A Case History of Transgressive Film

The films of the American avant-garde or Underground have always functioned as a cinema of opposition, a calculated subversion of the Hollywood mainstream and the cinematic devices it employed or propagated.  First there were the spiritual films of Kenneth Anger, Maya Deren and Jonas Mekas, followed by Stan Brakhage, who set out to reflect abstract philosophical and spiritual concepts by means of Eisenstein’s theories of montage, prompted by the then growing popularity of Buddhism and Hinduism in the West.  What followed was a serious investigation of the poetic possibilities of camp and ready-made signifiers that were the product of the popular culture of television and radio.  These filmmakers (Jack Smith, Ken Jacobs, Paul Morrissey, and so forth) were out to take camp into the taboo world of New York’s counter culture, wrought with junkies and homosexuals, dispelling the naïveté of Adam West’s Batman and The Monkees.  The seventies saw the advent of Michael Snow and Hollis Frampton’s structuralist films that dealt with minimalism and the philosophical readings of the single sustained image and an obvious backlash to the popularity of jump cuts in the mainstream cinema popularized by Jean-Luc Godard, Nagisa Oshima, and Arthur Penn.  But by the eighties the opposition had turned again to the popular mass media, employing the strategies and technique of MTV and Grindhouse movies to invent a cinema whose primary goal was not self-expression through opposition, but rather opposition as a means of expression.

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This movement was known as the “cinema of transgression”, and first found its voice in the late seventies on the New York punk scene in a series of zines featuring the artworks of Nick Zedd and Richard Kern.  The validity of this movement was granted by recognition from the elite of the underground by the early eighties with features in Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine and an appearance by Richard Hell in Zedd’s first feature (which owes a great deal not only to Jack Smith but also John Waters) Geek Maggot Bingo (1983).  The transition to 16mm film and VHS came quickest for Kern, who was a trained photographer and whose works remain the most vital today.

Kern’s narratives were often the product of collaboration with performance artist Lydia Lunch, who found tremendous inspiration in newspaper headlines about murder, suicide and rape.  The narrative devices of these short films have a shocking similarity to the drive-in rape revenge genre films popular at the turn of the decade.  Yet the swipe transitions, and the abrasive use of punk music recall the inherent artifice the filmmakers observed on cable television.  The violence and explicit sex of these films goes beyond exploitation, flirting with the snuff genre of pornography.  Where this dispelled much consideration by critics, to some it followed the basic pattern of the avant-garde, and spelled an intelligent fusion of specific techniques with even more specific content.  One could even argue that the transgressive film movement was heading in directions that didn’t seem that far off from the mainstream of the mid-eighties, and that even seem tame today when compared to what one can find on the internet.

Either way, one cannot ignore the necessity of the transgressive expression in its moment.  In many ways these films were more easily accessible to an audience in the eighties than they are today when we consider how quickly Richard Kern was able to transition from the underground to the mainstream with his Sonic Youth music video Death Valley 69 (1985).  It would be negligent not to observe that with Death Valley 69 Kern landed a spot on MTV programming, giving over to that which he initial expressed against. Beyond this one instance the transition of transgressive tactics into the mainstream is much more subtle because it remains a degree removed from the mainstream.  Indeed the sexual violence of the transgressive movement would first be echoed in Todd Haynes’ film Poison and later in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs.  It is a common mistake to assume Reservoir Dogs and Poison are the primary texts for the types of violence common in nineties American Independent films, negating any correlation, no matter how obvious today, with the films of Kern and Zedd.

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The ignorance toward transgressive film is partly due to the direction it’s leading auteur took for their careers.  The most critically praised film director of the movement, Richard Kern, became a celebrity portrait photographer with strong dabbling in erotic art.  Meanwhile, Nick Zedd transitioned to DV tape and later HD, making films such as Elf Panties (2001) with Saint Reverend Jen that have found practically no public exhibition and only the most limited home video distribution.  Sensibilities have also changed, and the quiet spirituality of Maya Deren and Stan Brakhage’s films is in vogue again amongst the avant-garde, and perhaps best exemplified in the confessional works of Bill Viola.  Circumstance has been working against the transgressive film movement since at least 1992, relegating their films, in terms of their appraisal as legitimate works of art, to the kind of cult status Robert Crumb endured during the late sixties and early seventies, before Ralph Bakshi launched him to national celebrity with his film of Fritz The Cat.

-Robert Curry

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