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Richard Kern - "The Manhattan Love Suicides: Woman
Richard Kern - "The Manhattan Love Suicides: Woman at the Wheel", 1985, Film Still - Courtesy Richard Kern

YOU KILLED ME FIRST: The Cinema of Transgression

Violence, sex and horror are tied together with a dose of black humour in a film movement born to shock America

“There will be blood, shame, pain and ecstasy, the likes of which no one has yet imagined”, shouted Nick Zedd. The year was 1985 and the climate in New York was turbulent. Spawned from No Wave cinema and music, the Cinema of Transgression coined by Zedd aimed to outrage and violate morals and sensibilities, not pushing, but breaking with whatever boundaries it found. The term transgressive itself was first used by Zedd to describe his legacy with revolutionary filmmakers Kenneth Anger, Paul Morrissey and John Waters, and underground was the movement’s way of life and aspiration.

I like films that challenge and change my view on something or emotionally strike me in any way, may they be subtly and silently disturbing or aggressively and boisterously shocking

Confrontational and provocative, the loose-knit group of filmmakers and artists clashed with the academically refined works springing from the film schools of the time, by spewing low-budget, punk-styled nihilistic aggression, violent eroticism, sex, drugs and chaos, shot with cheap 8mm cameras and stolen equipment.

The films each in its very own way formulated aggressive statements on US society. The intention was to shock, to provoke and to confront

Now Nick Zedd joins Richard Kern, Lydia Lunch, Lung Leg, Karen Finley, Tessa Hughes-Freeland, Kembra Pfahler, Casandra Stark, Tommy Turner and David Wojnarowicz in the first group exhibition of the collective’s groundbreaking work, subverting aggression, exploring excess, challenging conventionalized gender roles and crashing society conventions. We caught up with the curator, Susanne Pfeffer, to talk about the motivations behind a group that remains largely unknown but have greatly influenced later generations of artists – and to find out why do they still shock, even today. 

Dazed Digital: What's the story behind the Cinema of Transgression? How did the sociopolitical background of the time inform what these filmmakers were doing?
Susanne Pfeffer:
In the 1980s the group of filmmakers emerged from the Lower East Side, New York. Their shared aims were to transgress “all limits set or prescribed by taste, morality or any other traditional value system”, as Nick Zedd postulated it in the Cinema of Transgression manifesto (1985). While the Reagan government mainly focused on counteracting the decline of traditional family values, the filmmakers went on a collision course with the conventions of American society by dealing with life in the Lower East Side defined by criminality, brutality, drugs, AIDS, sex, and excess.

DD: What was the message? What did they want to say, and why did they want to say it?
Susanne Pfeffer:
The films each in its very own way formulated aggressive statements on US society. The intention was to shock, to provoke and to confront. The films were primarily a radical response – YOU KILLED ME FIRST – to outdated social values and hypocritical double standards, to conventionalized gender roles, domestic violence as well as an ignorant view of poverty, drug consumption and HIV/AIDS.

DD: Nick Zedd said in the Cinema of Transgression manifesto, "any film which doesn't shock isn't worth looking at." Do you agree with this?
Susanne Pfeffer:
With reference to the Cinema of Transgression I would definitely agree. I would generally say that I like films that challenge and change my view on something or emotionally strike me in any way, may they be subtly and silently disturbing or aggressively and boisterously shocking.

DD: Aggression, violence, troubled minds, sexual politics, desire, suicide - were they the movement's social comments or did these themes have a personal, more intimate connection to the filmmakers?
Susanne Pfeffer:
Each film follows a very personal visual sense and demonstratively subjective readings of various living realities. About one film he directed together with Richard Kern, “Thrust In Me”, Nick Zedd once said: “By the time I made this, America had gone so far down the drain I was ready to kill myself but changed my mind when Kern offered me the chance to act it out in a film.” All filmmakers have been inspired by their own life stories and the films themselves emerged from an individual inner necessity. Art was the main element in life and life was the main element of art.

DD: Do you think these themes are gaining more popularity today?
Susanne Pfeffer:
Unfortunately the themes of social hardship met with sociopolitical indifference hardly became less topical. Even if the social problems have changed, it is as the Cinema of Transgression shows, imperative to respond to them. The films attest to an extraordinarily radical thrust that to this very day remains shocking, disturbing, while reflecting and challenging social paradigms.

DD: Given the nature and thematics of the images we're constantly exposed to today, are we still easy to shock?
Susanne Pfeffer:
The fact that these films still remain shocking, in spite of the massive presence of violence and pornography in contemporary societies, is quite surprising, but also points out a certain double standard in dealing with it.

DD: What are your personal favorites from the expo and why? What can we expect from it?
Susanne Pfeffer:
Of course all the films I chose to show I really like and are definitely worth watching. YOU KILLED ME FIRST is the first exhibition to present the movement to the broader general public. To present them all together will shed a new light on this group of filmmakers whose output has remained largely unscreened until now.

DD: Why this, why here, why now? What makes it relevant today?
Susanne Pfeffer:
Berlin was – already in the Eighties – one of the few and most important cities apart from New York where the films have been screened at all. As I mentioned before the relevance and importance lays in the remaining actuality and for me the radicality and the inner necessity of the movement's filmmaking is such outstanding, it can no longer be deprived of the public – especially today.

‘YOU KILLED ME FIRST: The Cinema of Transgression’ group exhibition is showing from February 19 – April 8 at the KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Auguststraße 69 D-10117 Berlin. Entry only over 18