In the mid 1980’s, an underground film movement in New York aimed to transgress tradition through shock value and violence, led in part by a meek photographer.
Do you ever wish to be outraged? Does the repetition of what you see, hear and experience sometimes bore the life out of you? Do you want to feel something more when you watch a film, read a book, listen to a song? The desire to feel our basest urges is an unavoidable human trait. This is why we love horror movies, why we want to feel love and why we like to destroy that love, why the thrill of an expensive purchase lingers. Risk. Humans like to put their morals on the line, for their views to be threatened and for the possibility to defend those views.
When applied to cinema, philosophical or aesthetic views are always being challenged. Alfred Hitchcock’s films were considered explicit and violent, but now seem tame. Going back even further, sound being introduced to film in 1927 with The Jazz Singer was considered revolutionary where we now take it for granted. Things impossible become possible, then become standard. While we wait for the next revolution we become bored with how things are. This is when we desire to be shocked, aggravated, inflamed.
The Cinema Of Transgression, a loose group of artists living in New York City during the 1980’s, aimed to inflame audiences. Shock was the key-word, followed by humour and violence. Their films were made on Super-8 cameras, the cheapest at the time, and were low-quality, low-budget shorts shown only in clubs. Their content was not allowed in cinemas, and even today wouldn’t be. Nick Zedd, whom many consider the founder of the movement, wrote in the Manifesto, ‘Any film which doesn’t shock isn’t worth looking at.’ And shock these filmmakers, writers and poets did.
The Cinema Of Transgression aimed to engage audiences by appealing to their basest urges. The explicit and violent content of these films was what the artists considered a true form of entertainment. Most people would gasp at being told these films were entertainment, or be offended at the claim they may enjoy watching these kinds of things. But the transgressive filmmakers of the movement saw through this facade and knew that, despite us not wanting to admit it, we enjoy violence in films, we like to be shocked and confronted, to feel immediately and feel strongly.
The movement featured some names to later become large. Jim Jarmusch, renowned director of Coffee and Cigarettes, Dead Man and most recently The Dead Don’t Die, was involved in the movement for a short time. Lydia Lunch, singer, performance poet and writer, was featured in many films as an actress. However it was the lesser known names that made the movement what it was. Funding their own films or working with no budget at all, Nick Zedd, Tessa-Hughes Freeland, Tommy Turner and many others created prolifically, with no particular philosophy in mind other than to shock.
At the centre of these artists, and who could be considered the most successful of them, was Richard Kern. Now working primarily as a photographer and as a regular contributor to VICE and Playboy magazine, Kern not only explored violence and extremes in his films, but focused more on the perverse nature of the photographer or filmmaker. Kern’s short films, whilst undoubtedly a part of the Cinema Of Transgression canon, explore the relationship between filmmaker and actor, photographer and subject, and introduce transgressive elements into this dynamic.
Kern’s first film, You Killed Me First, plays out like an ugly television drama. Featuring the movement’s answer to Audrey Hepburn, a bedraggled, dishevelled actress named Lung Leg, the film sees a dysfunctional family descend into extreme violence. Kern’s films later took on a more artistic, abstract quality, such as in Submit To Me, a dialogue-free character study of multiple names in the movement played over heavy metal music. These kinds of films trace Kern’s career from a filmmaker to a photographer, a change he himself highlighted in his film The Evil Photographer.
The Evil Photographer features Kern and a model he is photographing. What starts innocently dissolves into inappropriate and shocking behaviour, caricatured of course but strong and simple in its message. Even titling his films Submit To Me and Submit To Me Now exemplifies the kind of themes Kern worked within. More so than his contemporaries within the movement, Kern’s films seem to not only satirise society and morals, but filmmaking itself. Where these transgressive filmmakers aimed to shock viewers, Kern also decided to shock filmmakers with exposition and explicitness, blurring the lines of meaning within film.
On the back of the only collected edition of Kern’s work on DVD, ‘The Hardcore Collection’, Kern states, ‘I’ve tried it all: crime thrills, drug thrills, sex thrills. Nowadays, I get most of my thrills by offending people with my films.’ This fairly well sums up the Cinema Of Transgression.
Offensive cinema is harder now to come across. Progressions in culture and politics as well as trends in what is culturally acceptable makes it either extremely easy to shock, or extremely hard. Perhaps this can be a good thing. Sometimes what we need is a wholesome escape from reality, a view of something better or a dream realised in images. Does art always need to be pushing us forward, or are we merely being entertained? This is where entertainment and art clash. Both have their place, and both can be explored in various movements, styles and qualities. What the young, down-on-their-luck filmmakers of the Cinema Of Transgression movement wanted to do was to wake people up to their basest urges. We relax, we settle into monotony, and then we are crudely woken up.
By exploring not only the relationship between film and audience but the relationship between filmmakers, film and audience, Richard Kern and similarly minded creatives explored an avenue of short, sharp art we could benefit from in the modern world. An epic takes us on a journey through various emotions, highs and lows, pain and glee, but a four-minute punch to the face can leave a more lasting impact. Whilst bingeing on Netflix brings the comfort and escape we crave in modern circumstances, it can be beneficial to be reminded of the more animalistic nature of humankind, well-documented in these brief, violent, raucous films.
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