted an enthusiastic following much larger than the crowd that went to see critically accepted academic work by grant-getting directors who were welcomed in museums and media arts centers at the time. Critical recognition has eluded our movement for decades while audiences have increased, kind of like how the Three Stooges were always considered beneath contempt by film critics even though their movies were funnier than anyone else’s. The fact that it’s taken this long to be recognized by the academic world is a sure sign we were doing something right.
Obviously you used shocking content as a strategy. What do you think it can offer or do for cinema/art/life? Wake you up like a jolt of electricity to short-circuit the science of mind control brainwashing millions.
Seeing the films on large-screen projections brings home how they are, at times, very beautiful. Did you cultivate beauty in your films and how does it fit with the strategy to shock and repel? There’s beauty in visions and behavior so extreme they can’t be forgotten. When the profane becomes sacred, you realize you were right. I combined beauty with ugliness and in the process discovered xenomorphosis.
Can cinema still transgress? As long as your vision exceeds your grasp.
‘YOU KILLED ME FIRST: The Cinema of Transgression’ runs until 8th April at the KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin. Entry over 18s only.
Text: Ruvi Simmons
Images Courtesy Richard Kern and Nick Zedd