From the Archives

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

After the Smithsonian’s G. Wayne Clough decided to remove David Wojnarowicz’s film A Fire in My Belly from the exhibition Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture, Wojnarowicz became a household name and a cultural touchstone, to the point where Vanity Fair can now glibly claim, “Right-wing America will be begging for David Wojnarowicz…” and expect its readers to get the joke. In September, Clough announced that he will leave the Smithsonian at the end of the year, and though his name will likely disappear from our cultural consciousness, Wojnarowicz’s will remain. In this week’s From the Archives, we bring you a review of You Killed Me First, an exhibition of films that go beyond the boundaries of social norms. This article was written by Ali Fitzgerald and originally published on March 1, 2012.

Richard Kern. You Killed Me First, 1985; film still, courtesy of the artist.

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 implalement. 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 is essential to good art.

Richard Kern. The Manhattan Love Suicides: Stray Dogs, 1985; film still, courtesy of the artist.

There is an adolescent charm to much of the Cinema of Transgression. In 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 ’80s. 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.

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

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 ’80s New York.

In its hallways and upper exhibition spaces, KW superficially scatters hallmarks of 1980s 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.”