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Deathtripping: The Extreme Underground

Deathtripping book cover with Kembra Pfahler in orange makeup and a fright wig

Originally published in 1995, Soft Skull Press has just re-released Jack Sargeant‘s survey of the Cinema of Transgression movement with a slightly different title and with a new update on the filmmakers. This new edition is the first version of the book I’ve read and it’s a worthy addition to the classic texts on subversive New York City cinema. Indeed, if one wanted a definitive history of the NYC underground film scene from the ’60s to the ’80s, one would do well to stock Jonas MekasMovie Journal, J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum’s Midnight Movies and now Deathtripping side-by-side on one’s bookshelf.

Central to Sargeant’s overview is the controversy over defining the Cinema of Transgression as an actual “movement” in the first place. The actual name “Cinema of Transgression” came from Nick Zedd who used the term to describe his own films and those of his peers, including Beth and Scott B, Richard Kern, Tommy Turner, David Wojnarowicz, Richard Klemann, Tessa Hughes-Freeland, and others. Clearly a true movement was afoot as a specific group of filmmakers working independently of each other in a specific location, i.e. NYC’s Lower East Side, began dabbling in similar themes, basically an angry, vulgar reactive yawp to the Reagan era. With films such as Geek Maggot Bingo, Fingered, Where Evil Dwells, A Suicide, etc., if Zedd hadn’t come up with the Transgression name, somebody else would have.

The trouble seems to arise from Zedd keeping a tight grip on the “movement” through his zine The Underground Film Bulletin (published under the pseudonym Orion Jeriko), where he first published the movement’s manifesto, as well as through screenings held around the city. Zedd tried to classify who qualified to be in the movement and would angrily reject former compatriots if their films didn’t conform to proper transgressive themes or over personal squabbles. The question then arises as to if Zedd tried to cultivate a movement in the spirit of camaraderie or for just his own personal PR campaign.

While the book doesn’t really come to any conclusions on the matter, one gets the sense that these were a group of prickly personalities so conflicts were clearly going to be inevitable. Tommy Turner gets the most philosophical on the subject while recalling his underground filmmaking heyday and pretty much says that small, meaningless slights would blow up into massive clashes. Zedd was most likely working with the best of intentions, even if those intentions resulted in either misunderstandings or misguided actions. Sargeant gets to the meat of all this with fantastic, in-depth interviews with the filmmakers. He doesn’t shy from the difficult questions, both of what the “movement” was all about and about their difficult personal lives.

Since the book was originally written in the mid-’90s, only a few short years after the movement imploded, there’s a great sense of immediacy on the subject. Details are still pretty much fresh in the interviewees’ minds, but enough time had also passed for them to be nicely reflexive on what all of it meant. Plus, through Sargeant’s lively descriptions of the films made and of the filmmakers’ backgrounds, as well as copious photographs showing both movie scenes and behind-the-scenes making-of shots one gets an extremely vivid portrait of the entire scene.

Sargeant also provides a new afterword to the book to update the current goings-on of the filmmakers. Of the entire bunch, Zedd appears to be the most active and tireless, continuing to make films in the true spirit of transgression. Although Sargeant doesn’t mention his latest specific project, Zedd seems to concentrate most of his energies on a twisted pseudo-children’s show called Electra Elf. And although the most of the original filmmakers have gone on to other projects, of course the Transgression movement has gone on to influence a new generation of directors looking to push the limits of bad taste on screen. What’s nice is that with this definitive statement on the Cinema of Transgression, it’s clear Deathtripping will help inspire future transgressors in many generations to come.

Buy Deathtripping: The Extreme Underground at Amazon.com!

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