trans·gres·sive (trns-grsv, trnz-)
1. Exceeding a limit or boundary, especially of social acceptability.
2. Of or relating to a genre of fiction, filmmaking, or art characterised by graphic depictions of behaviour that violates socially acceptable norms, often involving violence, drug use, and sexual deviancy.
3. Of or relating to geological transgression.
New York City in the late 70’s and early 80’s was a precocious time... or so I’ve heard and read in album liners and on Wikipedia. Some people might even say that NYC at that time was the ‘Paris in the Thirties’ for the latter half of the century. Since I wasn’t there and am restrained from visiting NYC myself by unresolved differences of opinion between me and the British legal system, I maintain a fantastical image of the time and place. There was so much stuff going on! Punk had come and gone, split into crashing waves of idiot-savant musicians, poets, artists and filmmakers. Hip Hop was being conceived and there were gangs with colourful names occupying blocks of abandoned tenements across the city. Artists roamed free from tradition and in love with rebellion.
Before Giuliani, before Thurston Moore and Sonic Youth took it all and made it sellable, it was the age of the proto-hipster and of No Wave’s total commitment to staying amateur, adolescent and free. Brian Eno’s compilation No New York captures something of that time: the chaos, the disregard for conventions, and the tiring work of always being beyond, above and underneath the curve. The bands on the album throw out everything then pick it back up and mix it all up again, playing Punk music on Jazz instruments, making violent Disco that predicts the movement of dance music into the extreme, ripping up lyrics and moving towards the onomatopoeia that would dominate the hardcore music that followed.
The films collected here are a great example of all the things that made it an interesting and influential time. They celebrate, like all good art, their own failings and weaknesses. Trangressive Cinema foreshadows the content of the internet. There are undertones of disturbed sexuality and as films they are in many ways aesthetically unappealing, low brow lo-fi homages to Ed Wood and Antonin Artaud. The transgressive filmmakers revel in not taking themselves seriously and that’s what makes them so fun and exciting. Unlike the older generation of punks, who for all their ‘kill all hippies’ posturing, were as solemn and self-aggrandising *cough* Patti Smith *cough* as the hippies that came before, the No Wave lot took Punk to its logical conclusion.
The playful youthful energy of punk combined with a genuine cultural knowledge and interest gives them the unique ability to be at the same time crude and vulgar for the sake of it and also genuinely committed to challenging the established and prescribed hierarchies and orders. In Nymphomania Tessa Hughes spoofs Nijinsky’s famous (and in its own time controversial) ballet “L'après-midi d'un faune.” displaying this very particular quality that the Transgressive filmmakers possessed.
The Twentieth Century gave us the Teenager, an entirely new stage in human development that bridged the gap between the naive curiosity of children and the considered cultural order of the adult world. These films in many ways represent artists coming to celebrate that adolescent spirit. In the past, artists painstakingly reproduced the art of their forebears in order to learn their craft before developing a unique and personal style. This pattern of learning very much mirrors an old-fashioned separation of childhood and adulthood. Transgressive cinema is teenage cinema, knowledgeable but brash. Tessa Hughes' approach shows her knowledge of the past and brings it pogoing up to date, asking us whether our values really changed? For all the ‘liberation’ of the hippies in this 1960’s these filmmakers found themselves in a world still dominated by rightwing warmongers where sexism and homophobia and racism were still huge problems (they still are). In his manifesto Nick Zedd lays down the gauntlet: “All values must be challenged. Nothing is sacred.” He also quite rightly remarks that humour has been devalued. Humour isn’t just jokes, humour is the ability not to take yourself too seriously and the ability to look at life in all its chaos and malformed beauty and smile regardless.
As with any art pushing boundaries Transgressive Cinema can be misunderstood, it can be misinterpreted as weird for the sake of weird, as lacking meaning, point or discourse. To many people the amateur aesthetic and the fact that none of these films or their makers take themselves too seriously could undermine any attempt at discourse. But it’s a bit like accusing a horror film of being scary for the sake of being scary. They have set out to be challenging so challenging they will be - and not just on one level. Hard to look at times, hard to listen to, hard to follow. Everything in these films can be read two ways and that’s what brilliant about them. Lydia Lunch’s performance in Black Box, for example, could be interpreted as bad acting; she stumbles over words and her enunciation obscures the meaning of her lines, but whether this was her intention or not, it’s challenging. A blow at traditional performance, an assault on professionalism and on skill itself. A lot of these films' stylistic techniques don’t seem so challenging today; the internet has struck a great blow to professionalism and aesthetic. We don’t even mind the pixels anymore.
‘Sweding,’ the act of re-making in a lo-fi, no-budget way famous movies -- as invented in Be Kind Rewind (Gondry,2008),-- has taken on a life of its own. Increasingly, filmmaking is no longer the preserve of professionals but has taken its rightful place as a true creative art form, one that is democratic, immediate and necessary, that fulfils a function and provides a pleasure not just to the viewer but also to the creator. Transgressive Cinema is the progenitor of much of the film being produced and distributed on the internet today. Let us not forget, therefore, those rallying words from the manifesto, “All values must be challenged. Nothing is sacred. Everything must be questioned and reassessed in order to free our minds from the faith of tradition."