Interview with Cinema of Transgression's RICHARD KERN
[Originally appeared in Purple Monkey Dishwasher zine, early 1997]
I thought we’d talk about your movies first, what got you into making movies?
I always wanted to make movies, and I just started doing it finally.
You were doing extreme performance pieces yourself - what came first, the movies or your own cathartic experiences on stage?
I guess the performances were kind of advertising for the movies, ‘’cause I didn’t have enough movies to show so I would do these performances. I’d show pieces of movies as I was making them.
So they were almost like adverts for people to come and star in your films?
It was basically really outlandish stuff that would get my name around, so once I got ready with the movies my name would be around some.
Film-maker Nick Zedd called his films and your films Cinema Of Transgression - to the uninitiated how would you describe it?
Well, the main thing was not to be boring, and it was to show things that we haven’t seen and try to show things that we would find shocking, and that was pretty hard, pretty hard to do...
In 1980s New York?
Well just hard to do anytime. It’d be even harder now. For me anyway.
The word is that Nick Zedd is a pretty bizarre character himself, he almost lives out his movies in real life.
Yeah I think so, I mean I think I was living out my stuff in the 80s too. Actually I was living out the ones I’ve done recently too, everything is kind of semi-documentary. (pauses) Yeah, everything is kind of a documentary, but only in retrospect...can I say that? (laughs)
Did you ever feel uncomfortable labeling your films as part of a movement? You always seemed like you wanted to do things on your own terms.
Well I did. The whole idea with the Cinema Of Transgression, as Nick was quick to point out, was that the audience needs a label to put on you, so once we had a label we were in business! (laughs) It’s like you’re “grunge”, or you’re “techno” or whatever, they have to have something to call you, and if you have a name for a movement then it’s better. I know this sounds stupid, but...
Yeah, it’s a way of drawing people in.
Well it actually gave us something to work towards anyway once we had some kind of rules - not exactly rules, but some kind of guidelines.
In a lot of those films it seems that anything goes...
Yeah, everybody was trying to out-do each other. There was a bunch of people making the movies but only a few of them got mass release.
And your films were on really grainy-looking Super 8, was that deliberate? You didn’t want to use video tape in these films?
Most of these were done before video was around a lot. In fact Right Side Of My Brain was done in response to the development of portable home video recorders and players, ‘’cause Lydia (Lunch) and I both recognized that there was gonna be a market for this kind of thing, so we decided to try and make something for that market, because the initial offerings were just big Hollywood blockbusters and things like that. But this is so far back it was still Betamax and VHS! (laughs) To shoot things on video at that time you were basically...when I made a lot of these movies you were dealing with, like a reel-to-reel machine, and if you wanted to shoot something it was ridiculous.
In your early films you worked with a lot of underground artists like Lydia Lunch, Henry Rollins, Sonic Youth, Butthole Surfers - it’s really ironic that society has become more conservative than it has been since the early 60s, yet these artists are now practically part of the mainstream.
Yes, but if you look at somebody like the Buttholes they are still nowhere near the mainstream. They’re in the mainstream, but they have nothing to do with it, they’re kinda lunatics running around! (laughs)
But I mean if you said ten years ago the Butthole Surfers were going to have a Top Twenty hit probably people would have thought you were insane.
So do you think that has something to say about the youth of today being so incredibly jaded?
Yeah, well I would just say that this has been the case throughout history (laughs), or the history of media, put it that way. It just takes some time and then, you know, people get used to something so much that it becomes part of the middle.
You don’t see that as being dangerous for art, if mainstream culture is going to co-opt something and turn it into something that it owns itself?
I don’t know if “dangerous” is the right word, but there’s really nothing you can do about it, you could maybe do it in a dark closet and not tell anybody (laughs), but otherwise it’s going to leak out.
So that (the closet) would be the real “underground”.
To me, right now, the real underground, if there is any, exists on Cable TV. We have these public access channels in New York, there’s four of them, and anyone can have a TV show, you just have to ask for it and they give you free time. I see the most insane TV shows you can imagine, just the most insane, there’s no censorship except you cannot show penetration. It’s just totally out of control, and I see a lot of stuff there that you only used to see on obscure video tapes that you’d really have to look for, like operations of people getting their bodies cut open, you see this kind of stuff regularly, people showing medical films and things like that. Or the worst, there’s a 60 year old woman comedian whose show I watch all the time, and all she does is sing songs, like she’ll do The Beatles’ “I Wanna Hold Your Hand”, except it’s “I Wanna Hold Your Dick”! Everything is about fucking, sucking her asshole and all this kind of stuff. She wears, uh, she’s topless and she’s ugly as sin, and the whole time I’m watching this my mouth’s hanging open going “I cannot believe this, I cannot believe it!” You know, so that’s where the weird stuff is now.
So no matter what your kink, you’re gonna find it on cable?
Yeah. There’s a foot fetish show, and before I knew what foot fetishes were I was wondering “What is this show?”, you know, it’s just like a woman sitting there with her feet up on a chair, and then the camera’s just on her feet, thirty minutes!
Yeah, I guess! (laughs)
It’s generally agreed that your film Fingered is the quintessential Kern film - even though it’s probably not the most shocking, it’s certainly the one that most people remember. Why do you think that is?
Because it has a narrative and it goes from point A to B. It has dialogue, that’s the reasons, it looks the most like a movie.
Are you comfortable with the title “scumbag, sleazy Super 8 sleaze master”? I mean, that’s the way your tour (to Australia) was promoted.
It’s better than being called a crusty, I guess! (laughs)
You didn’t make films for a few years?
Yeah, I kinda dropped out for a while...
And you’re certainly not making the volume of films that you were back in the early to mid 80s.
No, but I’m making an equal volume of photographs, like you would not believe the number of photos I’m taking and how many different shoots I do, and I shoot film of just about every photo session. I have this tremendously long unfinished movie that’s got a lot of really ...um, I don’t want to say “sick”, a lot of psychedelic...everything is sexual, everything in Sex, and nothing is fake, everything is real...
Hmmm, so you’re yet to unleash that one in public.
Yeah, I just can’t decide the end. I thought the end was gonna be a guy coming in his own face, but it didn’t, I kept shooting.
Do you think you’ve pushed the shock content of your films about as far as you can go?
It depends on where they’re shown. I just had a show in Orlando, Florida, and the audience was going insane! Their promoter told me people were still talking about the show and they’d just never seen anything like it, but I showed it in San Francisco also recently and people reacted like, “Oh well, yeah, okay...” You know, it just depends on where it is with audiences.
So there’s still sections of the community who aren’t as jaded as you’d like to think they are! You’re still making film clips?
I haven’t done one in about a year and a half. You’re talking about rock videos, right?
Yeah, I read somewhere that you said it’s really the only area where an underground film maker can actually make a living.
If I said that, I was wrong (laughs) because as you know there’s thousands - well I don’t know about thousands, okay hundreds and hundreds of people trying to make rock videos. It’s a really bad business unless you’re one of the top 5 or 10 people, it’s just insanely competitive and you’re certainly not going to make a living out of it.
So how long have you been photographing models? About as long as you’ve been making movies?
Even before that, yeah. In fact I started out as a photographer, I was trying to be a photographer, put it that way. A lot of the movies I saw also as a way to get my photos in magazines because I would have illustrations, you know, ‘cause I’d take a lot of set shots. But that’s been an interest for many many years, since I was young.
You have a book out now called New York Girls, do you think it’s improved your reputation? Before you were thought of in most circles as a pornographer, do you think this might elevate you to the status of “serious artist”?
Well I show in some good galleries in Paris and New York, and then Geneva and Cologne, I have some good galleries representing me so maybe I have done that. Or maybe I’m just a coffee-table pornographer (laughs).
Do you think it’s easier these days to get models to pose for you?
It’s much easier, yeah. It has seemed as easy the whole time, put it that way. When I started shooting I was shooting for some soft-core porno mag sometimes under a different name. When I started doing that kind of thing there was a sharp decline with people who didn’t want to model, but that came back again when people found out that, you know, that I didn’t go over to the devil (laughs) or whatever.
Now, with that film clip that you did for King Missile’s “Detachable Penis”, you must have had a lot of fun working on that clip?
Yeah, that was the first one I did for money and that was good.
Mmmm...it certainly seemed like everyone was having a lot of fun with that...
Yeah, I still have the dildo (laughs), it’s on several girls in my book.
So the penis gets around?
Did you end up copping any flack over that clip?
No, not at all. Actually the clip I have, I mean I have the unedited version, but it was funny seeing it on MTV to see these giant black boxes on the screen that took up the whole scene every time the dildo came on!
So there was absolutely no penis shots?
No, not at all.
So “Detachable Black Box”, more likely.
Yeah, I can’t believe they had it like that! (laughs)