This week, I was told that I write from a “contrarian personal sensibility,” and you know what, they’re right. I believe in bad taste and bad bars, in Russ Meyer and John Waters, in terrible kitsch and even worse camp. I was weened on contrarians and outlaws like Kathy Acker, Lydia Lunch and Dennis Cooper. I believe in transcendence through transgression, trash, humor, shock and filth, which brings me to the subversive cinema of Nick Zedd.
A petulant role model of mine since I read his scathing “The Cinema of Transgression Manifesto,” Cinema of Transgression director and actor, as well as artist and writer, Nick Zedd infiltrated the New Museum on Friday night, in connection with the exhibition programming for XFR STN, to show a selection of his boundary-breaking films from War is Menstrual Envy to Ecstasy in Entropy and Police State. Zedd’s appearance created a disruption of trash in the New Museum, which despite their commitment to contemporary art usually does not get this shocking, allowing me to consider the inter-workings of Zedd’s transgressive vision.
As Zedd writes in “The Cinema of Transgression Manifesto,” under the name Orion Jeriko, in his fanzine The Underground Film Bulletin:
“All values must be challenged. Nothing is sacred. Everything must be questioned and reassessed in order to free our minds from the faith of tradition. Intellectual growth demands that risks be taken and changes occur in political, sexual and aesthetic alignments no matter who disapproves.”
Films That Look Like Garbage
Associated with directors such as Richard Kern and Tommy Turner, Zedd subversively began the Cinema of Transgression movement with his incredibly-named 1979 film They Eat Scum, which depicts the charmed life of Suzy Putrid and her band the Mental Deficients who kills her parents and causes a nuclear meltdown. With a premiere attended by Pop of Trash John Waters himself, They Eat Scum’s nihilistic and anarchic plot and low budget aesthetic provoked SoHo Weekly News writer Amy Taubin to link the film to “transgression” and also pose the wonderfully hysterical question, “If your subject is the world of garbage, why not make a film that looks like garbage?”
Often incorrectly lumped together with concurrent movement of No Wave cinema, Cinema of Transgression was inspired by the filthy aesthetic of Jack Smith, Kenneth Anger and John Waters rather than the icy, detached and let’s be honest, boring French New Wave films adored by the No Wave directors such as Beth and Scott B., Amos Poe and Eric Mitchell. Mining the post-punk scene of Downtown New York, Zedd’s films are filled with iconic figures such as porn star/performance artist Annie Sprinkle, Taylor Mead, Lydia Lunch and The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black’s body-painted frontwoman Kembra Pfahler, as well as lesser known strippers, porn stars and other seedy characters.
While I appreciate many of the other directors of the Cinema of Transgression, Zedd has always been my favorite due to his campy sense of humor and unrelenting visual assault on the viewer. Ranging from Annie Sprinkle rubbing her gigantic breasts on her burn victim boyfriend in War is Menstrual Envy to Zedd getting a blowjob from himself as a dead female suicide victim in Thrust in Me to Zedd’s naughty nod to Warhol’s Screen Tests in Why Do You Exist?, Zedd’s unwavering vision abuses the senses, shocks the viewer, transgresses taboos and challenges all that is sacred.
As the voiceover repeats throughout Zedd’s film The Bogus Man as artist Greer Lankton dances in a naked overweight woman costume:
“Why do my eyes have to see this? WHY?”
Transgress In Me
In her essay “The Transgression Aesthetic” in Deathtripping: The Cinema of Transgression, Stephanie Watson notes, “Transgression seems to belong to the oppressed, the outsider, the unknown or unseen part of our psyches, forbidden knowledge and desire” (36). An unquestionable outsider who was deported from Denmark and Sweden for showing his films, Zedd’s demented films and ideas on transgression follow in the footsteps of other transgressives such as Georges Bataille and Michel Foucault.
Certainly no stranger to transgression with his near constant musings on sex and death, Georges Bataille in his publication Death and Sensuality: A Study of Eroticim and the Taboo defines the symbiotic relationship between the taboo and transgression. He reveals, “The transgression does not deny the taboo but transcends it and completes it” (63). Revealing the scope of transgression’s power, he also later states, “There exists no prohibition that cannot be transgressed” (63).
Breaking any taboo possible in his films, Zedd’s role in his collaborative effort with Richard Kern, Thrust In Me (I apologize for the choppy-as-heck video. What the hell YouTube?) mirrors Bataille’s statements on the endless possibilities of transgression. The film follows Zedd as a man around the East Village while his girlfriend, who is also played by Zedd in drag, reads a book on suicide, tears a photo of Jesus off of a book cover, adheres it to the wall and slices her wrists in the bathtub, killing herself. Returning home, man-Zedd uses the bathroom, finding no toilet paper, wipes his ass on Jesus’s face. Then noticing his dead girlfriend, he does what any good boyfriend would do, gets a BJ from a corpse. In Thrust in Me, Zedd almost heroically manages to cross the line of acceptability relating to gender, suicide, blasphemy, necrophilia and self-love in just one short film.
In his “A Preface to Transgression,” in which he considers Bataille’s theories of transgression, Michel Foucault describes transgression in relation to the line or the limit. As Foucault observes, “The play of limits and transgression seems to be regulated by a simple obstinacy: transgression incessantly crosses and recrosses a line which closes up behind it in a wave of extremely short duration and thus it is made to return once more right to the horizon of the uncrossable” (34).
Defining his own ongoing assault of transgression, Zedd asserts in “The Cinema of Transgression Manifesto, “We propose to break all the taboos of our age by sinning as much as possible. There will be blood, shame, pain and ecstasy, the likes of which no one has yet imagined. None shall emerge unscathed. Since there is no afterlife, the only hell is the hell of praying, obeying laws, and debasing yourself before authority figures, the only heaven is the heaven of sin, being rebellious, having fun, fucking, learning new things and breaking as many rules as you can. This act of courage is known as transgression.”
As seen in Thrust in Me, Zedd’s is clearly not exaggerating with his intent to transcend through “sinning as much as possible.”
Can Transgression Create Change?
In Zedd’s “The Cinema of Transgression Manifesto,” he declares, “We propose transformation through transgression – to convert, transfigure and transmute into a higher plane of existence in order to approach freedom in a world full of unknowing slaves.”
However, is this conversion to a higher plane of existence through transgression, filth, trash and a campy sense of humor even possible? Can watching Annie Sprinkle and other big-breasted porn stars and strippers beat each other with their gigantic breasts in Ecstasy in Entropy or witnessing Kembra Pfahler’s black-toothed and bare-breasted blue nun grin in War is Menstrual Envy create a permanent space of freedom?
For Bataille, he is quick to stress that transgression does not affect the stability of taboos as the taboo needs transgression in order to define itself. As he emphasizes, “The frequency—and the regularity—of transgressions do not affect the intangible stability of the prohibition since they are its expected complement—just as the diastolic movement completes a systolic one or just as explosion follows upon compression. The compression is not subservient to the explosion, far from it, it gives it increased force” (65).
In other words, while transgression exceeds the limits of taboos, it does not destroy the entire structure of a taboo, limit or prohibition. Like Derrida, Foucault and other theorists point out repeatedly, to be outside a social construct such as a taboo only contributes to its power since it relies on these binaries for existence. However for a short period of time, the transgression works to subvert the taboo, revealing these boundaries as socially constructed and fluid rather than static and natural.
As Stephanie Watson explicates in “The Transgressive Aesthetic,” “Transgression gives the simultaneous experience of both a radical disruption and a reformulation of limits. It neither fully breaks or returns the limits that we perceive, instead it continually works to define those limits, a process which allows us to see how our present limits (which are never totally static) are constructed” (36).
Therefore looking at the scope of Nick Zedd’s cinematic transgression, each offensive, shocking and deranged moment, each gasp from the audience, each trashy squirt of Cheez Wiz on a woman’s giant breast in Why Do You Exist and each thrust into his own face in Thrust in Me contains a small subversion against these boundaries, revealing them as constructed and fluid rather than static and natural.
Best and most poetically described through a metaphor by Foucault who reveals, “Perhaps it is like a flash of lightning in the night which, from the beginning of time, gives a dense and black intensity to the night it denies, which lights up the night from the inside, from top to bottom, and yet owes to the dark the stark clarity of its manifestation, its harrowing and poised singularity; the flash loses itself in this space it marks with its sovereignty and becomes silent now that it has given a name to obscurity” (35).
And in the basement theater of the New Museum with Nick Zedd’s transgressive visions, what a beautiful lightning strike it was.
Note: A great deal of Zedd’s films can be seen on UbuWeb