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A frame from "Ecstasy in Entropy," a film by Nick Zedd.

A frame from "Ecstasy in Entropy," a film by Nick Zedd.

“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.

Nick Zedd in Thrust In Me, dir. Zedd and Richard Kern.

Nick Zedd self-stars in Thrust In Me, dir. Zedd and Richard Kern.

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.

Nick Zedd.

Nick Zedd.

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!

Anna Cropper and Tim Curry in Schmoedipus.

Anna Cropper and Tim Curry in Schmoedipus.

BBC’s Play for Today ran from 1970 to 1984. Each program lasted fifty to 100 minutes and told a self-contained, “kitchen-sink” story. Stage plays, original plays and novels were all adapted for the confines of the program. Play for Today is most known for the episode “Rumpole and the Confession of Guilt,” a one-off which later became a series on Thames Television. Many of Play For Today‘s programs are celebrated as stand-alone productions.

Schmoedipus is one of these programs, written by Dennis Potter (of The Singing Detective fame) and directed by Barry Davis. Save a dodgy VHS copy (now available online), the only known copy of this film is in a “New York Film Museum,” though a quick google search finds no museum of that name. The program stars a young Tim Curry, as well as Anna Cropper (The Lost Boys, Two Minds) and Bob Hoskins (Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Brazil).

Here is Schmoedipus‘s plot: on her 40th birthday, Elizabeth (Anna Cropper) sees her husband (Bob Hoskins) off to work, then settles in to another boring day. Soon after he leaves, a young man knocks on her door, forces his way inside and claims to be her long-lost son. Glen (Tim Curry), now 24, was born by Elizabeth at age 16, then taken away against her will. She has thought of him every day since; now that he’s before her in the flesh, tempestuous and unbecoming emotions flood her soul, making her susceptible to Glen’s pernicious, poisonous influence.

Is Glen really Elizabeth’s son, a figment of her imagination or a disturbed stranger? The play leaves the viewer many clues pointing towards different conclusions. Whatever you decide, the essential fact of the play is Elizabeth’s trauma: first, at the rape which led to pregnancy, and then the forced separation between mother and child. It’s hard not to watch the film and think “poor Elizabeth” at every scene, even as she almost kisses her son in a decidedly non-maternal way.

Equally impressive is Tim Curry’s performance as Glen. Schmoedipus came out a year before The Rocky Horror Picture Show, where Curry played the outrageous, cross-dressing, hypersexual mad scientist, Dr. Frank N. Furter. His performance here could not be more different. Here, Curry’s sexual charisma is subdued and sinister, equal parts childlike and serpentine. He delivers certain lines with a chilling mixture of petulance and provocation that will make the women in the audience very, very uncomfortable––and intrigued, in spite or because of their discomfort. At the program’s climax, he sings “M.O.T.H.E.R.” in a “sweet and wholesome way.” Curry’s vocal talents are used to great effect here; watching, one wishes ’70s and ’80s Hollywood had made better use of them.

Most of the action takes place in Elizabeth’s living room, where she and Glen have a long, sexually and emotionally-charged conversation. Glen sits on her lap, pours her “just a little” overflowing glass of sherry, strokes her arm and then throws tantrums, much to her bewilderment. Glen tells her that he burned his adoptive parents’s house down, that he escaped from a mental institution, that “you owe me my childhood all over.” They never kiss, or do anything worse, though they do come quite close.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth’s husband has a Willy-Loman-style crack-up at the office. Himself an overgrown child, Mr. Elizabeth has a full model train set in their house. In fact, he loves the trains more than he loves his wife––a source of great frustration to her. When he comes home to find Elizabeth quite disturbed, his main concern is not her state of mind, but the state of his trains. The image of these trains, running around and around on the same track, begins and ends this film.

Schmoedipus will unsettle any viewer. Its great performances and slow, methodic pace reward anyone willing to delve into it. Though not exploitative or violent, its frank treatment of sexual abuse may be too much for some. And Tim Curry fans will find it interesting to see the early beginnings of his career in film.

Above all else, this film reminds me of one line in Josyane Savigneau’s excellent biography of Carson McCullers. “Adults they did not become,” she says of McCullers and her husband, “but they did grow old.” This describes all three principle characters in the program: Elizabeth’s trauma froze her in time; her husband wants to remain a little boy, and on some level does; Glen wants his “childhood all over,” an impossible goal even at 24. Adding to all this thwarted innocence are twisted sexualities which, when denied, flood into inappropriate channels. Is there a moral to this movie? Not really, just observation of human sadness. Is that enough?

Watch Schmoedipus on megavideo, or find the elusive “New York Film Museum” and book a screening.

Frank N. Furter from the Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Tim Curry as Frank N. Furter in the Rocky Horror Picture Show.

This personal essay was written for a friend of mine, a die-hard Rocky fan who wanted me to “explain myself,” i.e. why I’m not as devoted to this film as she is.

Long before I watched the Rocky Horror Picture Show––a decade before, to be exact––it was already an integral part of my adolescent consciousness. “Let’s Do The Time Warp Again” is high canon at CTY, a summer camp for “talented youth” ages 12 to 16. At every dance, this (and about twenty other songs) have to be played, with some thirty or forty low-canon songs rotating on the playlist as well.

I watched bowdlerized parts of the film on Comedy Central and read a review on capalert, a Christian website dedicated to detailing the licentious and violent scenes in every popular film––which was great for us teens, since it told us which films had all the good stuff. I quote:

Ignominy in this cult flick included homosexual song and talk, homosexual presences and practices, and vulgar behavior such as a man’s head between a man’s legs behind translucent drapes; detailed statue nudity, nudity in plain view and behind translucent drapes, intercourse behind the same; inappropriate touch (both hetero- and homosexual) and begging for it, very brief clothing, group licking/kissing; transvestism, adults in underwear, suggestive (homosexual) eye movements; vulgar positioning in very brief clothing, explicit homosexual song/dance; expressions such as “There’s no crime in giving yourself over to pleasure” speaking to trying homosexuality.

Ebert never wrote such a glowing endorsement.

My mother conflated Rocky Horror with Pink Flamingos, and believed (believes, I’ll bet) that midnight showings were (are) a den of iniquity, where people throw shit at the screen, have sex on stage, smoke marijuana cigarettes and slash up the seats with switchblade knifes. Having never been to a midnight showing, I cannot confirm this, although I rather hope it’s true.

In high school, a friend invited me over to watch the movie at her house. I must have been sixteen or seventeen; at the time, I was taking fistfuls of prescription drugs for a trumped-up bipolar charge and a bad case of not doing my homework. My memory is therefore unreliable, but I remember there being maybe half-a-dozen people there besides me and her. One of her friends, a veteran midnight-showing-attendee, wrote “V” on my forehead in lipstick. “V” for virgin, for someone who has never before seen the film. As it turns out, watching RHPS on a television in the evening is nothing like seeing it at midnight with an entire audience shouting at the screen. Out of all the attendants, only her veteran friend knew the callbacks, which he quickly abandoned.

I’d never seen anyone like Frank N. Furter before, fictional or otherwise. I’d seen drag queens, sure, but they weren’t that sexual and foreward. Tim Curry steals every scene he’s in, doesn’t he? At sixteen I thought so. Despite this, I couldn’t figure out the plot–-I still can’t.

I forgot about the movie until I was twenty-three, when I watched a pirated copy on my computer. The film depressed me, though at that age, street signs and rainbows depressed me. The dinner scene reminded me of my upbringing––not something you want to think about while watching an escapist sci-fi/fantasy parody film. That was the second, and last, time I watched the film.

Rocky Horror Picture Show is an enjoyable movie with good music. Not for nothing does it have the longest-running release in movie history. At heart, it’s a filmed play; its format encourages, perhaps demands audience participation. And Tim Curry is by far the best thing in the whole movie; without him, I doubt the film would be remembered at all. I may not share your dedication, but in some way I understand it and, yes, admire it.

Marjoe Gortner "heals" a woman at a tent revival service.

Can God deliver a religion addict?

––Marjoe Gortner

When Marjoe Gortner was just four years old, his parents started him to preaching in churches throughout the American south. An ordained minister at four, Gortner wed couples, sermonized on television and became a celebrity on the Pentecostal circuit. He continued preaching––earning his parents millions in the process––up until he was fourteen, when he ran away.

In his early twenties, Marjoe fell in with the Southern California hippie movement. To earn a living, however, he returned to pentecostal evangelism as a “day job.” The cognitive dissonance of thinking left and earning right wore on him; in 1972, when he was 28 years old, he commissioned a film crew to document his last “tour” through the Pentecostal churhces, as well as his frank thoughts on the matter. Thus this film.

And what a film it is. Marjoe shows its eponymous protagonist delivering sermons to congregations in Texas, California and Michigan. The directors cut between his sermons, their raving crowds and footage of Gortner in private, speaking with some weariness of the “gimmick.” He describes inking a cross on his forehead in special ink that shows up with perspiration––leading the congregation to believe that he has a sign on his forehead. We see him counting the money backstage with the head preacher at one church, and talking with another about the latter’s property in the Amazon, which is being sold and redeveloped to “a company that makes corn flakes.”

A young Marjoe Gortner.

A young Marjoe Gortner.

It would be hard to create a more devastating, or disturbing, portrait of evangelism––yet this isn’t a smear piece. Despite the hypocrisy of his job, Marjoe comes across as thoughtful, insightful and well-meaning, if a bit lost. “I think I’m a bad person but not an evil one,” he says at one point in the film. He may be duping his congregations, but he doesn’t appear to view them with contempt. Despite his abusive upbringing, or perhaps because of it, he comes across as a grounded, well-rounded person. Gortner also makes plain much of the human condition through his own experience and observation. It’s a good thing, too––the scenes of people convulsing, shouting in tongues and dancing might be overwhelming and frightening without him to guide the viewer along.

The film begins, after an introduction, with Marjoe advising the director and camera crew what they can and cannot do in these circles. Even though his congregations are “all about love,” conformity is absolutely vital––one of the male crewmembers must “lose the long locks” and everyone must profess to being saved––”I’m washed in the same blood as you.” “It’s a very bloody religion,” Marjoe says off-handedly.

Though shot in the early 70s, the congregations’s fashions seem a decade behind, if not more: we see clubmasters and horn-rimmed glasses, polyester suits with straight pants, white-collared shirts with short sleeves, beehive updos and large curls. Even in his “conservative” outfits, Marjoe looks out of place, with his polka-dotted shirt, his all-white pants suit and his long curly hair. In an interview with Roger Ebert, Gortner said that he dressed that way for the audience:

A preacher is a man who has been blessed by God on Earth. If he doesn’t drive a Cadillac, they don’t think much of him; God must not favor him. He’s got to look good, feel good and smell good.

His congregations, Marjoe says, just want a peak experience like you and I find in a rock concert or on drugs. For them, this peak experience has to be laced through with warnings of hellfire and warnings against sexual sin; otherwise, for reasons not quite explained, they can’t “get loose” or “get turned on.” Funny, that, since the religious ectsasy we see has obvious similarities to orgasm. Again and again people tremble, scream, convulse, speak nonsense, fall and shake like epileptics. Even the beatific expressions on these people’s faces looks orgasmic.

Marjoe also clearly cares about the people who come to see him. This may be an egotistical concern, the same way a band member wants the audience to have a good time. Even if it is, he cares about them a sight more than the other preachers shown in the film. In one scene, people come up to talk to him and drop money in a bucket by his feet. He’s leaning over a fence of some sort, separating the stage from the congregation; he leans over, his eyes meeting theirs, a wide but sad smile rising and falling from his face as he listens to them. And he’s listening: he holds their hands, soothes them during manic episodes, he responds to their words with kindness and sincerity. He may need to do this for the money, but on some level, it’s clear, he likes putting on a show and he likes helping people. It’s everything else that’s hateful to him.

One of this film’s strengths is the stories it doesn’t tell, the lives it shows and hints at in scene after scene. The most extraordinary scenes unfold in close shots and brief glances, from an elderly man crying with an eyepatch over one eye, to a bored little boy sitting in a pew while adults rave around him, to the self-satisfied smirk of one woman churchleader as the donations roll in. It’s become fashionable, in the American left at least, to mock evangelicals and treat them as one large redneck stereotype. This movie shows their humanity and, perhaps in spite of itself, offers cause for anger. These aren’t bad people, and even if you disagree with their beliefs, where’s the honor in hornswoggling them? How much honor is there in never giving a sucker an even break?

Marjoe Gortner delivering a sermon.

Clearly, these services are just that, a service for their members; otherwise the pews wouldn’t be packed. At one mostly-black church, the music is so powerful that it seems more than worth a little “generous donation” just to hear and dance to it. Rock concerts and drugs ain’t free, either. But concertgoers and drug-takers know that their money is lining the pockets of scoundrels; these preachers hide their corruption behind “this façade of holiness.”

Towards the end of the film, we meet Marjoe’s girlfriend, a young, soft-spoken woman in Californian, 70s-chic outfits. “I don’t know all this Jesus business,” she sighs, “I just find it hard to believe that they [the audiences] believe it too.” Who knows? Who could possibly know? Just as young people who hate drugs do them to be “cool,” so too must people with unorthodox beliefs join a church out of fear of the neighbor, or give lip-service to certain beliefs to get the peak experience without the neighbors gossiping. If this is the case, one can’t help wondering who’s swindling whom.

Subterranean Homesick Blues

Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg in the video for "Subterranean Homesick Blues"

If you want to lose all respect for Bob Dylan as a person, watch Dont Look Back. If not––if you prefer your legends legendary, say––don’t bother. However much you love Dylan’s music, this film shows him not as myth, but as mammal. True, times have a-changed, and he may have grown into a person you’d actually want to share a room, even a conversation, with. Martin Scorcese’s No Direction Home, which features contemporary interviews with Dylan, hints at this possibility. But don’t count on it.

The Bob Dylan we see in Dont Look Back (no apostrophe, for some meaningless reason) is 23 or 24 years old. He is already famous; in fact, he is now “the voice of a generation.” Over the course of the film, we see him play music on-stage and off, ride in cars, interact with journalists and fans and, most of all, do nothing in particular in various hotel rooms and backstage lounges, surrounded by friends and hangers-on. Pennebaker uses some archival footage of Dylan playing to a group of black farmhands, and a music video for “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” which begins the film.

Dont Look Back is an early example of “cinema verité,” a style of documentary filmmaking that sought truth by documenting people in everyday situations, by showing “exactly what happens, moment by moment.” These filmmakers used handheld cameras and mobile equipment to capture their subjects, in contrast to the soundstages and fixed cameras of contemporaneous Hollywood films. Cinema verité documentaries had looser structure, stylistic editing and somewhat staged set-ups as ways to get to the “deeper truth” of the matter.

It’s strange that a film style focused on truth was used to show someone so given to artifice. At age eighteen or nineteen, Robert Allen Zimmerman changed his name to Bob Dylan, for unknown, unknowable reasons. Young Dylan quickly fashioned himself after Woody Guthrie, creating a folksy persona out of whole cloth. In reality a Jew from Minnesota, Dylan reinvented himself as an Appalachian troubador. His involvement with Joan Baez and the civil rights movement led him towards a proletarian persona, even as his manager, Albert Grossman, bid up his performance price and put him in high-class hotel suites. “You can’t print the truth,” he tells one reporter in the film. Well, Bob, you don’t exactly give them a fair chance.

To add strange to strange, Dylan approved this film’s final cut, despite (or perhaps because of) the way it belied the legend. “It’s easy enough to make a film putting someone down,” Roger Ebert pointed out, “all you have to do is slant your material. But to make a film putting YOURSELF down––and then not even to realize it!” There is no contradiction in being “a good artist and a disgusting human being,” but most famous disgusting human beings have publicists to gloss over that sort of thing. Dylan didn’t, or maybe he didn’t care enough.

No one hangs out with Dylan; they only orbit him at a greater or lesser distance. We see this in one scene where some kind of party is happening in Bob’s hotel suite. “Maggie’s Farm” plays on the stereo; one to two dozen people stand and sit around, smoking, drinking and talking. In the midst of this excitement, Bobby Neuwirth and Bob Dylan add to their wall collage. A pretty young woman smokes a cigarette and half dances, half paces across the floor. At one point she’s standing in their path to the wall––they walk towards her, and she jumps back, almost by instinct; as they pass, she watches them intently. We can’t see their faces, but they move as though they do not see her. Certainly they don’t notice her. As they add to the collage, she stands behind them, watching.

A scene from Dont Look Back, directed by D.A. Pennebaker.

Alan Price, left, and Bob Dylan in a scene from D.A. Pennebaker's Dont Look Back

The film treats us to a few cringe-inducing sequences where Bob Dylan insults various reporters, and not even eloquently. In one horrible scene with “the science student,” Dylan torments some college kid trying to interview him backstage. His entourage laughs and snickers at the humiliating spectacle. If Bob Dylan was a jock instead of a songwriter, no viewer would tolerate this pointless cruelty. But because it’s Dylan, and the student is “pretentious,” it’s all right.

There are good parts of the film. Joan Baez is smart, charming and beautiful, even as Bobby Neuwirth insults her and Bob Dylan ignores her. Alan Price, who had just left the Animals, says a few of the film’s funniest lines in his wonderful Geordie accent. The musical performances are almost all of the first rate. And there’s one scene where an upper-class woman invites Dylan to her “mansion-house” on behalf of her mortified teenage sons, which is entertaining no matter what.

But unfortunately, much of the film seems like an extended, unintended treatise on the banality of cruelty and the power of fame. Though a prodigiously gifted songwriter and performer, Dylan does not strike the viewer as being intelligent, compassionate or otherwise above-average. His one humorous line in the film––”Give the anarchist a cigarette”––is delivered with some encouragement and terrible timing. One senses that the story, the legend, the myth of Bob Dylan was created out of necessity––but which necessity, and necessary for whom?

In one early scene, Alan Price discusses Donovan, Bob’s apparent rival, with Dylan and Joan Baez. “I like him, anyway,” Price says. “He’s not a fake. He’s all right.” What does the word “fake” mean in a film like this? Let’s spare ourselves a magniloquent answer. Donovan is a good musician and sings with authenticity. Later in the film we see him perform “To Sing For You,” and he indeed is not a fake. Neither, in an important sense, is Dylan: it is because of his musical ability that anyone watches this film at all.

This may be Dont Look Back‘s most important lesson: works of great power, poetry and depth are not made by rare creatures with feet of gold; they succeed because they touch something in you, something unknowable that may have nothing to do with you at all. Perhaps this is what truth is, at least where art is concerned. All else––and that includes the artist––is not relevant.

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