“Any film that doesn’t shock isn’t worth looking at,” Nick Zedd wrote in the Cinema of Trangression Manifesto. Are Zedd’s films still worth looking at, according to his own standard? Three decades after the heyday of no wave filmmaking, at a time when Jersey Shore and Bridalplasty are taken seriously, does the “cinema of transgression” still transgress?
Let’s say Zedd’s films still shock. Is his thesis correct? This is a larger question, beyond the scope of this review, but how you answer it will predict, to a great degree, how much you enjoy this collection.
“Abnormal: The Sinema of Nick Zedd” is a DVD collection of twelve Zedd films, made between 1980 and 2001. They Eat Scum, his most famous film, is not included. The films feature, among other things, pornography, surgical procedures, simulated strangulation, simulated necrophilia, simulated suicide, vomiting, menstruation, abrasive music and thermonuclear war. All of the films have low production values, and most are silent; the soundtrack is either a musical track, a medley of songs or narration of some kind.
The films are obscene in the most literal sense of the word. They are also difficult to watch. Explicit sex and simulated violence are in many of the films. One features a sex scene between a woman and a full-body burn victim, followed by credits superimposed over a close-up of eye surgery. The DVD’s first film ends with a young boy disappearing into a giant woman’s vagina. Even the “g-rated” films aren’t easy viewing: The Wild World of Lydia Lunch fits the dictionary definition of irony, as the wildest thing that happens is a dog running through a field.
“Obscenity is a very difficult question to discuss honestly,” Orwell wrote. “People are too frightened either of seeming to be shocked or of seeming not to be shocked, to be able to define the relationship between art and morals.” We can’t quite say that today; today, the very idea that there is a relationship between “art and morals” is almost shocking in itself. To the elite, the point of art is to appear to challenge their values without actually doing so––or, more correctly, to challenge somebody else’s values while affirming their own.
The paradox, of course, is that the very people these films shock are the ones least likely to see them. Those who seek them out seek them out because they like them, or because they fill some need best left unexplained. At best, a few souls will stumble upon a late-night showing of a Zedd or Kern or Buttgereit film on public access––but how likely is that, in an age where people can sue merely because they’ve been offended?
More than obscene, these films are short, rarely lasting more than 20 minutes. This is enough time to give a condensed, usually wordless narrative, or a filmed idea. Some of the films have no narrative at all, or a narrative that’s implied at best. The Wild World of Lydia Lunch includes a letter, tape-recorded by Lunch, detailing the financial and artistic woes of the letter-writer; as she narrates, we see her moping in her room and through the London streets. This film, though only 20 minutes, feels like a small eon; perhaps they play it on a loop in purgatory, to make the punishment seem longer.
Another question, more or less independent of the obscenity one, is whether a work of art has merit. Take away the controversial elements, or consider them independently, and ask yourself if the work has anything of value to say. In the Realm of the Senses is a pornographic film, but it also tells a story; if you remove every explicit scene, or keep them as is, the film remains a study of obsession. Whether real sex should be shown or not is a separate issue.
There’s one more artistic question, even more basic than the first two: do you care to experience this? All art is judged, in part, on the people who answer “yes” to this question. This is not a question of quality, though if no one says “yes,” the art cannot survive. If art ceases to fill a need, it dies, however beautiful or rare.
Which brings us back to the central problem with Zedd’s films. In an era such as ours, can eye surgery, oral sex, simulated rape or menstrual blood be really subversive––when mainstream television is encouraging brides to get plastic surgery for their wedding day, when “reality tv” makes soap operas look real and nuanced, when, thanks to the internet, we’re even more aware of the war, poverty and devastation that fills most of the world? In Zedd’s films, a few characters die, but rarely (if ever) more than one per film. In mainstream movies, directors routinely kill entire neighborhoods just to get the audience’s attention. How can you transgress something so thoroughly amoral?
I am not the first person to bring this up. “The desensitization itself is the perversion,” Eugene Hütz, a Ukranian musician (and occasional actor––in Zedd’s films as well as others) said in an interview. “For example, Nick Zedd…was extremely subversive. [His films] challenged the remains of the plastic façade, the ‘Totem of the Depraved’ that had the power. Now, the fucking mainstream television is the Totem of the Depraved.”
The question, then, isn’t if his films are worth watching by the standards of a manifesto, but if they’re worth watching for you. I think the answer depends greatly on who you are. If you are a film student, a performance artist or Lester Bangs, Zedd’s films may be right for you. If you are sensitive to guts, gore, sex or nudity, these films aren’t. If you are none of the above, I suspect you’ll only watch the films once, though I don’t know what impact they’ll have on you.
I honestly cannot say that any of Zedd’s films gave me cause to think. My main thought, watching this collection, was “Why am I still watching this?” Yes, the films are unsettling, and most of them, despite being hampered by shoestring budgets, show Zedd’s vision and artistic talent. The acting, in the narrative features, is pretty good. They do not “tranquilize and obfuscate” as some avant-garde films do; for art films, they are refreshingly to the point. But they had no real effect on me.
Cinema of Transgression aimed to “go beyond all limits set or prescribed by taste, morality or any other traditional value system shackling the minds of men.” Unfortunately for us, television executives have found ways to accomplish this without challenging the status quo. Woe betide us, starting with them!