Anarchy in Cinema: Transgressive Cinema and Andy Warhol

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Screenshot from documentary "Blank City"

Screenshot from documentary “Blank City”

One of the most fundamental terms and yet one of the most difficult concepts to grasp is that of artistic anarchy. Anarchy is usually classified as a state of disorder due to absence or non-recognition of authority. Anarchy a superficial and flat word and it doesn’t encompass what needs to be understood in the artistic sense.

Though there are multitudes of different perspectives on the wide-ranging medium as film, there’s always a dire need to inject ideas into the conversation nonetheless. However, in the case of filmmaking, setting the business perspective aside completely for the opening duration, it’s organic. Every film screams to the audience in many different tones and tongues different styles, different moods, and a different attitude to that of the one coming before and after it. Though originality may have many well-placed arguments to why it is not alive in art today, the outlook filmmakers take on all of this unoriginality is the reaction of an original idea.

Nick Zedd

Nick Zedd

The original idea is individual perspective and yes, it is a reactionary form of expression in many cases. To explain, a film can push the audience into places mentally that are uncomfortable and challenge. This is a reaction to the film, whereas the film itself is usually a reaction to the culture it is now reflecting on screen. This is a constant tug back and forth of reactionary worlds of the film and the audience. And due to this constant dance back and forth, film is an art form that constantly changes and evolves. Through technical skill and proficiency on set or in the editing room, the technology that has made film not only accessible to almost every person, but has also democratized the playing field for distribution and exhibition. This era in filmmaking is the epitome of a singular idea: We forget that as art changes, the artist must change with it.

Art is application of human creativity and imagination, and with this expression all art must stress the limits, pushing to a point that you do not wish to cross and then pass it. As our minds evolve, as our rational changes, so should the art. Now this is very evident by simple observation of art throughout history, especially cinema since its lifespan is so much briefer. Not because films are becoming more graphic, or hostile, or avant-garde, or pandering. Filmmaking needs to mature.

One of the more progressive filmmaking movements from the 1980s is No Wave Cinema, more specifically Nick Zedd’s Cinema of Transgression, in which he likens filmmaking produced by institutions of the studio and film school to that of people who are not truly ascending the means of filmmaking and are taking an “easy approach to cinematic creativity” that “legitimize every mindless manifestation of sloppy movie making undertaken by a generation of misled film students, the dreary media arts centers and geriatric cinema critics”. Now, this begins the fundamental argument of the concept of anarchy in art, and especially expressed through cinema that was becoming a prevalent idea in the late 1970s.

First and foremost, Nick Zedd is not a good filmmaker. The majority of his work is the lowest common denominator of filmmaking. Nevertheless, his debut film They Eat Scum premiered in 1979, and to be quite honest, it shows Zedd’s talent and drive. Though sleazy and schlocky, it was competent and focused. Comparable to John Waters’ Mondo Trasho and E. Elias Merhige’sBegotten, it is an exercise in endurance and the manipulation of common film language. This is ironic due to Waters’ obvious influence on the No Wave Movement, being established as one of the great sleaze kings of the 1970s with Pink Flamingos in 1972 and Desperate Living in 1977. However, it was less the content of the work at first that influenced Zedd and his fellows (among whom were Jim Jarmusch, Tom DiCillo, Steve Buscemi, and Vincent Gallo), but more the fact that Waters accomplished so much notoriety without the need for former schooling, or the desire to create films that institutionalized filmmaking was (and still is) being promulgated at the time as the norm. Waters idolized unsung shock heroes such as Kroger Babb and gimmicked directors like William Castle.

"Pink Flamingos" Theatrical Poster

“Pink Flamingos” Theatrical Poster

Why the influence is so important is that is the idolization of the generally agreed upon unscrupulous works of cinema. That opened the world of cinematic expression to a completely unforeseen ground. Boundaries were now there to be pushed. Now, this attitude can originate as early as German Expressionism, and especially in the French New Wave and New Hollywood movements, it was this particular place in history, which makes this so important.

Returning to Zedd’s They Eat Scum, the work is expressive of the time; the end of the 1970s, the Cold War reaching its peak, creative expression manipulated and guided by film schools and studios and the death of the Age of the Auteur (with the creation of the blockbuster film with Spielberg’s Jaws, Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate). This is the reactionary stance that many movement films take, and it was highly critical of the era and the audience, causing several riots during the screenings. Though his subsequent films (such asGeek Maggot Bingo and Whoregasm) may be undiluted trash without much form or consistency, the mode of expression Zedd uses is the important aspect of the story. To create something that the filmmaker themselves could not classify. This, again, settles into the vein of Pop Art that originated in the 1950s, and this was the epitome of the Andy Warhol era in New York, however it was far more than the simplistic nihilism Warhol embraced in his artwork and cinema. This was aggressive nihilism with a demand for lack of defined structure. What makes this kind of work so unique as opposed to many other movements at the time is the attitude it took the same material.

"Chelsea Girls" Theatrical Poster

“Chelsea Girls” Theatrical Poster

For example, Warhol’s Chelsea Girls was created in 1966, of which Roger Ebert wrote, “…what we have here is 3½ hours of split-screen improvisation poorly photographed, hardly edited at all, employing perversion and sensation like chili sauce to disguise the aroma of the meal. Warhol has nothing to say and no technique to say it with. He simply wants to make movies, and he does: hours and hours of them.”

This is the central idea to Warhol, making art for the sake of it, without adding on any form of deeper understanding or meaning. Again, this can be expressed as nihilistic, and to be quite honest, he is what sets the true grounds for Anarchic Cinema (as much as that is personally disappointing). However, this is where Warhol’s vein of filmmaking techniques and philosophies diverge with that of No Wave Cinema. Transgressive movies were of the same breed of cinematic nihilism, however it wasn’t as unresponsive as Warhol’s breed (which included Paul Morrissey and Ronald Tavel). Transgressive Cinema was aggressive nihilism. It was reactive to the world the world, whereas Warhol Film was passive to the world. Now, as the dictionary definition of nihilism would be life without objective meaning, purpose, or intrinsic value, how could one be ‘aggressively’ nihilistic?

Warhol Film was the equivalent of standing in traffic. Obstructing the flow of traffic and information and not caring that it was occurring or the consequences of their actions. Thus, this is a passive attitude. Transgressive Cinema is the equivalent of the scene in the Blues Brothers where they crash bombastically through a mall without ever once giving a look of concern for the safety of anyone else that may be in their way, or themselves personally. This is an aggressive attitude toward the same concept. Whereas Transgressive Cinema rejects the tenants of convention and tradition, it still retains structure in a self-perpetuating system giving birth to numerous interpretations that are still being used in practice to this very day, Warhol Film ceased to exist with the death of Andy Warhol. This is another aspect on how No Wave Cinema has had a profoundly deeper impact on the idea of Anarchic Cinema than Warhol. Warhol could be just as much of a contributor as Stan Brakhage or Mitchell Leisen.

The result of the idea of transgressive movies is that anything can be accomplished with a camera. This was ebbing to the masses as these films went international. Transgressive Cinema was the unrestrained and overly individualistic version of anarchy expressed as and through art. This is also why that its life as a movement was so brief. Though short-lived, it was not, as aforementioned, without impact.

Directly after this era however, due to a combined influence of the low-tech visual style and execution of American independent films of the late 1970s-1980s, as well as the ‘80s VHS boom also gives birth to two more film theoretical movements that, at their core, express anarchy as cinema, though from two drastically different points of view. They were able to breathe their own unique interpretation and divergence from Transgressive Cinema into a duo of perspectives that not only would change the face of independent filmmaking worldwide, as well as alter modern film language for mainstream audiences but also seal the base for what will become the theory of Anarchic Cinema: Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg’s Dogme 95 and the Japanese V-Cinema.

To be continued… (Anarchy in Cinema: Part Two – The Idiots and Miike)

Written by Matthew Roe