Interview with NICK ZEDD

Interview with NICK ZEDD
"Making Movies/Menstrual Wars"
by Alexander Laurence

Nick Zedd is the founder of The Cinema of Transgression. His first films, THEY EAT SCUM (1979) and THE BOGUS MAN (1980), and his publication of The Underground Film Bulletin (1983-1990), established him as an important underground filmmaker and a champion of the movement. Zedd's manifestos promised "blood, shame, pain, and ecstasy, the likes of which no one has yet imagined." During the 1980s Zedd collaborated with Richard Kern, Lydia Lunch, Richard Hell, Cassandra Stark, Ela Troyano, Kembra Pfahler, and Alyce Wittenstein, most of whom are associated with New York underground film.

In the 1980s Nick Zedd continued to make movies and show them in New York City and at film festivals in Europe and around the country. His body of work includes GEEK MAGGOT BINGO (1983), THE WILD WORLD OF LYDIA LUNCH (1983), THRUST IN ME (1984), KISS ME GOODBYE (1986), POLICE STATE (1987), WHOREGASM (1988), and WAR IS MENSTRUAL ENVY (!990-92). Zedd has recently exhibited his films at The Museum of Modern Art and The Whitney Museum. In 1992, he published his memoir BLEED PART ONE (Hanuman Books). In 1997, we will be seeing his first book TOTEM OF THE DEPRAVED (2.13.61) which recalls his experiences with the New York film underground. Zedd is currently working on a new novel. Two collections of his films are available: STEAL THIS VIDEO and THE CINEMA OF TRANSGRESSION. These films and a catalogue can be obtained from Nick Zedd himself at PO Box 1589, New York, NY 10009.

Alexander Laurence: Do you consider yourself foremost a writer or a filmmaker?

Nick Zedd: I'm just a person like anyone else. When I was doing the movies I was writing because I did the screenplays. I used to write a lot for The Underground Film Bulletin. Trying to write a long book, I first started doing that in the late 1980s mainly with the idea of doing of a novel. I was living on 17th Street in a basement. It was miserable because all these rats were crawling everywhere. They were running around. One fairly big rat came up through the toilet swimming through the pipes. We couldn't flush it down. Then there was this horrible midget Super who would come in every morning at 5AM with his dog. He would make all this racket and wake me up. I thought about writing a novel about being a murderer. I was fantasizing about killing. Then the girl who I was living with disappeared and left for Hollywood to become a porn star. I thought about writing a story about her with sex and eating shit. The idea was that I was going to write about killing people because there were all these people who I hated.
            Then I went to Sweden, to show movies, and I hung out with this crazy girl, Frida. When I came back I realized that I had enough from that to make a book of true stories. Darius James got me a gig writing for Penthouse. One of the earliest things that I wrote for them was about Lydia Lunch. Then I had a chapter there. I finished that in a couple years. I called it "Bleed." Now it's called Totem of The Depraved.

AL: I suppose that people ask you often what you meant by making films like THEY EAT SCUM and THE BOGUS MAN. From your book I notice that you don't talk about the films as much as you do with the people you worked with?

NZ: To me the mechanics of making a movie are not as interesting as the personalities that you come in contact with.

AL: I think that Richard Kern's take on The Cinema of Transgression was that there were all these film people working and living in the East Village in the 1980s and at some point you gave it a name, people started talking about it, then some people stayed on the boat and others got off.

NZ: There were a lot of rats that jumped off the sinking ship, but I was not one of them. There were opportunists and there still are. People pretend now that they were so exploited back then. They say "We deserve more attention than Zedd, Kern and Lunch. Poor us, we don't get any attention." But they weren't the people who were putting up posters. I'm the one who did, and still do. I put up five hundred posters and got arrested. These other filmmakers put up three posters and nobody showed up, then they complained about getting no attention. As with any movement, it disintegrates. People end up hating each other. I guess there were some things we had in common: we were all the same age and lived in the same neighborhood.

AL: Which people from the films do you still associate with?

NZ: I still talk to Kern, Richard Hell, and Tessa Hughes-Freeland.

AL: There was a retrospective of many films associated with The Cinema of Transgression at The Whitney Museum. This film series was called "No Wave Cinema, 1978-87" and curated by Matthew Yokobosky. This series included your films THE BOGUS MAN, THE WILD WORLD OF LYDIA LUNCH, and POLICE STATE. Did you have a big influence over the selection of films included in this series?

NZ: No. Well, the curator bought a full set of Film Bulletins to educate himself, belatedly. That helped him. I think that they were a bit lazy. Their emphasis seemed to be dictated by what the journalists said to them, which is typical. They just went by what other journalists wrote instead of examining the films that are more significant.

AL: What do you think of Yokobosky's inclusion of filmmakers like Jim Jarmusch and Abel Ferrera? Do you think of yourself working along similar lines as those guys?

NZ: No. I really have nothing in common with those people. Ferrera is a commercial filmmaker: making movies with Madonna? That really has nothing to do with no wave cinema. The academic community is always very slow in catching up. They are arrogant. They assume that they are the center of the universe, when in reality, they are quite irrelevant. The people who organized the retrospective at The Whitney are living in the year 1980. Maybe in twenty years they'll do a "real" retrospective of The Cinema of Transgression. They are very slow but they're catching up. A lot of this is based on the nostalgia of the person curating. They wait until something is dead so they can pay attention to it. In the meantime they ignore all the current work done by these same people.

AL: What did you think of his inclusion of POLICE STATE which is a conventional movie? They preferred that instead of something radical....

NZ: POLICE STATE is not a conventional movie. It has a radical message, even though it's a linear narrative. WAR IS MENSTRUAL ENVY is more experimental. The Museum of Modern Art had no interest in showing that one, and neither did the Whitney Museum, which was enormously foolish of them.

AL: What sort of spirituality are you interested in and does this influence your work? Do you have any thoughts on Christianity?

NZ: It's great that Christianity is falling apart. I'm surprised that so many born again Christians are invading Manhattan. These are people who claim to be creative but mentally they are not too creative. I don't believe in God. I'm an atheist. I think that religion is really stupid. It's a sign of weakness.

AL: Do you think that secular humanism is a step in the right direction?

NZ: Yes. That means that man is the center of one's universe, instead of an unseen humanoid deity. That belief in a higher authority being there to bail you out after you die is really a form of cowardice that I don't respect. It's intellectually weak. I am surprised that there are so many people in the so called art scene who fall for this. There are a lot of weak people I guess. New York is the center of the world to them, so they figure that they can leech off other people's ideas, or become part of a scene. There are a lot of fraudulent people who zero in on the East Village. They're just opportunists looking for some of the limelight. They are not offering us anything new, especially if they're going to church on Sunday.

AL: Is it necessary to have some belief system to live?

NZ: No. Belief is not necessary. You live your life and you do things. God is not a necessary concept. I thought people knew this. Nietzsche pointed this out. There are people who are ignorant enough to think that Nietzsche has something to do with Hitler. He has nothing to do with Hitler. That's what the powers that be did to denigrate and demonize Nietzsche, because his ideas are revolutionary. Nietzsche hated nationalism and militarism. He's the exact opposite of Hitler who used these things to enslave millions of people. Anyone with a brain who reads Nietzsche will see that.

AL: What do you think about artists infiltrating the mainstream? The idea that an underground artist can no longer work in an elitist way, but must seek maximum distribution, then once gaining access to mainstream avenues of popular culture, trying to introduce revolutionary content?

NZ: I think that people get confused by thinking that maximum exposure equals subversion. Not necessarily. It depends on the message. I do think that it's better to create media than to absorb it. You should be making something and getting it seen.

AL: What about infiltrating certain institutions? Is it more possible to send a subversive message to people through distribution at the video store or The Whitney Museum when it's highly unlikely that they'll rent the video or maybe they'll walk out of the screening room and go see the nice pretty pictures by Nan Goldin?

NZ: Whatever assumptions you have about any institution, you bring those assumptions with you. It's probably more subversive having my video at Blockbuster rather than having it shown at The Whitney Museum. Both places are just platforms to get my stuff seen. So then the snooty uptown art fags go to the museums, and the rest of the general population goes to the video store. Of that group of people, the majority is just going to rent the latest Michelle Pfeiffer film. There's a tiny minority that's into something weird or subversive. I don't think much changes in the world when you make a movie or a book. You can affect a few people. I don't have illusions that it's going to create a big change, doing anything. But sometimes things that are buried, ignored and marginalized by one generation are then revered in the future when people look back to see what had some purity. What was created that didn't have the sole intention of making loads of money. What was done for other reasons.

AL: In your book Totem of The Depraved there were many colorful characters. One that stands out is Rick Strange (aka Eric Pryor). What happened to him?

NZ: Rick Strange started his own satanic church, and moved to San Francisco. He led a group of pagans and occultists on a protest against an evangelist, and then converted to Christianity and destroyed his church. He became an evangelist himself. Eric then married a girl who he performed an exorcism on without divorcing his first wife. Nightline did an exposé on the evangelist who Eric befriended, Larry Lee. Lee bought Eric a golf course condo, and started giving him a thousand dollars a month to appear as "The witch who switched: from Pagan to Pentecost." Eric Pryor started preaching in military fatigues. The last time I heard from him, he called me long distance from a motel somewhere drunk out of his mind claiming that he was going to be leading a para-military operation in Central America to save souls. I haven't heard from him since. He was hoping that I would convert to Christianity so they could claim that the evil Nick Zedd had switched over. They wanted me to be one of their big triumphs but I refused. Eventually Larry Lee's empire crumbled. It was nice that Rick Strange helped to destroy that empire without even knowing it.

AL: What about these people who have changed overnight?

NZ: Those people have been inconsistent. I've remained consistent: I still hate the government, and I'm still doing what I've always done. Rick Strange was a con-artist. Everybody hated him. He was pretty wild. He stole from everyone.

AL: What happened to Donna Death? She was the star of GEEK MAGGOT BINGO and THEY EAT SCUM?

NZ: The last time I saw her was four years ago. She was with the same guy that she's been with for years. She hasn't done anything since. She still seemed to hate me for dumping her for Lydia Lunch.

AL: What about Cassandra Stark? I noticed that she wasn't included in this Whitney retrospective.

NZ: She's making bad home movies that nobody cares about and people laugh at when they see them. Who knows why The Whitney didn't show her films? That's what I thought was weak about that show: they ignored other people who came after. They stopped arbitrarily in the year 1987. There's a whole era that has occurred since then.

AL What about your relationship with Chris Gore, the editor of Film Threat? You met him at The Ann Arbor Film Festival and he wasn't aware of New York Underground Film. You said that he was into this post-Godard Marxist film angle, etc.?

NZ: I don't talk to him anymore. Gore is a mainstream clown who doesn't have anything to do with underground film. He's just another opportunist. When he discovered the Film Bulletin, he was thrilled because it was a chance for him to learn something new. He was able to reprint some of my articles and use my knowledge to make himself appear more aware. But for him it was a social ladder on his way to the money. Film Threat is like Entertainment Weekly now. It doesn't matter. It's too mainstream.

AL: Who are some of the directors you admire? John Waters is cited as an influence. Do you like the Kuchar brothers? What about Thundercrack!?

NZ: I like them a lot. I hate Thundercrack! I like Richard Kern's films. The list is endless. There are so many directors. I love Otto Muehl and Oscar Fischinger.

AL: You have cast large women in many of your films. I notice that your personal esthetic includes large voluptuous women. You have a thing for big butts?

NZ: Yeah. I think it's a terrible thing what Twiggy did. (laughter). She made millions of women insecure. I give parts to many different types of women, like Kembra Pfahler is quite thin, while Brenda Bergman is quite voluptuous. If you look at the past, this anorexic fetish that we are being oppressed by is only a recent historical development, and it will disappear. Artists will then pay attention to big beautiful women like they have for centuries. That's what I do. It's sad that women are made to feel inferior by fashion models that are so anorexic that they are really genetic freaks. To me these hyper-skinny women are more like boys. It's almost a conspiracy by people who hate women.

AL: Do you have respect for film schools? Can anything good come out of a school?

NZ: Martin Scorsese, I guess. It's possible to unlearn the mistakes they teach there. I'm against so called underground festivals that charge entry fees and are just there to exploit film students and fool people. But who cares what I say? There's a bunch of idiots who go to these festivals like lemmings. If people want to learn more about the history of underground film they can write to me.

AL: What do you think about the films of Tessa Hughes-Freeland and Ela Troyano?

NZ: Both Tessa and Ela, for some reason, are very much about hiding their work, and not being seen too much, and making it difficult for people to see what they have done. I don't understand. With Totem of The Depraved, I thought up the title to the movie, and I came up with all the ideas, and I was promised a print of the film which I was never given. Ela decided to hide the movie so nobody would be able to see it. Therefore since I came up with the title, which I had been saving for years to go with the right project, I thought why waste it? I will use it for my new book. The book is very similar to the film. It's about my methods of surviving in the city with very little money, and the people who I interacted with.

AK: I guess it's obvious that Dada and Surrealism has influenced The Cinema of Transgression, but how has Situationism and Guy Debord influenced you?

NZ: Affecting everyday life and creating a situation is more important than how much money you make. I was showing movies on the wall out of the bar at 2A across the street on the wall. People were seeing it as they were walking by on the sidewalk or driving by in a car. When I projected Kembra having sex with an octopus on the building it seemed to really upset the bartender downstairs. But it also got people excited noticing something they wouldn't have seen otherwise, creating a revolution in everyday life.

AL: You were arrested the other day?

NZ: I was putting up posters and the undercover cops arrested me, and took me in an unmarked car to the 9th Precinct. They put me in a cell for two hours and fingerprinted me. Now I have to appear in court. I didn't realize it was illegal to put up posters. I have been doing it for 15 years. How else are people supposed to know that a movie is playing somewhere?