Anarchic Cinema: Nick Zedd and the Cinema of Transgression

Filmmaking has many avenues toward maturing that accelerate at different rates, and one of the more progressive filmmaking movements to aid in the idea of artistic maturity 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 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, though this would not be the earliest chronological influence on this particular writer’s ideation of anarchy in art, but it would be the first time that I would think an idea of anarchic cinema was possible outside the realms of actual politically-charged material.

First and foremost, I do not believe (nor I believe I can be dissuaded from thinking so) that Nick Zedd is a “good filmmaker”. The majority of his work I find to be (in a way) subterranean comparatively to even the bottom of the moviemaking barrel; such as his long-ran Electra Elf television series that tempts the idea Zedd inspired the path taken by B-Movie King David De Coteau in his 1313 film series (which I have covered extensively on the video podcast ShitFlix), but with even less cohesion, and production values rivaling Final Flesh.

Nevertheless, Zedd’s debut film They Eat Scum, which premiered in 1979, tells the story of a different filmmaker. Though one might consider it to be one of his sleaziest and schlockiest works, I would have to challenge that idea. Regarding the intent, the content, the execution and the audience reception of They Eat Scum, it is comparable to John Waters’ Pink Flamingos and E. Elias Merhige’s Begotten, as one of the best independent exercises in endurance and the manipulation of common film language.

Zedd’s They Eat Scum is expressive of the time; the end of the 1970s, the Cold War reaching its peak, creative expression manipulated and guided by film schools only concerning students with streamlining into the studio system, and the death of the Age of the Auteur (with the creation of the blockbuster film with Spielberg’s Jaws, and the undiluted disasters that were Coppola’s One from the Heart and Cimino’s Heaven's Gate). It is rough, dirty and trashy; shot on a borrowed Super 8 camera, a soundtrack consisting of live performance recordings, non-actors acting out absurdist scenarios involving cannibalism, kidnapping and zombies and produced with loaned funds by Zedd’s friend Donna Death and his parents. This was a movie that proved to many who hadn’t caught on by that point: you can actually make a movie for nothing.

Every element of Zedd’s filmmaking style and own personal persona was expressive of everything punk thriving in New York City at the time. He was highly critical of the era and his audience; with his films’ subversive nature digging a little too far under audiences’ skin, leading to several riots during separate screenings of They Eat Scum. Though his subsequent films (such as Geek Maggot Bingo and Whoregasm) may be subjectively viewed as undiluted trash without much form or consistency, the mode of expression Zedd uses is the important aspect of this story.

His contributions to the New York underground film scene in the 1980s were, in personal opinion, overshadowed by him being the force behind the criminally underappreciated Underground Film Bulletin, which he was the sole writer and illustrator. It was a local spotlight on underground filmmakers that was passed around by hand to promote the scene. But it was upon its publication of Zedd’s manifesto Cinema of Transgression (initially written under a pseudonym) that solidifies his contributions to being invaluable to the world of Anarchic Cinema.

As Lydia Lunch put it in Blank City (embedded below), the movies of No Wave Cinema are classified and measured by what they are not; creations that filmmakers, critics and theorist could not (or would not) classify. This, however, now settles into the vein of Pop Art that originated in the 1950s. 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 with the same material.

Also Published on Community Soul.

Written by Matthew Roe. Published: May 2, 2016

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