You Killed Me First: the Cinema of Transgression at Kunst-Werke

"You Killed Me First," 1985, Richard Kern, film still courtesy Richard Kern.

You Killed me First (1985), one of Richard Kern’s longer films starring David Wojnarowicz and Lung Leg, could be read as a clear teenage allegory of the Cinema of Transgression itself.  A girl (Lung leg) bristles at the religious directives of her parents, asserting her right to personhood outside demure hairstyles and turkey dinners, constructing voodoo dolls and entertaining other manners of dark drawing in her dank emo-den.

When confronted with the humanity and hypocrisy of her tormentors, the young antihero vanquishes their belief systems (and bodies) asserting, “You killed me first!”

Nick Zedd, in his manifesto describes the Cinema of Transgression’s proponents as “a new generation of filmmakers daring to rip out of the stifling straightjackets of film theory in a direct attack on every value system known to man.”

You Killed Me First: The Cinema of Transgression at Kunst-Werke Berlin is the first exhibition devoted solely to the Cinema of Transgression.  This allows viewers, for the first time ever, to see a remarkable amount of cinematic defiance in one place.  Among the 19 films shown, there is an insistent interest in constructing purposeful rebellion during a time when Reagan-Era family values were becoming a “revitalizing force” in America.

In You Killed Me First, Cinema of Transgression members explore necrophilia, dismemberment, rape, patricide and death-by-impaling.  But (thankfully) these subjects are imbued with a kind of adolescent cheekiness.  According to Zedd and other Cinema of Transgression members, a sense of humor was essential to good art.

"The Manhattan Love Suicides: Stray Dogs" 1985, Richard Kern, film still courtesy Richard Kern.

There is an adolescent charm to much of the Cinema of Transgression.  In the Manhattan Love Suicides; Stray Dogs ( 1985) we see a young man so crippled by passion that he is physically coming apart, a frightening visual metaphor for high-school longing.

In KW’s front room viewers can enjoy the solidly archetypal Nymphomania (1993) directed by Tessa-Hughes Freeland, in which a young virginal nymph is consumed and destroyed by a hyper-sexualized Pan.  Nymphomania differs from many of the videos in You Killed me First in that it features an idyllic green space rather than the gritty urban landscape of the lower east side in the 80’s.  But like the entirety of the show, it delights in making literal our goriest Freudian impulses.

*Upstairs one can see David Wojnarowicz’ infamous A Fire in My Belly, which is actually one of the tamer pieces in the show.  Oh Europe.

"Fear of Disclosure: Psycho-Social Implications of HIV Revelation," 1989, David Wojnarowicz and Phil Zwickler, film still courtesy David Wojnarowicz and Phil Zwickler


In another black-lit room Wojnarowicz’ collaboration with Phil Zwickler titled Fear of Disclosure: Psycho-Social Implications of HIV Revelation (1989) is screened.  In this short film one HIV-Positive man recounts his poignant revelation to a love interest as luscious male bodies dance across the screen, showing the psychic fissure of living with the disease in 80’s New York.

In its hallways and upper exhibition spaces, KW superficially scatters hallmarks of 1980’s underground New York: black lights and neon paint, scrawled cryptic texts and a hallway strobe light.  During the opening, accompanied by swarms of people, this made sense, but I assume it’ll make for a strange viewing experience on a normal Monday morning.  Moreover it seems like an insincere gesture for a cinema that was, if nothing else, extremely sincere.  After watching the films in You Killed Me First, one believes Nick Zedd as he proposes they break all the taboos of their age by “sinning as much as possible.”