Underground Film Chain Gang: From Altamont Now To Hans Richter
Underground film history is a living, breathing creature. That’s why I keep hard pimping my Underground Film Timeline project. While the actual Timeline right now is a somewhat dry recitation of facts and film titles, if one delves into the history deeper, it’s really clear to see how the medium has evolved from the 1920s to the 2010s.
Actually, to give an example of what I mean, I’m going to show a reverse chain of inspirations from a modern day film all the way back to the ’20s.
The modern film I picked is one I write about all the time and recently came out on DVD: Joshua von Brown’s Altamont Now, a raucous film about a pseudo-punk rock star with delusions of grandeur who threatens to start a nuclear Rockalypse. The film was a huge hit on the ’09 festival circuit and was just released by Factory 25. (Rent or Buy.)
In my own interview with von Brown, he mentioned that he was heavily inspired by Jon Moritsugu‘s 2002 underground film Scumrock, the final feature film Moritsugu would direct. (So far, anyway.) That film is now available to watch on YouTube.
Moritsugu, though, is considered as part of the “second wave” of the Cinema of Transgression movement that existed in ’80s and ’90s, as declared by the movement’s founder and chief architect Nick Zedd in his autobiography Bleed. Moritsugu’s first film is the 1986 short Mommy Mommy Where’s My Brain?, which is up on UBU.com to watch with several other Transgression films.
Nick Zedd founded The Cinema of Transgression in 1985 by printing up a manifesto in his zine The Underground Film Bulletin. Although that manifesto was the official launch of Transgression, the idea for it had been on the back burner of Zedd’s brain since 1979 after a screening of his film They Eat Scum. The term came to him from a review by Amy Taubin in which she used the word “transgression” to describe the wild shit happening on-screen. You can currently buy They Eat Scum from Zedd directly off of his website. You can also buy copies of the Bulletin and his autobiography Bleed from there, as well.
Also, according to Bleed — and recounted in Jack Sargeant’s awesome book Deathtripping, which I’m currently indexing for the Timeline — Nick Zedd writes that his biggest influence was the performance artist Jack Smith. Zedd used to hang out in and paint Smith’s apartment that also doubled as a performance space.
Of course, Jack Smith’s most famous film is the notorious Flaming Creatures, which was made back in 1963 and is also up on UBU.com for viewing. While Smith would continue to film things since 1963 until his death in 1989, he never completed another full film and instead would incorporate film bits into his live performances.
The reason Smith never wanted to complete another film ever again is that he felt that in ’63, Jonas Mekas hijacked Flaming Creatures to use as a promotional vehicle for himself. The film had been declared obscene due to its graphic showing of exposed breasts and penises. Mekas would screen the film in defiance of the law, thus focusing attention on himself as being a champion of art. That’s how Smith saw it anyhow.
Jonas Mekas, though, was the pivotal figure of the ’60s underground film movement mostly through his Movie Journal review column for the Village Voice. However, Mekas also helped found the Film-makers Co-op and the Anthology Film Archives and was the editor of the published journal Film Culture.
A Lithuanian immigrant who had fled Nazi oppression, Mekas landed in NYC in 1949 and promptly picked up a 16mm Bolex camera and started recording moments in his life. Many of those early film diaries are available on the Walden: Diaries, Notes & Sketches DVD.
But also, as a young man, Mekas also took film classes at City College. According to the book Subversion by Duncan Reekie — to be reviewed soon on the Underground Film Journal — one of Mekas’ professors was … That’s right, the German avant-garde filmmaker Hans Richter.
While I don’t know what films of his own that Richter may have screened in his class, if any, his 1921 film Rhythmus 21 is available to watch on Kino’s DVD compilation Avant-Garde: Experimental Cinema of the 1920s and ’30s.
So, to sum up, the Underground Film Chain Gang goes like this:
- Joshua von Brown, Altamont Now
- Jon Moritsugu, Scumrock
- Nick Zedd, They Eat Scum
- Jack Smith, Flaming Creatures
- Jonas Mekas, Walden: Diaries, Notes & Sketches
- Hans Richter, Rhythmus 21
I’ll try to post up more of these if they come to me because I think it’s fascinating to see the a trail of connections like this from the early days of cinema to the present. Underground film history is typically presented as separate eras with not much interaction and, as you can see above, that’s clearly not the case.