‘The nurse who takes care of Jimmy Stewart in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window has a line that goes to the heart of the film viewing experience: “We’ve become a race of Peeping Toms.” Hitchcock’s movie about a voyeur who stares out the window at his neighbors has been taken as an allegory of spectatorship itself. The desire to look runs throughout Hitchcock’s work and is literalized in Psycho when Norman peeps through a hole in the wall at Marion Crane undressing for the shower. We look with Mr. Bates and we take the bait and become implicated in his voyeurism. In the same year as Psycho— 1960 –Michael Powell released the infamous Peeping Tom, a film about a filmmaker who literally kills with his camera as he records the action. This fascination with the dark side of looking– with the dynamics and aesthetics of voyeurism– is Richard Kern’s theme and it runs throughout his films and photography. In many ways, Kern’s work is a culmination of self-referential approaches to depicting the artist’s relationship to his “subject.” And his subject is looking.
‘The above invocation of mainstream films is important for a discussion of Kern’s early work because in many ways his movies are responses to popular film and commercial culture as a whole. Kern has made this relationship clear: “I take what interests me in the movies and put it in a shorter format so I don’t get bored. What interests the American public are sex and violence and the seamy side of life.” In his effort not to be bored, Kern moved to the Lower East Side and began a series of Super-8 films that eventually became associated with the Cinema of Transgression. His first Super-8, Goodbye 42nd Street (1983), is indicative of his approach to movie making: the camera moves down the fabled street of vice and takes in store signs and marquees of porno and exploitation movies. Spliced into this movement down the street are scenes of strippers in booths, a man putting a cigarette out on his face (Kern himself– the Auteur as Ashtray), various killings (a woman turns Buñuel on his head by stabbing her male lover in the eye) and suicides.
‘Kern’s early career was spent making his films– movies like Zombie Hunger (1984) which depicted a group of people shooting up and then vomiting– and screening them accompanied by outrageous performance pieces that created a Grand Guignol for the Lower East Side. In the tradition of Andy Warhol and John Waters, Kern employs actors from his social world and they reappear throughout his films; some of these denizens of the Kern Super-8 include Lydia Lunch, Clint Ruin (aka Jim Thirlwell), David Wojnarowicz, Lung Lee, Karen Finley and the filmmaker who is credited as the founder and first promoter of the Cinema of Transgression, Nick Zedd. What this evolving cast depicted in films such as The Right Side of My Brain (1984), The Manhattan Love Suicides (1984), You Killed Me First (1985), and the glorious dark ride of Submit to Me (1985) was nothing short of an assault upon the conventions of filmmaking and spectatorship. Submit to Me consists of a series of scenes depicting bondage, violence, sex, and suicide, many of which were suggested to Kern by the actors themselves.
‘As the underground reflection of Reagan’s America, Kern’s films embraced the subculture of the Lower East Side and the avant-garde impulse of those on the fringe of the established art world. However, a split occurred in Kern’s career around 1987 when he decided to quit the Lower East Side to remove himself from its drug culture. This split is depicted in The Evil Cameraman (‘87-’90), an allegory of Kern’s evolution as a visual artist. The first part of the film is made up of two segments depicting Kern “arranging a model” in provocative S&M scenarios; the imagery and music is dark and the threat of violence is palpable. Then the title “2 Years Later” appears and we are given two very different segments of a different Kern– back from his hiatus– who works with two “models” who do not play into his “control” as photographer. The film ends with a rejected Kern looking into the camera. This new relationship to the women in his films– playful, puzzling, rejecting the anticipatory action of “pornography”– colors his later films: X = Y (1990), Nazi (1991), Catholic (1991), Horoscope (1991), and The Bitches (1992). During this period Kern also shifted his attention to a different visual form.
‘Although he has continued work on his own films and on music videos, Kern has lately concentrated on photography. His pictures have moved from the gore and “splatter” effects of his early films to a concentration on the women he photographs. The pictures themselves are more fluid than his films: they easily cross over into the world of pornography (he has contributed work to magazines such as Hustler and Barely Legal.) But what distinguishes Kern’s pictures from prosaic porno is that his work is remarkably beautiful and, more importantly, it continues his play with the force of voyeurism. Each of Kern’s photographs is a mini-movie, a story the viewer steps into and “sees.” This “seeing” of a Kern photo is fascinating because after the viewer takes in the picture he/she must take in the effect of their looking. In his preface to New York Girls, Kern describes the feeling he has about taking pictures: “For me, nothing compares to the experience of building an environment with light then adding a living person as an unknown to make a temporal image.” The “unknown” here is a Kern model, but it is also the Kern viewer: we are the unknown looker encountering an image and trying to decipher its “story.” His pictures tell us we are voyeurs and we are then forced to look at our own looking. Each of Kern’s photographs tell a different story– his entire artistic output is The Story of His Eye— but all of them tell us something he once admitted in an interview: “The best part of anything is watching.”’ — Dictionary of the Avant-Gardes
Richard Kern Site
Portfolio: Underground New York through Richard Kern’s polaroids
Richard Kern @ IMDb
DVD: The Films of Richard Kern: Hardcore Collection Remastered
[RICHARD KERN] TRANSGRESSIF MON CUL
Richard Kern @ MUBI
Richard Kern @ UBUWEB
Richard Kern @ VIMEO
Richard Kern Interview: Decanting Transgression
RICHARD KERN ON THE GAZE IN THE INSTAGRAM AGE
Stick ‘Em Up
TRANSGRESSION CONFESSIONS: INTERVIEW WITH RICHARD KERN
1985 interview with Richard Kern
A Look Inside Richard Kern’s Apartment
Cinema Of Transgression | The films of Richard Kern
2016 interview with Richard Kern
VICE: I was given a copy of the collection. I put it on the Blu-ray player at work and sat in the dark and watched all of it. There were some things that were hard to get through, to be honest, but it was definitely visceral and striking.
Richard Kern: And old, 40 years old.
What do you see when you watch the films today, now that the time has passed?
Pretty much the same as they were before, it hasn’t changed one bit. It’s like it was just yesterday, that’s the weird thing with time. It seems like yesterday. But I still look at it and wonder what people are seeing when they see it. There’s a couple of films I’ve got a really good idea of how the audience is going to react, but not in general. Like the very first one I made was Goodbye 42nd Street, that’s on there. The first time I showed it, I was really surprised people were into it. I just thought it was such a shitty Super-8 movie, but people responded well and that encouraged me. The first time it was at a screening, it wasn’t allowed to be screened. They immediately said, “You can’t show this.” That was also inspiring, to say “fuck you” to those kind people.
So you were part of Cinema of Transgression. Were you trying specifically to shock people and freak them out or was that an after-effect?
The group of films that immediately preceded it in the underground were all very boring. It seemed like one of the qualifications was to make it boring and slow and long. So our plan was to make it short, and make it non-boring, if possible. And that may not work now, but back then it did, and we just tried to break down any moral thing or taboo you could. One of my personal things was to fuck up relationships and fuck up people’s heads as much as possible. People were completely shocked by some of the stuff. But this was in the 80s, so I don’t know how they will react now.
Do you think it’s as shocking now as it was then?
There was this show in Berlin at the KW Institute of Contemporary Art in Berlin. They did this whole Cinema of Transgression month where they installed the films in this club-like atmosphere, like you would’ve seen back then, in different, weird rooms. People said it was really effective, and it was. I walked through and there was one film that I watched that a friend of mine made that I hadn’t seen since then and I couldn’t sit through the whole thing, it was just too fucking hardcore. So it’s definitely a negative attitude, everything was negative, everything was nihilist. It’s the whole belief, and it probably sounds stupid sitting here in this restaurant, but you have to destroy everything to start over again. That was the whole anarchist approach, which was pretty much the punk attitude. It was “fuck everything.” And I felt the only way you could really destroy and fuck with people was to fuck with their love life and their personal relationships. When you see something, it coarsens you. Every bad thing you see coarsens you. Think about video games, like playing Black-Ops—it fucks with your head. I don’t care what people say.
I was reading some of the reviews and one of the main critiques was that these people were shitty actors. Was that a secondary care for you?
It’s funny you just said that because I never thought about that. It wasn’t the same kind of approach, and if I was making one now, I still wouldn’t think about it. I never thought about that. But yeah, they are shitty actors. It’s all your state of mind when you’re looking at them, everybody in the movies is pretty real.
Yeah, the things they were doing were real.
Believe me, in Fingered, Marty Nation was exactly like that, no exaggeration. The guy who’s lifting weights, he was like that. Everybody was real. Lydia Lunch was like that. Lung Leg was like that. The story was based on Lydia and Marty’s travels when she was 16 and they would hitchhike and get picked up by somebody, and Marty would take his knife out and start stabbing and cutting up the upholstery in the car, looking at the guy. All those guys were really scary. The guy who’s lifting weights in it got killed about two years ago, somebody shot him finally.
You were pretty prolific in that time period, when these films were made. Were you just obsessed with making these films?
Yeah, it was what I did and I had a lot of ideas and I had all the equipment, which wasn’t much, it was a Super-8 camera and three lights and I had a big apartment to shoot in and plenty of people who wanted to do stuff. And I wouldn’t call them actors, I’d call them performer types. Nothing was scripted, the closest thing we had to a script was Fingered and You Killed Me First and those were just, “This is what’s gonna happen in this scene. You’re gonna say this. Or you say something like this.” Lydia and Marty in Fingered would just make up dialogue as they went. They would play off of each other. I would tell them what we were gonna shoot tomorrow and they could say what they wanted. It wasn’t traditional filmmaking by any means.
How much contact are you in with these people now?
I saw Lydia a few weeks ago in a bar in Williamsburg doing a reading. And she’s playing in Williamsburg again next Monday. But she lives in Barcelona, I see her occasionally.
I’m really interested in understanding the evolution from doing these nihilistic films to the stuff you do now, which seems a little bit more gentle and subtle.
Fingered was one of John Waters’ favorite films, and I hung out with him a few times and he said, “It’s interesting to be an angry young man when you’re young, but when you’re old you just look like an idiot to still be angry.” A lot of those films were made when I was a drug addict, and when I got clean the only thing I could afford to do was take photos. And I started taking photos of everybody I knew and tried to get them naked. And it just evolved into this other thing.
There’s some films I’ve made that are still like the old ones. There’s one I finished last year that was harder than anything I ever did. It’s just hard to watch. And it’s the perfect movie for me because it’s a documentary about a girl explaining why she cuts herself, and then she does it. I shot it with a shitty little video camera, I set the camera up and she sat there and talked about it. But it’s a really powerful movie. It was in a show here in New York at Maccarone, and at the opening it was just bumming people out like crazy. For me, that was a huge success. To be able to have that effect, and it wasn’t fake, it wasn’t set up, it was just a real thing that really bummed people out, and I was lucky enough to get it. It’s the same attitude. But then there’s these other films, Face to Panty Ratio for example. It’s a pretty film, there’s nothing bad going on, but you’re looking at girls’ panties, looking at their faces, it’s very hypnotic. But you realize, “I’m looking at girls’ panties.” A lot of people are into the movie, but it’s a little music video about girls’ panties. So other people think it’s perverse.
You can’t say it’s porn, because it’s not porn. It’s just focusing on two really interesting parts of a female, their face and their panties, and what’s wrong with looking at it? One of my things has always been to make no apologies for what you’re doing, and if you have some kind of perversion, it’s not a perversion. Guys like to look at girls’ panties, plenty of girls like to look at girls’ panties, but people act like it’s such a big fucking deal if they get caught doing it.
Everything’s a joke. Every film. A joke on the audience.
I thought I saw a bit of your work now in Submit to Me and Submit to Me Now.
I quit making films for like ten years and then around 2008 I started again and then I really started again a couple years ago. All this stuff is just random stuff I shoot when I shoot photos, it’s not completely random, I have these themes. Just this past summer I spent four months making ten or 20 films, all made up of all these pieces I shot. I just collected them for four years and then sat down and edited them. But that is not traditional filmmaking. I would just say to the girl, “OK give me a walk from here to here, this way to this way to this way.” I just shot a whole bunch of girls, like b-shoot photos, I was like, “We’re gonna shoot some video. You sit here, and I want you to cry. See if you can cry, can you cry?” They go, “Maybe.” And I just sit there and wait for them to cry, and if they cry I got it. Or I have them throw a fit. “Beat the bed, beat the couch,” and all this shit will end up in different movies. It’s not the traditional filmmaking or videos.
I think it’s interesting, especially in the Submit to Me stuff, they’re almost like moving photographs, there’s not a plot but they’re still very interesting.
I was looking for weirdness. Just trying to think of what weird thing can this person do. There was one guy with a really little dick and he said, “I really want to be in there.” He would just bug the shit out of me. And I said, “OK, you can just shave your pubes.” Which was a weird thing back then, if you’re a guy. So he said, “OK, I’ll do that.” And it was just really weird.
17 of Richard Kern’s 37 films
You Killed Me First (1985)
‘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!”’ — letterboxd
Submit to Me (1985)
‘Submit to Me Now is the only official sequel that Richard Kern has made, and being that this particular short has very little to live up to in terms of continuing or fleshing out a story, it’s honestly a low-stakes sequel all the more. Much like its predecessor, it’s a parade of images showing sadomasochistic tendencies, self-mutilation, male and female genitalia, and more raunchy images, all presented with blaring music from Kern’s favorite band Sonic Youth.
‘When it comes to a plotless Kern film, we come for the visuals and stay for the outright zaniness, and that’s exactly what Submit to Me Now provides. It’s a wild ride through the lunacy of 1980’s punk, showing Kern favorites like Lung Leg and the gorgeous Lydia Lunch how we love to see them – scantily clad and bloodsoaked. It’s a fun romp that works off of its predecessor thanks to its continued use of hardcore imagery and dizzying visuals, all of which work even for the questionably long runtime of eighteen minutes.’ — Steve Pulaski
The Right Side Of My Brain (1985)
‘A woman goes through a series of sexual assignations that involve varying degrees of violence. A voiceover provides her musings on sex, violence, power and control.’ — IMDb
Stray Dogs (1985)
‘“Stray Dogs” concerns an artist being followed thru the streets by an obsessive young man (a terrific David Wojnarowicz) who tries to gain his attention. He follows the artist back to his apartment and begins literally tearing himself apart in frustration – at this point the artist laughs at him and begins to sketch his dying body.’ — Magazine of Contemporary Culture
w/ Judith Barry Sonic Youth: Death Valley ‘69 (1986)
‘The video for “Death Valley ’69” was filmed in 1985 and was the first music video by Sonic Youth, directed by Richard Kern. The video features the majority of the band in various states of bloody dismemberment interlaced with live footage of the band. The video is the only one to feature both the recently departed drummer Bob Bert, and then new member Steve Shelley. “Death Valley ’69” is a song by rock band Sonic Youth and is the eighth and final track on their 1985 album “Bad Moon Rising.” The song was written and sung by guitarist Thurston Moore and musician Lydia Lunch.’ — Wikipedia
King of Sex (1986)
‘In the first half of the movie Nick Zedd has a rough sexual playtime with two young women in In the second half, whilst dressed in drag, he attempts to fellate a too-drunk Rick Strange. All the while, Killdozer’s ‘King Of Sex’ grinds away on the soundtrack.’ — film affinity
Submit to Me Now (1987)
‘A super-8 film directed by Richard Kern, set to the music of The Butthole Surfers.’ — MUBI
‘Always encased in the tightest fishnets money can buy (though, truth be told, I sincerely hope she shoplifts them), the supple legs attached to the torso belonging to the irascible Lydia Lunch (Vortex) will severely test the durability of the synthetic material that covers your pathetic crotch. Unless, of course, you’re wearing sweatpants. If that’s the case, may your bulge be large and fruitful. If, however, you happen to have self-respect, and are wearing real pants when you watch this film, then may god have mercy on your groin and its uphill battle to stay lukewarm and well-ventilated. Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten about all you ladies out there. Dangling in a manner that will no doubt drive discerning lesbians wild with cunt-drenching desire, Lydia Lunch’s powerful, Smithsonian-worthy stems will surely compromise the impermeability of the fabric that surrounds your soon to be damp pussy. Either way, whether being poked with unplanned hardness or drowned in wave after wave of tepid vagina water, your stain-laden pants are going to have to be put in the wash after they get through watching Fingered, a sleazy, disgusting film that begs the question: Does Lydia Lunch moisturize her thighs, or are they just naturally creamy? Mmm, creamy thighs throbbing on my plate, oozing thickness from every pore. Um, yeah, anyway. I know, pants can’t watch movies (they don’t have eyes, or a central nervous system, for that matter). But they’re going to feel like they have after they experience the Lydia Lunch-a-thon that is this short but sweet trip to Scumbagville, U.S.A., population: Who gives a shit.’ — House of Self-Indulgence
X Is Y (1990)
‘Experimental film consisting of images of young women handling automatic handguns and rifles.’ — IMDb
The Evil Cameraman (1990)
‘The Evil Cameraman playfully narrates a transition in the life and career of NY cult filmmaker Richard Kern. Shot between 1987 and 1990, the film is divided in two pairs of two segments, each pair depicting a different historical, geographical, social and artistic context in Kern’s trajectory. The first two segments, set in a bleak, low-lit past, introduce us to Jap Anne, an emaciated girl possibly to be included in the increasingly popular “barely legal” category, and Ice Queen, a lusciously cheap-looking blonde. Both are mercilessly subjected to the violent whims of this cameraman – none other than Kern himself – who seems to use his camera as a pretext for acting out his SM fantasies rather than the inverse. Though far from shocking by today’s standards, these segments have a psychological – rather than scenic – realism that can be disturbing for viewers less tolerant of erotic violence.’ — The Sound of Eye
Foetus’s score (partial)
Sonic Youth: Scooter And Jinx (1990)
‘Scooter and Jinx (Moneylove) is an experimental short film by Director Richard Kern based around the song ‘Scooter and Jinx’ by Sonic Youth.’ — MUBI
‘Pierce is a documentary showing Richard Kern’s girlfriend having her nipples pierced.’ — MUBI
w/ Spike Jones & Kim Gordon The Breeders: Divine Hammer (1993)
Marilyn Manson: Lunchbox (1995)
‘A music video for the song was directed by experimental filmmaker Richard Kern and released in 1995. It depicts a young Manson played by a then-six year-old Richard Pierce. In the clip, the young Manson is tormented by bullies before becoming a rock star; another part of the video shows the band at a roller rink.’ — Wikipedia
Face to Panty Ratio (2011)
‘Richard Kern just sent us a mesmerizing little video called Face to Panty Ratio. There’s not a whole lot to say about this one. If you like girls with pretty faces, camel toes, and asses, this is exactly what you need to get you through Wednesday morning.‘ — Vice
The Girl Who Followed Marple (2014)
‘Part showcase for the fashion label Atelier E. B., part infomercial for a particular brand of menstrual cup, “The Girl who follows Marple” envelopes it’s commercial underpinnings in the familiarity of a made-for-TV thriller and the complicit voyeurism that a collaboration with Kern entails.’ — STX
Foot Fetish Party (2015)
‘In any pre-Fifty Shades discussion around fetishism, podophilia (or foot fetishism) tends to be the go-to reference. Our collective obsession with ‘other people’s’ foot obsessions is perhaps an understandable psychological projection given podophilia’s seemingly non-sexual nature. “I got completely sidetracked working on this film,” says New York-based photographer Richard Kern of a summer spent fixating on feet while compiling footage for FFP – or Foot Fetish Party which features a soundtrack by Kern’s collaborator, Simon Milner’s new project, Sälen. “Everything I was shooting had something to do with girls’ feet.”’ — Nowness
p.s. Hey. ** Steve Finbow, Hi, Steve! What a pleasure to see you here. I agree, and thanks a lot. I’ll go hit that link. Hope you’re getting through everything with flying colors. ** David Ehrenstein, Hi. That man could diss like nobody’s business. ** Dominik, Hi!!! A day off sounds nice. I get mine tomorrow. Anti-sociality is an art form, I think. Or it can be. I feel like it’s my main art form these days, ha ha. Zac made the flight sound very much like a very effective VR horror film. I’m happy to hear you’re working on SCAB, of course. Did you finally find the perfect music? I’m okay. Not much new to report, however. Same old futzing around and trying to work and a bit of walking/shopping and emails and … that kind of covers it. I have a possible weird new fiction idea that I might try out this weekend if I can focus. Did you get anything remarkable or close out of your weekend? Weird to call it a weekend since every week is basically a 7 day weekend for most of us, I guess. For me, having a day off from the blog is the only thing that makes me realise it’s a weekend. Ha ha. Love like a guro jpeg that doubles as a magic genie’s lamp, Dennis. ** _Black_Acrylic, That could indeed make ‘The Loser’ your way in. Your dad seems cool. Hey, he sat all the way through ‘PGL’ and didn’t look too miserable afterwards. ** Sypha, Well, my new novel isn’t even 150 pages and yet it took me years and years to finish it, so you still count as a speedball. Ah, very interested to hear how you find the collaborating process to be. I love collaborating, as you know, but I never collaborate with other writers on a single fiction text. Although Zac’s and my collaboration on film scripts works wonderfully. I’m not sure I could do fiction writing share. But if it turns out sweet on your end, that would open up a whole new area for your work maybe? ** schlix, Thank you, Uli! That is a coincidence. Oh, man, I can not wait until our bookstores reopen. I’ve already decided my first post-quarantine activity will be a bee-line trip straight to my favorite Paris bookstore, After 8. We can walk, just not all that far, but not meet up with anyone. You have to ‘accidentally run into’ someone to do that. My mood and state re: all of this is basically resigned and impatient. I’m okay. ‘Extinction’ is really great. Maybe his greatest, I might venture. ‘Woodcutters’ is excellent too. I mean he never wrote a book that isn’t pretty great. I watched the first video you linked to, ‘the machine’, as I was waking and coffeeing up this morning, and I really loved it. Yeah, it’s like nothing but so resonant and beautiful. Fascinating. I’m going to try to go through the rest this weekend. Kudos to your friend. That’s really excellent work there. Everyone, schlix has linked me/us up a series of very beautiful, simple, very rich videos by an artist named Carsten Kahlmann. They’re very serene and inquisitive and kind of perfect for our stressed situation maybe, or I felt so. You’re highly encouraged to watch them. Here’s the link to his main page on Vimeo, and then scroll down to find/watch his videos. Lovely stuff. Thanks a lot, Uli! Those are really are a boon and great discovery. Have a fine, fine weekend. ** politekid, Hey, hey, Oscar. Yeah, exactly re: your thinking on the monologue. I, not knowing anything about the kinetic work, mind you, would go for wit. Subtly amusing maybe. Something as much about providing fun as anything else? I think the danger with that kind of thing is that the sound/text would be overly serious and sound up its own ass. It’s kind of an inherently comical thing, no? No one is going to learn something important or have a profound revelation in the work’s presence no matter what you do. A spoken text soundtracking a kinetic thing is like Tati or something, no? I don’t know. I don’t know if that’s right or helps. I’m just riffing. Yes, I’m going to see what there is of Alan Burns out there on the internet and then make a post about a book of his or about him that fits what material I can gather. That’s my plan. And thank you! Hm, I guess the Tate reopening could work if they hired a ton of guards to be positioned in very room and location, which would create jobs, and that’s good, but I wonder. I can let you know how that works here since we seem to be ahead of you guys on the restarting front. The supermarkets here are sort of weirdly beautiful inside, which is hard to imagine, I know, and kind of beautifully hard to believe when you’re in them. I’m surviving. You do that too. Good luck with the text and with whatever else turns all possible doldrums into fancy stuff this weekend. ** Steve Erickson, I assume your parents will finally sort out the Netflix thing. Yeah, I remember Pink Floyd’s ‘Live at Pompeii’ being very visually silly and clunky even back at the time. Mm, sorry for the rough patch, as understandable as it is. I hope you get back to being accustomed, or, ha ha, comfortably numb to enter the post-good Pink Floyd era. ** Okay. The blog gives you a Richard Kern retrospective and overview this weekend if that sounds like fun or escapist or educational or something. In any case, see you on Monday.